NEW YORK (AP) - Tall, trim and wearing catwalk clothes: Pro basketball stars have stepped up their style to become influential tastemakers.
On the court, of course, they're in uniform, with a lot of red and black donned by the Miami Heat, and silver and black on the San Antonio Spurs, during the NBA Finals. But actual play time is only 48 minutes, leaving a whole lot of time for a statement wardrobe.
And what statements they've been making of late: Capri pants, polka dots and floral prints, fedora hats and lens-less glasses are among the looks that have garnered them almost as much attention as their hard-court moves. Some of the top players now have stylists, and you'll find players like Dwyane Wade, Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook in the front row of fashion shows.
In fact, Wade is already planning a trip to Milan Fashion week after his Miami Heat wrap up their attempt to defend their title in the NBA Finals (it remains to be seen whether he'll be going in a celebratory mood; the Heat lost Game 1 of the seven-game series, which resumes on Sunday).
Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, who describes his own style as "a little edgy," is a fashion show front-row regular who finds that world intriguing.
"Fashion is a very different world than basketball. ... It all happens so quick," said Anthony, the league's leading scorer this season, in a recent interview. "There's all that time they put in for a three-minute fashion show."
The 6-foot-8 star, who gets many of his threads custom-made, came into the NBA already a fan of fashion. He doesn't consider all the attention and energy that goes into it a distraction: "I just like it, I like to look good and I feel good about myself."
The high-fashion, even nerd-fashion sported by the NBA's top athletes are a far cry from the hip-hop, baggy-pants street style that permeated the league in the 1990s, best exemplified by the likes of Allen Iverson.
The league frowned upon that look, and in 2005, instituted a dress code that demanded players dress in "business casual" attire when they were on league business.
But instead of wearing uniform suits, many NBA players have used the opportunity to showcase their individuality. Westbrook's shirts, which have ranged from leopard-print to bright cartoon designs, could hardly be described business-like, but they are certainly casual and unique.
Wade took a lot of flak when he started down the more flamboyant route, says Calyann Barnett, Wade's stylist, but now it seems everyone else is nipping at his Christian Louboutin wingtip-sneaker heels.
Lang Whitaker, an editor for the NBA style blog, likes seeing someone such as Wade take a fashion risk, including the shrunken pants a la directional designer Thom Browne. "A lot of guys wouldn't have tried it, let alone pull it off. Dwyane knew he'd get made fun of on (TNT'S) `Inside (the) NBA,' but he still wore it and wore it well," he said.
Barnett says there's a reason why basketball stars are becoming fashion trend-setters.
"Basketball is more fashionable than other sports," said Barnett. "First of all, you see their faces. You don't see a football player's face most of the time, they're wearing a helmet. And basketball players have the best bodies. They are tall, muscular and wear clothes well. A lot of football players get thick in the neck, and baseball players can get thick legs."
Cam Newton, quarterback for the NFL's Carolina Panthers, takes issue with that. He says all top-tier athletes should dress well to show respect for their fans and appreciation for their opportunities. First of all, he was raised that way, wearing a suit to church in Atlanta on Sundays, and, he says, his coaches have emphasized it.
But Newton allows that the NBA's overall look has nudged players in other sports to get their fashion game on.
"I don't think it's not manly to say, `Wow, did you see that nice tuxedo that guy had on?' It makes me want to look better," says Newton, who is launching his own fashion label at the Southern department store chain Belk.
Of course, fashionable athletes didn't sprout up in the last decade. Back in the 1970s, players such as Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Julius "Dr. J" Irving prided themselves on their flashy looks. Now, Frazier says his style is as much a part of his persona as the legends of his playing days. "My brand is style and cool. That's why we're talking, right? The pressure is on me every time I go out."
Frazier, a broadcaster for the New York Knicks, stays on top of trends - and hopes to make some.
"I go to fabric stores and take the fabric to my tailor. I've taken cow, leopard, tiger prints to him. And there's another guy who does my ties, and another guy who does my shoes. When I first started, I wore penny loafers and plain button-down collared shirts, but I live in the mecca of fashion and I've learned," he said.
As for today's fashion-forward players, Frazier said: "These guys are millionaires and should act like it.
"They stay in four-star hotels, go to the best restaurants, it's not appropriate to go to these places in a tracksuit. If they worked at that high a level for any other corporation in America, with their salaries, they'd have to wear a suit and tie. It's not too much to ask."
Michael Conley Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies doesn't mind. He says his clothes are a way to introduce more of his personality to fans.
"I realized that my appearance both on and off the court went hand-in- hand with the leadership role I was going to be taking on this year with the Memphis Grizzlies. I especially felt that off the court, it was important to improve and invest more time into my appearance, which would hopefully translate into a positive professional image," Conley wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
"It just comes down to knowing who you are and where you're going in your career and what you want to be known for."
Fashion is another way to have a little friendly competition, too.
"It is fun seeing all the guys showing off their style during the season and especially during the playoffs. It makes for good conversation and locker-room jokes," Conley says.
Whitaker recalls that when he first starting covering the NBA, it was a parade of jeans, sweatshirts and boots coming off the bus at each stop. "Now, they have to dress up," he says, "and it's about who can dress up best."
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