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David Stern has had a harder time selling the NBA since Michael Jordan retired. Today's players don't sell themselves as easily as Magic, Bird and Jordan did, so he has to be more proactive. And apparently, the next active frontier in pro basketball's marketing campaign is fashion.
Much like a high school principal might do, Stern recently rolled out a dress code, one that requires players to be outfitted in business casual attire for team functions such as arena arrivals and departures, team flights and public appearances. The commissioner hopes to add some "professionalism" to the league, one sport coat at a time.
But what does it mean for players to look professional? After all, we're talking basketball players, not diplomats. A fancy jacket can't make a player look any more or less professional, especially if cornrows dangle above his collar and pinball-sized diamonds gleam from his earlobes. Armani hasn't come up with a suit that snazzy yet. No matter the attire, nothing says "professional" in basketball like being 6 foot 9.
Or are braids and earrings the next to go?
Anyhoo, it's easy to see what Stern is trying to do. The NBA has an image problem it has been unable to repair. For years, His Majesty's fiefdom has suffered from a growing disconnect between its ticket buyers and its players. The ticket buyers are largely corporate, emblematic of the white-collared conservatives who pointed their fingers at Jimi Hendrix on "If 6 Was 9." At this point, jobs that require starched shirts and power ties are the only ones that pay enough for the holder to finance a season-ticket package.
It's safe to say the league would be easier to sell if its product looked more like its customers. And right now, while the players generally can be described a lot of ways, "corporate" isn't one of them.
But is that really a bad thing?
Here's what I don't think Stern has considered: The best part about the NBA is that it engenders a more personal relationship between fans and players than any other league can do. It's the only league that doesn't require its players to wear some sort of camouflaging haberdashery during games, so we actually know what the players look like. We know whose intensity is written all over his face, and who is totally unflappable. We even know the players who appear to be allergic to the basics of grooming, a trait that can reveal plenty. (And yes, I'm talking about Michael "I Don't Even Pretend to Care About Anything" Olowokandi.) We develop a more intimate knowledge of those players because of how accessible and natural they seem on the floor.
That natural appeal holds when players are off the floor, too. Plenty of them are programmed drones when they're dealing with the media, but much can be gleaned from their personal styles. Example: Allen Iverson wouldn't be "The Answer" without his insistence on being himself. He would be more like Nate Archibald. Tiny was a great player, but would anyone under 40 recognize him on the street right now? I wouldn't, but I promise that my 70-year-old uncles know who Iverson is.