Inside a Conspiracy of Comfort: Why It's Time to Rethink What Coaches Wear

A new B/R Mag 'investigation' reveals the REAL reason basketball bosses still rock suits on the sideline—plus an EXCLUSIVE look at the Bill Belichick of the NBA
photo of Brandon SneedBrandon SneedWriter-at-Large, B/R MagMay 24, 2017

Stan Van Gundy is running away from me.

OK, not running.

But he is moving quickly across the parking lot of the Quest Multisport facility in Chicago, his forehead peppered by beads of sweat, strands of his thinning salt-and-pepper hair waving in the wind. (As always, his mustache is magnificent.)

He makes for a black Lincoln Navigator that just pulled up, almost like a getaway ride.

Stan could just be trying to get to the airport. Lots of coaches are right now, what with the NBA Draft Combine wrapping up and all.

Or...

He could be fleeing, knowing the questions I have for him. After all, I have been trying to reach him the last few weeks, and Detroit’s media reps say they’ve been telling him to call.

And Stan has not called.

I saw him earlier today. Maybe I should have asked him then. The timing just didn’t feel right. He was occupied. I was distracted. We were at neighboring urinals.

Anyway, here I am, chasing him across a parking lot. Do you have a minute for like two questions?

“Sorry, gotta run!” he says. And then he’s gone.


Can’t say I wasn’t warned. His brother, Jeff, told me the week before, “Yeah, he won’t want to talk to you about that.”

That being our investigation.

The subject: the fashion of NBA coaches.

At its core, one question: Why the hell do they all still wear suits?

Baseball managers wear the same uniforms as their players. (Joe Maddon in a suit in the dugout? Not happening.)

In the NFL, where coaches once wore suits, now they wear team pullovers or polos—or, of course, hoodies with the sleeves chopped off. (I’d bet anything that if it was easier than the hoodie, Bill Belichick would go full-on baseball manager and coach in a football uniform.)

Yet the NBA coaches’ dress code grows more strict: Only a few years ago, they were explicitly prohibited from wearing anything other than collared shirts under suit jackets.

So within these rigid requirements, do these men of sport feel truly free? Our core question is about more than clothing. It’s about the very nature of identity.

OK, not really.

(Brian Konnick for B/R Mag)

Mainly, we just want to figure out whether coaches actually like wearing suits all the time—and, cutting to the chase, we want to answer the most important question of all: Who would be the basketball Belichick?

There are some obvious candidates. There’s Stan—he just looks like he’d prefer a hoodie, or at least something other than a suit (though that’s not exactly why I chased him).

Gregg Popovich, though, seems the most likely by a mile. His persona runs in almost perfect parallel to that of Belichick: the secretive genius leader of a dynasty, rarely giving the media much more than a hard time, unconcerned with silly things like image and fashion because he’s too busy winning. Would he prefer to coach in a hoodie, too? (Could that have given the Spurs yet more magic this season?)

Indeed, we did find basketball’s Belichick.

But he’s not Pop—and he was not easy to find.

B/R Mag put in interview requests with virtually every NBA coach, a few international and college coaches, some NFL and college football coaches, and some baseball managers.

Virtually all said requests were “respectfully declined” (or ignored).

Jeff Van Gundy’s take on coaches’ game attire can be summed up with one quote: “It’s just something you have to do, so you do it. Really, who cares?”

“Nobody thinks about wearing sweats or any of that kind of stuff,” says Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle, who’s also president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “That’s just not how we do it.”

Could it really be that simple?

Could it be that coaches have better things to do than return phone calls about their clothes?

Or...

Could it be a conspiracy?


As far back as Carlisle and former NBA Commissioner David Stern and anyone else can remember, coaches have been required to wear suits. “It’s become such a procedural part of our business,” Carlisle says, “that this is just, you know, part of the job description.”

To Carlisle, this is all very beautiful. He goes on at length about Pat Riley and the late Chuck Daly, who wore all Armani and Hugo Boss back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “They really set the tone for coaches going forward,” he says with reverence.

Indeed, Riley’s influence carries on even to the youngest generation. Take Earl Watson, the Phoenix Suns’ head coach and, at 37, the second-youngest coach in the NBA. There is an entire Reddit thread dedicated to his fashion sense, calling him the best-dressed coach in the league. Riley—one of the many to decline our interview requests—was a role model for him, both in coaching and in fashion. “[Riley] was tough,” Watson says. “His teams were tough. But then, he was so stylish. I thought that was a great mix.”

For the past eight seasons, the league has made following its fashion rules quite easy for coaches. (Devilishly easy?) Through a partnership with American designer Joseph Abboud, each coach starts the season with 12 free, custom-tailored suits. (Total value: about $10,000.)

