How did the NBA’s undeniable sneaker king pack for life in the NBA bubble? With strict protocols inside the Walt Disney World Resort complex near Orlando, Fla., it was quite the task for P.J. Tucker.
“It took two or three days. I took my time with it,” said the Houston Rockets star, whose passion for fashion rivals his love of the game. “It’s so hot, so I had to find some lighter [clothing] options. I had to pick shoes for outfits and [looks] I actually wanted to wear and shoes I was going to play in. I brought shoes for every single moment in life. I didn’t plan on 100 pairs of shoes, it just happened.”
For Tucker, who is now back on the court, nothing about this year has been expected. It’s been seven months since FN’s photo shoot with the Nike-sponsored athlete in Portland, Ore. At the time, in January, he was preparing for the final stop of a grueling four-game road trip and mourning the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, who he considered a friend.
Weeks later, the NBA season came to a screeching halt on March 11, after several players tested positive for COVID-19. Soon, the country went on lockdown and this story (and so many others) changed dramatically. In recent weeks, Tucker’s teammate, Russell Westbrook, revealed his own coronavirus diagnosis. (Westbrook has since joined his teammates in the bubble and has resumed playing.)
“I don’t think the scary part is getting it. I think the scary part is not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Tucker said. “Some people I know were asymptomatic and nothing happened. I know somebody who had it for two days and on the third day they tested negative and had the antibodies — they had no symptoms. Then you hear about other people getting hospitalized and can’t breathe.”
While the coronavirus was spreading throughout the country this spring, another crisis pushed to the forefront. The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a white police officer, sparked massive outcry over racial injustice. And during interviews in the NBA bubble, the league’s biggest stars have been united in demanding justice for another victim: Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in March.
Basketball players have traditionally been some of the most vocal professional athletes when it comes to issues of race — and Tucker isn’t one to stay silent. He admitted he’s had to navigate racism throughout his basketball career, starting as early as high school.
“I’m from Raleigh, N.C. It’s my home, the most beautiful place ever — but it has some racist history. And playing [college ball] in Texas, you play in places where you hear racist remarks all the time. Playing in Europe, I heard it all the time, and [now in the] NBA,” he said.
In the heat of competition, Tucker said that he and other Black athletes still have to bite their tongues in certain situations to avoid confrontation. “A lot of players have to compartmentalize and be the bigger person. Nobody ever sees who throws the first punch, nobody ever hears who starts it. If I would have done something in college or high school, that could have been the end of my career,” Tucker said. “I could have never ended up where I’m at. Now, it’s either you risk it all, or grit your teeth and bear it and fight through it, keeping your mouth closed.”
Off the court, however, athletes are making sure the difficult, but necessary conversations remain relevant until change finally comes. Retired baller Stephen Jackson, for example, has been a central figure in the fight for justice for Floyd, who was a longtime friend. And several active NBA players have participated in protests throughout the country, including Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and Trae Young.
Tucker is no different. On several occasions he has addressed racial inequality issues publicly on social media and shown support for the victims among his 716,000 followers.
But he admits not everyone is comfortable speaking out on issues. “I’ve always stood for my people, with my people, but some guys just don’t have voices like that. I don’t like the pressure some people put on others. Some people are just not built for it. Some guys just play basketball, they don’t talk, they don’t post,” Tucker said. “Everybody in the ’60s wasn’t in the civil rights movement. I feel like a lot of people point fingers and go at certain people. We really just need everybody to stand together.”
The Fashion Game
When the 2019-20 basketball season was dramatically disrupted and the lockdown forced Tucker to take an unplanned break from the court, there was one big thing that kept him occupied — buying sneakers.
“This is the first time in a long time where I had nothing to do — just hanging around the house,” he said. “I was on my computer 24/7 tracking stuff down and looking for random stuff and found some old goodies. The months of April and May, I went crazy.”
Tucker admitted he didn’t keep track of how much money he spent or how many pairs he purchased. However, in his search, he found a shoe that has eluded him for years: an original Air Jordan 1 “Metallic Silver” from 1985.
“I have been looking for that shoe for so long, but I could never find it brand new,” he said. “I found it in my size. I couldn’t believe it.”
Although Tucker picked up the pace during isolation, his shopping habits are already legendary. The longtime collector admitted he’s had an intern for the past two years who does nothing but search for sneakers — and Tucker said he relishes the thrill of the hunt, frequenting retail and secondary stores, including Flight Club in Los Angeles and New York, SoleFly in Miami and Index PDX in Portland, Ore.
“Typically, he shoots me a text like, ‘Hey Mike, I’m on my way, I’m in town,’ so I make sure that I’m around when he’s there,” said Index PDX co-owner Mike Nguyen. “He’ll come in and see everything we have on our website in-store. He’ll say, ‘I want to see these, these and these.’ And then I’ll share things with him from my personal collection.”
The morning after FN’s shoot with Tucker in late January, at Portland’s Kimpton Hotel Monaco, the storeowner said Tucker visited Index PDX before playing the Trail Blazers and casually purchased eight pairs. “He picks up a lot of things people don’t think of,” Nguyen said. The receipt that day included ultra-rare kicks such as an Air Jordan 5 wear-test sample, a Nike Air Force 1 “SNL” and the Air Jordan 4 “Doernbecher.”
