How NBA Players Became Obsessed with 'Swag'

Jesse DorseyFeatured ColumnistJune 11, 2013

Much is made about what players wear in today's NBA, whether it be what they're wearing at the podium during postgame press conferences in the playoffs, or just what they wear to the stadium. It's a society of "swag" that seems to have taken over the league.

Compared to the other three major sports in the country, the NBA is in a league of its own when it comes to people caring about what players do and look like when they're not on the court.

Football players are generally caked in layers of protective equipment, so even having a recognizable face in the NFL is rare.

Every once in a while there will be a player, generally a quarterback, who transcends the usual statistical game-to-game analysis and becomes a part of pop culture.

Tom Brady has lived in that spotlight for some years now, but the go-to example of a "pop star" football player is Joe Namath.

Baseball is even rarer. Sure you'll get people talking about Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter getting looks out on the town, but that's more of the cult of personality surrounding the New York Yankees' most recognizable players, as opposed to the league's best players.

It seems that throughout the annals of baseball history, the majority of the players who evolve past the status of being a baseball "icon" are Yankees players, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and to Jeter and A-Rod today.

The rare off-shoot star from other teams around the league will reach that level from time-to-time, but it's rare in the league's history, and the Yankees generally go out and get him anyway (see: Reggie Jackson).

Hockey players live in a market that is too large to be considered a niche, but too small for the general populous to latch onto and care about beyond a few key teams and players.

However, the obsession with off-court appearance is not a new thing as far as the NBA is concerned.

Flash and the NBA have gone hand-in-hand for decades now, going way back to the days of Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Frazier and Julius Erving (among others), all of whom complimented on-court dominance with off-court pizzazz.

Even players who were less skilled on the court were able to get some recognition, so long as they showed off a personality.

Darryl Dawkins, when not breaking backboards, would say outlandish things and wear outlandish clothes. Slick Watts was a marginal player who lasted only six seasons, but is still remembered because he popularized the headband to go with his shaved head (Al Harrington thanks him).

Everything from clothes, hairstyles, beards and mustaches were part of the persona, and it hasn't changed through the generations.

Kurt Rambis wore his goofy eyeglasses, the Fab Five and Michael Jordan helped to introduce more of a hip-hop style to the league, while Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal took it over the top.

Move on a few years to the introduction of David Stern's dress code and players switched over from gear to tailored suits, championed by guys like Derek Fisher, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Sometime in the past few seasons, the tailored suits have shared airtime with the nerd and hipster chic, giving us plenty to laugh at and decipher, but above all, something to talk about.

Of course, there's also the draft-day suits, which continue to vacillate between outlandish, suave and completely ridiculous.

Not only does the league allow for an extremely high level of self-expression, through both clothing style and on-court style, but it's one of the few sports where flash can conquer substance in certain cases.

For example, a guy like Iverson was entirely inefficient, had a terrible attitude, and played with wanton disregard to shot selection, but he'll be remembered as one of the greatest of his generation because he played with a unique style, and matched it off the court.

Perhaps the same will end up being said about a guy like James Harden, Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings; only time will reveal the answer to that question.

It's the style of the NBA, not necessarily a few individuals who have taken it upon themselves to stand out.

What the league is, and has been for decades now, is the ultimate "look at me" league, and in the best way possible.

You can leave a game remembering what a single player did, and that's the way you can look back on them and remember what happened. A single performance from a single player can stamp an impression on the fans for a good chunk of time, and that does seem to translate over a bit to off-court style.

Players are generally encouraged to express their particular style of play while on the court, which seems to have the same empowering effect when the balls are put away.

When you start to hear complaints about the amount of time NBA players spend on fashion, just remember that James Harden's beard is no different from Dr. J's afro, or that Russell Westbrook's leather shirt is just a modern-day version of Clyde Frazier's wide lapels.

Plus, it's too much fun to make fun of Westbrook's wardrobe to spend any time complaining about it.