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How David Stern Impacted Footwear and Fashion in the NBA

Former NBA commissioner David Stern, who died at 77 on Wednesday, led the league during a period of exponential growth over the course of 30 years, before stepping down in 2014. During his tenure, he was at the forefront of several milestones and accomplishments. Among them — perhaps an unintended one — Stern helped usher in fashion to the league.

In 2005, the then-commissioner instituted a dress code for players, requiring them to wear business-casual clothing during team and league events. Although there was backlash at the time, much of today’s crop of ballers are now fashion-focused and use those moments to showcase their style.

Retired NBA star Dwyane Wade — one of the most style-conscious athletes the league had ever seen — told FN in June 2017 that players have not only embraced fashion, they want to out-dress one another. (Wade even gave Stern some credit for the league’s current fashion obsession.)

“As athletes, what we did was make it competitive among each other. Everybody wanted the walk into the arena to be their runway because they were talking about our outfits on TV,” Wade told FN in 2017. “It became a different kind of competition before the game.”

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One of the league’s brightest young stars, Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers, told FN in November that looking sharp in the tunnel ahead of the game is a must nowadays.

“The NBA is a place where they allow us to do so many different things to express ourselves. The tunnel runway took a whole 180. A couple of years ago, you didn’t hear too much about the tunnel, but now [showing off outfits there is] just as important as the game,” Kuzma told FN.

Fashion has also become a business venture for several athletes in the NBA, including Wade, who has launched collections with Amazon Fashion featuring more than 100 apparel pieces and accessories. Additionally, ballers such as Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook have also developed lines to showcase personal style.

Melo Made 2
Models outfitted in Carmelo Anthony’s “Melo Made 2” collection at NYFW.
CREDIT: Peter Verry

Stern’s enforcement of league footwear rules is also largely credited for the rise of one of the most beloved sneakers of all time.

In 1984, the league sent a letter to Nike stating the “black and red Nike basketball shoes” that hoops icon Michael Jordan wore “on or around October 18, 1984” violated league rules. Although many have questioned which shoe style was actually worn by Jordan — whether it was the Air Jordan 1 or the Air Ship — the Swoosh used the moment to promote its signature sneaker for the baller.

“On September 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them,” said the narrator during a 30-second commercial for the Air Jordan 1 released more than 30 years ago.

Today, the “Banned” Air Jordan 1 High remains one of the most sought-after sneakers by collectors and hoops fans alike.

After Stern’s retirement announcement in 2014, Jordan Brand president Larry Miller told Complex that Stern deserves credit for helping build the community of sneaker fanatics.

“Some controversies have actually helped to build the sneaker culture,” Miller told Complex in 2014. “David has been a great part of that. What he was doing at the NBA directly impacted us in terms of making sneakers cool.”

Miller continued, “I’m a big fan of David Stern. I think he’s done a great job with the NBA and working with Nike and the other shoe companies of the world, he’s really helped build the culture that exists around sneakers today.”

It’s also worth noting Miller’s mentioning of shoe companies of the world.

Among his other career accomplishments, Stern helped develop the Dream Team, the lineup of NBA stars who competed in the 1992 Olympics. The team won the gold medal, but that was a smaller victory compared to the long-term impact of those games: The NBA gained worldwide recognition, and basketball’s popularity grew exponentially on a global scale. Today, the league is inundated with stars from abroad, and some of the best to ever hit an NBA court weren’t born in the U.S. (including German-born Dirk Nowitzki and China’s Yao Ming, among many others).

And over the years, not only have international athletes become involved in the sport, but global footwear brands have increasingly inked sponsorship deals with NBA players. Today, some of the biggest stars in the league are backed by labels from abroad: Gordon Hayward and Klay Thompson, for example, are both signed to China-based Anta, and others have created their own brands with foreign companies, such as Wade’s Way of Wade venture with China’s Li-Ning.

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