Abboud will tell you Doc Rivers wears his clothes best. Jason Kidd, too. Also Brad Stevens and Quin Snyder.

Abboud defers when asked who could use improvement, nor does he offer insight as to who might be Belichickian. However, every NBA coach is part of this deal, and they all love it, the designer says.

However, in all of this there are holes.

One: Not all NBA coaches truly are part of the Abboud deal because Watson is not. He uses his own designer. (“Women have way better fashion sense than men,” he says of his designer. He won’t reveal her name, though. “I want to stay different. Stay away from my person.”)

(Brian Konnick for B/R Mag)

Two: Indeed, contrary to Carlisle’s sweeping claim, somebody does think about wearing sweats or any of that kind of stuff. There does exist a basketball Belichick.

He is also Earl Watson.

“I would rather wear some Jordans and a sweatsuit,” Watson says. “If they ever changed the sideline to be like football, I would definitely be in a cool hoodie, like Belichick. So extreme. That’d be a cool look.”

How can this be? How, one moment, can Watson speak of passion for great fashion, and the next, of the casualness—even the sloppiness—of Belichick and his hoodies? How can such opposing forces truly coexist within a single human being?

The secret is fashion. He grins. “Sloppy is the new swagger.”

He elaborates: “Cut some sleeves off, layer something underneath. Like, the Kanye look. I would have to go straight Kanye style. All his collections.”

Here’s the thing: Watson is not alone.

B/R Mag did not find just one basketball Belichick.

We found at least four.


The first thing you notice at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is that no coach or executive wears a suit.

Watson is in sneakers, jeans and a sweater. Sure, they’re all Tom Ford. But sneakers, jeans and a sweater nonetheless.

Kentucky’s John Calipari might be dressed most formally in black leather shoes, jeans, white dress shirt and black blazer. And he’s not even an NBA coach. Larry Bird is in khakis and a blue button-down. Luke Walton, in jeans and basketball shoes. Tom Thibodeau, an untucked polo. Doc Rivers, track jacket and ballcap. Phil Jackson wears green slacks and a blazer, but also casual leather shoes—and when he sits and his slacks ride up, they reveal white basketball socks with an NBA logo.

Stan Van Gundy wears dress shoes, slacks, Dri-Fit polo shirt and blazer, all in black.

Convenient coincidence? Grown men making personal decisions to go business-casual when relatively out of the public eye?

Or...

Obvious evidence that everyone actually hates suits?

Even Carlisle wears loose, light-blue dad jeans, sneakers and a pullover.

Comfort?

Or a cry for help?


Ask around, and at first the coaches say all the proper things. Wearing suits makes them look good. The suits feel good. They make the league look good.

Ask a little more, and they remain loyal. These are just the rules, they say. The rules are meant to be followed, they say. They love the rules, they say.

But then, press on, ask the right questions, tug the heartstrings, and—after two, even three, even four minutes of questioning—all is exposed.

Consider Walton. He wears jeans, black basketball shoes and a dark pullover. “I prefer sweatpants and a T-shirt,” he says. “So this is dressed up for me.”

The Lakers public relations office told me he didn’t want to talk about this, not even for five minutes on the phone. Yet when approached at the combine and told of an investigation into NBA coaching fashion, he speaks freely.

“I have no fashion,” Walton says. He explains: “I was raised by hippies, so fashion never really was a big deal to me growing up. There was four of us boys. We physically had closets, but there weren’t clothes in them. We had a laundry room, and everything was hanging in the laundry room, and it was all—whoever came in and grabbed whatever, that’s what you wore that day.”

He likes the Joseph Abboud deal. “I like free stuff,” he says. But he wears his suits as little as possible, traveling to the stadium in sweats, changing into the suit at the last possible moment and then changing immediately after addressing the media and the team following games. Imagining a world where NBA coaches are free, he says: “I’d be there in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. And I wear a backwards hat a lot. So I’d wear that.”


In the interest of journalistic due diligence, a note: Walton’s answers, same as the answers from the following men, were given with chuckles, even outright laughter. They expressed no outward signs of distress. They passed no secret handwritten notes asking for help.

But.

Kings coach Dave Joerger says making the effort to pick out a suit is “the worst part of my day” because, “At 6 o’clock before a 7 o’clock game, at home, the last thing in the world I want to do is try to figure out what matches what.”

When approached and told of the investigation, Doc Rivers laughs and says, “I’m the wrong guy.” He seems stunned to hear that Abboud thinks so highly of his fashion.

“Well, I have always loved clothes,” he says. “And they do make it so easy. All I have to do is know what colors I want.”

Rivers even freely answers a question that gives so many others pause: Given the chance, who’s the league’s Belichick? Without hesitation: “Oh, Thibodeau!”