“Nobody is wearing $5,000 or $10,000 shoes on the court playing professional basketball, but he is. He pioneered that,” Nguyen said. “He’s a big deal when it comes to sneaker culture. People pay attention to what he’s wearing and what he has. There are NBA players who have a good collection, but I don’t think they can touch P.J.”
Although much of his style reputation is connected to his unparalleled sneaker collection, Tucker has also earned a spot among the most respected people in fashion today.
“This is what he lives, this is what he wants to do, this is what he was born to do — as well as play basketball,” explained celebrity stylist Kesha McLeod, who works with athletes James Harden and Serena Williams.
Although she styles many, McLeod has a different role with Tucker. The baller tapped the fashion expert in 2018 as his creative director, and she helps him remain a mainstay in fashion-related discussions.
“There are games on ABC, ESPN, TNT — and they’ll show the guys coming in. People want to know what kind of jacket he has on, and it’s up to me to make sure everybody goes through us,” McLeod said. “After every game, P.J. makes sure to send me the photos of him walking in that tunnel walkway, and I have an email list of editors, fashion blogs, etc., where I send his fashion credits.”
Their relationship has helped Tucker become not only a focus of the fashion-focused press but also with emerging designers. “He gets a lot of exclusive looks because this is the designer’s own press moment as well,” McLeod said. “If they’re not getting it in magazines, they’re getting it in prime time.”
The attention has earned him countless headlines — and also opened the door to retail partnerships. Mr. Porter, for instance, added Tucker to its Style Council in September 2019, a group of refined individuals who are tastemakers and leaders in their respective fields.
“P.J. has incredible instincts when it comes to style — and huge reserves of passion and knowledge — digging deep into the catalogs of high-fashion brands and spotting rising talent,” explained Mr. Porter U.S. editor Chris Wallace, noting that Tucker was one of the first players to endorse “the genius” of Emily Bode’s brand.
“He’s an amazing ambassador — the kind of guy you want to order wine for the table and to hip you to a new collection. And it goes without saying that P.J.’s sneaker collection is unparalleled, from rarities to highly coveted designs. Has anything in the sneaker world been as thoughtful and fun as his sneaker free agency? He’s the king.”
During Tucker’s free agency period — which was one of the most discussed in recent memory — the baller told FN that he was being pursued by four major brands and admitted one made an offer he almost couldn’t refuse before opting to remain loyal to Nike.
In November, the Houston Rocket signed a multiyear endorsement contract with the Swoosh, coming off a merch deal with the brand that he described as offering “minimal money and a decent amount of product.” What he enjoys most about the new agreement is the freedom the brand has awarded him.
“Whatever Nike has coming up that they want me to be a part of, I’ll be a part of it. But the biggest thing for me was being able to wear what I want to wear. Now I get my own PEs — my Kobe 4s, my Kobe 5s, my Hyperdunk Lows — I get them all in different colorways and I’m able to mix those in with my collection. That freedom was everything for me,” Tucker explained.
Like other trendsetting athletes, such as Westbrook and Harden, Tucker clearly has bigger fashion aspirations, too. But he’s not willing to shift his personal tastes to fit into a certain niche.
“It’s about me doing me, about me being organic. I can’t wear things and put on a front and say I like something when I don’t,” Tucker said. “I won’t wear something I wouldn’t normally wear just for people to like it or for people to look at me like this or that in fashion. My love for fashion has been natural, it’s been organic and I want to keep it that way.”
Tucker has repeatedly said publicly he has no desire for his own signature shoe, and he confirmed to FN that his interest lies more in collaborating with apparel brands and designers than in launching his own imprint — although that is not out of the question.
“I like being able to switch it up, not having to stay in one lane,” Tucker explained. “If I collaborate, then maybe this time it’s a hat or whatever it may be — maybe it’s this brand or that brand. I can switch up and go do something else.”
However, he is making a more profound play in the accessories arena. “It’s an avenue where I can put my twist on things and be able to offer something different to people,” Tucker said.
Last month, he started this journey by revealing a sunglasses line he’s creating through Temples & Bridges on Instagram.
“We have a bunch of different designs. It’s high fashion. We’re just now getting the samples,” Tucker told FN. “There’s no release dates yet. We want to time it up right so it’s all perfect, but it should be out before year’s end.”
He also detailed plans for a Houston-based sneaker store he’s opening, The Better Generation. Slated to open Oct. 17, the retail destination will offer shoes and apparel from brands including Nike, Jordan Brand, New Balance, Pleasures and others. However, it won’t resemble a traditional boutique. Instead, Tucker confirmed his door will boast atypical amenities such as a basketball court and a rooftop bar.
Despite brick-and-mortar’s obvious challenges, which have been accelerated by the coronavirus, Tucker isn’t deviating from his plans.
“For me, it’s all about the physical store. That’s how I grew up, that’s what made me fall in love with the culture — standing in lines, going into stores,” he said. “To this day, I still go shopping. I like to touch the clothes, touch the shoes. There’s nothing like the design of a store.”