The Right Fit
The following feature is based off the script from The Right Fit, a long-form narrative podcast from the 76ers Podcast Network profiling the intersection of basketball and fashion.
It's a typical game day.
Not the atypical new game day of the COVID-19 era, for which the rulebook and rhythms are still being written, but before the coronavirus changed the world - sports and NBA basketball included.
Hours before tip-off, Alex Subers is preparing for what is arguably one of his most significant assignments of the day.
"I'm typically leaving the office about 2:00 PM, and getting to the arena around 2:30. It's typically five hours before the game."
As the 76ers' photographer, the 26-year old Subers has to be in a lot of places when he's shooting a game, and needs to be his head and eyes on swivels to capture lots of things.
But as critical as it is for him to be in the perfect baseline position for a signature Ben Simmons' mean mug pose after a dunk, or a viral Joel Embiid celebration, he also has to be ready for another particular type of shot:
The "walk-in" photo.
And the only way to get it is by being one of the first people in the building.
"The walk-in photo is when the players are dressed up when the players are dressing up as they're coming in for game nights," Subers said. "So you're seeing shoes, pants, tops, jacket in the tunnel or when they're getting out of their car. It's to show their outfit headed into the game that night ."
Listen to The Right Fit, a podcast profiling the intersection of basketball and fashion, from the 76ers Podcast Network.
Over the last couple years, the "Walk-In" shot has become must-see social media material. And while these photos and videos have proliferated across all professional sports, in no league is this content more compelling than the NBA.
"Fashion is such an integral part of what NBA players love to celebrate," said Desron Dorset, the Sixers Vice President of Business Development.
"Take the walk-in photos, as we call them," Dorset said. "The players coming off the bus, walking into the game. I've never seen a moment that has nothing to do with the sport itself be celebrated as much. I know we do it at the 76ers, but ESPN, TNT, part of that lead up to the game is showing the players walking off the bus and highlighting what they're actually wearing."
Think of guys like Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Paul. These are All-Stars who study style like they would game film.
"It really gives them the opportunity to connect with their fans and people off the court, which is really what we're doing on social media all the time," said Jamie Lisanti, Senior Editor for Sports Illustrated. She helps curate the publication's annual Fashionable 50 project.
"These guys put a lot of work into that 5, 10, 15 second walk from the arena tunnel into the locker room."
On the surface, shooting a "walk-In" photo might seem like it gets pretty mundane: player walks into arena, photographer takes picture.
For Subers, it's the exact opposite, and an aspect of the gig he never really saw coming when he first got into photography a bunch of years ago.
"It's actually one of my favorite parts of the night," he said. "It's one of the only times I'm actually able to get a little creative. Game nights for a photographer are pretty straightforward. I don't have control over the lighting in the arena during a game, I can't really move around that much during a game, so you're typically getting some of the same photos every night of game play. That's why when you're doing the walk-in photos you can shoot it in so many different ways. I can mess with the lighting, I can shoot with a hard on-camera flash, I can shoot it with actual strobes set up in the hallway, I can go out into the parking lot and shoot them getting out of their cars and have that vibes. There's all these different ways I can mess around with the lighting or the location of where I'm shooting them for their walk-ins that kind of makes it a little more fun."
While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that style has become as synonymous as skill for NBA players, the premise isn't that far-fetched.
Fashion is a massive part of the NBA brand...and especially...individual players' brands. We now live in the world of League Fits...an Instagram account with nearly 560K followers that's dedicated to NBA player fashion.
"What's interesting is how much more important it's gotten over the last couple years. I started three years ago with the team, and my first year we would occasionally do it - by no means was it we had to be there for walk-ins every game. For the last two years, we've seen it take off. There are Instagram accounts literally built around what these guys are wearing pre-game. It's gotten so important over the last two years. It just helps them build their brand. It gives them an opportunity to have people see them not just in their uniform."
If you revisit the history of the Philadelphia 76ers, you'll find legendary figures from every era - Wilt in the 1960s, Julius in the 1970s and 80s, AI in the 90s and 2000s .