As in Tom Thibodeau, the Minnesota Timberwolves coach.

(Brian Konnick for B/R Mag)

Why?

“Because just look at him!”

What says Thibodeau?

He...laughs. “That,” he says, “actually would be the most comfortable.”

Ah, comfort. A far-off look strikes Thibodeau’s bright blue eyes. He mentions college coaches, during their preseason games, all polos and Hawaiian shirts. “That,” he sighs, “would be nice.”

As though realizing the disloyal nature of that comment, Thibodeau mentions the suits and adds, “The professionalism of that look is good for the game.”

A pause.

“But,” he goes on, “in terms of being pragmatic—”

A pause.

“It probably would be better to be in—”

Another pause.

Then, haltingly, yet dreamily: “Maybe...you know...a sweatshirt.”

And regarding Doc: Though Thibodeau embraces the label of the NBA’s potential Belichick, he says Doc would indeed join him. “If he was taking a truth serum,” he says, “I think he’d rather have a hoodie on and just relax.”

Thibodeau sighs again and smiles. “That’s the way you’re used to coaching, really,” he says, seeming liberated. “The football coaches, I think, are way ahead.”


Despite these revelations, all these coaches insist they are happy in their suits.

Even Watson cannot help but find something beautiful in the strict dress code. He spoke the most eloquently and at length about all of this, rhapsodizing for some 20-30 minutes about it all—some 10 times longer most of the rest.

He says: “It’s important to … let the kids know that, once upon a time, I grew up in Nikes and sweats, and grew up in the inner city. And you just evolve as a person. Evolution is beautiful.”

(Brian Konnick for B/R Mag)

But then, would it not be evolution, too, if coaches became free to go full Belichick? Would that not also push coaching fashion forward? Would it not also, perhaps, push all of us?

“Oh, I would put the right people around me,” Watson says. He pulls out his phone, shows a picture of himself in his travel wear, a fitted Nike track suit just oozing swag. Something like that, maybe. “Do something creative,” he says. “Make it cool, figure out what fits. Again, maybe Kanye style.”

He shrugs, holding his palms out to his sides, up to the sky. “Suits it is, though,” he says. “You can never change that look.”


Were Rick Carlisle’s earlier statements about NBA coaches’ lack of interest in fashion simply over-generalizations made during a brief interview by a busy man likely with a million better things on his mind than answering questions about NBA coaches’ clothes?

Or.

Were they intentionally devious deceits, calculated to preserve and advance a decades-long fashion narrative?

In the early ‘90s, Carlisle was one of the icon Chuck Daly’s assistant coaches for the New Jersey Nets. Daly gave him several of his custom-tailored jackets. “I didn’t know what really nice clothing was until then,” Carlisle says. “And when I put this stuff on, I was like, Wow. This is like another world. The quality of material—it just drapes on your body. Instead of feeling like you are wearing the jacket, it feels like the jacket is wearing you.”

Then there’s what he said about Don Nelson, aka “Nellie,” a coach in the Riley and Daly years. You might know him for holding claim to the most wins of any coach in NBA history. Carlisle describes how Nelson went another way with his fashion. Chunky, jarring sneakers. Fish ties. T-shirts instead of collared shirts. One time, T-shirt and tie.

“But,” Carlisle says, “he always got back on course. … A couple of points in time in our history, things got a little loose, and so there was some nudging certain folks back on course, if you will.”


There recently was one coach who dared to be different—but then he, too, may have been subjected to A Nudging.

That man wore not collared shirts beneath his jacket, but rather, mock turtlenecks.

Then, in 2010, the NBA coaches’ dress code reportedly underwent an overhaul. In the overhaul, the apparent Nudge: Coaches must wear collared shirts or traditional turtlenecks under their jackets.

What goes unstated, but certainly seems loud and clear: Mock turtlenecks are forbidden.

Simple clarification of the dress code’s original intent—or nefarious targeting of a man who might have inspired others to think differently?

That coach even said, if they were going to take his mock turtlenecks away, he’d at least like the rule named after him.

It was not.

The NBA’s official stance, as a league spokesman told B/R Mag: Yes, the dress code “was updated, as we do from time to time to reflect current fashion and the like. However, “it would be inaccurate to suggest the change was made as a result of anything specific any individual coach was wearing.”

Only that coach knows the truth.

By sharing his story and taking a stand, he could well be the spark for a fashion revolution—if not by way of his fashion sense itself, then at least the spirit of it.

However, he won’t respond to our inquiries. 

That man was at the combine, too—but when approached, he fled across the Quest Multisport parking lot. 

That man was Stan Van Gundy.


Additional reporting by Yaron Weitzman.

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

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