For as much as these Hall of Famers were recognized for their talent on the court, they also intersected into the realm of fashion as well.
In today's NBA, plenty of 76ers are drip-certified, and carving out their own identity through fashion.
It was a few weeks before the start of training camp this fall, and new 76er Raul Neto was outfitted for the occasion.
Except the occasion had nothing to do with basketball.
Neto was in New York, at Mercedes-Benz of Manhattan, walking a makeshift runway as part of an event for the city's famed annual fashion week.
"It wasn't totally my idea," Neto said.
No, this was the handiwork of Neto's manager, who Neto says has been trying to break him into the fashion world for a few years now.
"I'm like it's not really me, I don't really like it, but when that opportunity came and I was in Philly, I got invited to that show. I was like OK, let me try."
I'll do my best to describe what Neto was wearing:
A long two-button single-breasted suit jacket that draped all the way down to his knees, and was accented by a color fade of navy to white that went from top to bottom and around the sleeves as well, jet black pants and shiny black dress shoes.
"It was pretty fun, you know? It was all athletes, so I got to know a lot of other athletes from other sports. It was something new for me, I haven't done anything not even close to that. I've never even watched a fashion show before. It was a good experience."
While Neto might be the only member of the 76ers who boasts runway-walking chops, he has plenty of teammates who are fashion-conscious as well.
There's Tobias Harris:
"My style this year, I kinda stepped outside the box a little bit in different areas, try different flavors and see how I like it. You gotta have confidence in what you're wearing. Fashion is definitely key, and it's a way to express yourself."
“I think basketball, fashion, music – it’s all intertwined in my life at least. With clothes, I like to express myself through my fits - if I match, I don't match. I like to play nice brands into super-easy cheap brands. Just being different, just being myself is probably the biggest thing."
Even young Matisse Thybulle has gotten in the game a bit, thanks to Harris providing the custom suit hook-up.
"Tobias took me and Marial to his designer's store, and we picked out fabrics. I had no idea what I was doing. We were picking out all sorts of stuff. It was cool, it was overwhelming. But then to see the finished product and put it on and wear it on the court, on the bench and show off and feeling slick in my custom suit, it was pretty cool."
For virtually every NBA player on every NBA team, some consideration is given to gameday fashion.
"I would say a hell of a lot of NBA players care what they look like when they walk into the game or shooting an Instagram 50," said Sports Illustrated's Jamie Lisanti.
"When we put together our annual Fashionable 50 list for Sports Illustrated, it's really hard not to make a full list of 50 NBA players. You could totally do it - we should probably do a one-off NBA only edition. And now of course the WNBA is coming in strong and they are killing it just as much, so we could definitely do a whole basketball-only list. But there is no scientific studies being done, but I would say a ton of NBA players are interested in this, and the ones who aren't are hearing it from their teammates."
Just how much influence do basketball players wield in the fashion industry? Who wears what when has the power to make or break brands.
"Over the years, it's become really interesting to see how much the two worlds have really converged," Lisanti said. "The fashion world is really interested in what athletes are doing, and they want them to be wearing their stuff, so they've changed their ways to get their guys and their women what they have out there."
In other words, athlete fashion has become big business. This is the Sixers' Desron Dorset.
"You're seeing a lot of players now leverage the actual pre-game walk-in into larger partnership deals with some of these brands. Typically you would see star players having footwear or sneaker deals, but now the most fashionable people in the NBA, a lot of the players who have leveraged the walk-in to sign larger, fashion-based deals. So it's very unique, and I think that's a trend we see moving more to the norm versus the exception."
Think of someone like Ben Simmons, for instance. If you see him in his civvies before or after a game, he's probably got something in his ears.
It's not a coincidence that those are Beats by Dre products.
"You're seeing a lot of players now leverage the actual pre-game walk-in into larger partnership deals with some of these brands," said Desron Dorset of the Sixers. "Typically you would see star players having footwear or sneaker deals, but now the most fashionable people in the NBA...a lot of the players who have leveraged the walk-in to sign larger, fashion-based deals. So it's very unique, and I think that's a trend we see moving more to the norm versus the exception."
Just like in the broader fashion world, there are plenty of stylistic subgenres sported by NBA players. Jamie Lisanti and her collaborators on the Sports Illustrated Fashionable 50 break the yearly list into categories, like Icons, Trendsetters, Street Style Stars, Classics, and Rising Stars.
"There really are so many different avenues and ways that people express themselves. You've got the sneaker guys, the accessory guys, and then you've got the people who we call the 'Wild Ones' who it really doesn't matter what day it is, you will not be able to guess what they will come out in."
When it comes to the 76ers, the consensus is that Ben Simmons probably gets the most widespread recognition for his game.
"Ben is an interesting one because he made our Fashionable 50 list pretty early on in his career," Lisanti said. "He quickly created his own personal brand of style. He's always had that body type that was pretty easy for him to go out and get clothes from different designers or different people."
Alex Subers, the 76ers photographer, has shot Simmons as much as anyone.
"Ben has a very clean style. He doesn't wear a lot of flashy or outrageous things. He keeps it very simple - neutral tones and colors. It's very concise, it's very deliberate."
"He's definitely a little more on the creative, cool, laid back kind of thing where he's embracing both street style, and you'll also see him wear a suit or a turtle neck or something like that," said Lisanti. "I think he definitely has been one of the people who has broken out almost instantly upon arriving in the league."
Even though Simmons is the lone Sixer who landed a spot on the 2019 SI Fashionable 50, Lisanti says the gap between him and his teammates isn't that wide.
"I think Tobias Harris is definitely someone who we can keep an eye on. We have a Rising Stars category on our list. Perhaps he can be in the running there. He certainly wants to be noticed, and he certainly is taking some risks. He's definitely one to watch."
Josh Richardson's efforts haven't gone unnoticed either.
"He's one who is more of a risk-taker, and he's definitely also laid back and cool," Lisanti said. "He's rocking the flannels and plaids and lots of athleisure. I think he's also into his sneakers."
And of course, you can't sleep on the big man's low-key stylings. Subers weighs in:
"Then you get Joel. if Joel's dressing up for the game, he's wearing some high-end designer stuff. He goes pretty flashy. He doesn't do it much, but when Joel dresses up for a game, he goes to the top. He's wearing some flashy designer stuff. That's usually for the big games or playoff games, but when Jo goes for it, he goes for it."
Taken as a whole, the Sixers' roster reflects a range of fashion as diverse as the men who wear the franchise's signature red, white, and blue colors.
"I'll get texts from guys that will say like, 'Yo, can I see the walk-in pic?'," said Subers. "They want to see it, they want to see what the outfit looks like, they want to know what photos they might have for after the game to post after games. They love it."
Back in the 1960s, of course, there were no cell phones, or social media platforms that now give celebrity athletes and everyday people alike the power to express themselves to anyone, any time, anywhere.
Heck, color photography wasn't even really mainstream yet.
So imagine, for a moment, the type of engagement that Wilt Chamberlain walk-in content would have gotten if the technology of his era were on par with today's standards.
A Bleacher Report article from April 2017 cited Chamberlain as one of the players responsible for bringing a style to the NBA that was emblematic of and fresh for that period.
Around the same time that Wilt was racking up historic feat after historic feat, a young man with pro potential was coming of age in Brooklyn.
Lloyd Bernard Free loved the New York Knicks and, in particular, one of Chamberlain's chief rivals, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, whose bold - at times outlandish - outfits were (and remain) the stuff of legend.
"Even though he's older, he was clean, always, at those games."
After starring at Guilford College, World B. Free went on to become a second round pick of the Sixers.
On the floor, Free was known for his potent scoring and smooth, arcing jumpshot. He once averaged 30 points per game and earned an All-Star nod in 1980.
These days, anyone familiar with World B. Free likely recognizes him for his creative, colorful suits as much as anything else. He estimates his collection tops 300.
"The thing is, if they could talk, they'd have a lot to say," said Free. "Every time I try to make sure the shoes, shirts, tie everything is coordinated. You have to coordinate - coordinate, you get it right. That's how I like to always do it."
Fashion has long been a point of pride for Free. He says he was inspired by Frazier and Hollywood.
"I used to watch movies like Super Fly and the Mack that gave guys to look at other guys and see the outfits they're wearing. I'm still stuck a little bit. The thing about it is I like to be my own trendsetter. I look to do something different."
World B. Free is distinct, that's for sure.
Between his playing days, and his two-and-a-half decades as the Sixers' Ambassador of Basketball, Free has been surrounded by some of the most fashion-forward Sixers.
He was a teammate of the always-dapper Julius Erving.
"I sum up Julius' style as a businessman. Doc's a guy when you look at him you say that's a clean-cut man right there. Sometimes, it looks like his wife dressed him. It was a different style from me because we're from different places, but his style was more business-like. He just looked nice in his stuff, all fitted to his body. It was tailored nice. All his stuff was always like that."
Decades later, when he was retired, World B. would return to the Sixers in his current front office role and had a front row seat to watch a 6-foot guard from Georgetown become an international fashion figure.
And it's precisely what a countless number of people did, not just in the Delaware Valley, but around the world.
Iverson's style of play made him an NBA favorite. He's often referred to as the toughest player "pound-for-pound" in league history.
But without his image, Iverson might not have ever ascended to become one of the most transcendent global superstars in the history of professional sports. To have an image, you have to have style, and Iverson's was all his own.
"Before Instagram, before designer brands were even thinking about dressing these guys, before we had skinny suits, there was an NBA era before with guys like Iverson who really left their mark on basketball and style in general," Lisanti said.
Iverson's style was almost more like a movement.
In an article published on the website Hype Beast in 2016, Iverson was described as the "NBA's unapologetic streetwear hero," and lauded for bringing "hip-hop front-and-center" for fans.
"I think a lot of people were mimicking his style, and it really became part of the culture, and it really speaks to how music, sports, and fashion all connect," said Lisanti. :He of course had a personal brand of style all his own. He was an icon on the court. He definitely is someone who can be tagged as starting this conversation about fashion in the NBA."
"For good or bad, I just felt like I was influencing guys who wanted to just be themselves," Iverson recently said. "Nothing bad about it, no ill intentions or nothing like that. It was just guys dressing like they wanted to dress."
Iverson was unquestionably the face of streetwear. Growing up in the Hampton Roads region of coastal Virginia, he always dreamed of having his own shoe. He got it, of course, from Reebok.
For as different, unique, and refreshingly brash as Iverson's style was, it was real and authentic - and he had no intentions of changing. Not The Answer, not even after then-Commissioner David Stern implemented a dress code in 2005 that came to be known as the Iverson Rule.
"That moment in the NBA was important because it did give the players the ability to start expressing themselves," said Lisanti. "It helped them understand that fashion was important for them, and they didn't want to be told how to dress. When we plot this NBA fashion 20 years from now, that point in 2005 will be a big point on the timeline."
A decade and a half later, the OG himself has been keeping tabs on the evolution of the revolution he ushered in.
"I love it," Iverson said. "I love everybody having their own originality, everybody being themselves. That's what it's about. Everybody don't play the same basketball game, so why would everybody dress the same. I love what everybody's doing. To each his own. I think it's dope, as far as them taking it far and beyond. I love it."
Fashion is an intrinsic part of the 76ers' history. It's one of the reasons why the organization is focusing on fashion for the latest installment in its 76ers Crossover series.
The initiative launched last fall with the highly-successful 76ers Crossover art exhibition.
"The 76ers Crossover was designed to celebrate what we at the 76ers think make the City of Philadelphia unique, and that's with a focus on lifestyle," said Desron Dorset, te Sixers' Vice President of Business Development. "Lifestyle to us encompasses these four major parts - that's art, fashion, food, and music. That's the culture that we like to think that the NBA as a larger platform seamlessly integrates into. We're in the perfect city - Philadelphia - that really has a stronghold on each of those four pieces of lifestyle, and we're here as a major brand in the city to celebrate it."
The Sixers formally rolled out their 76ers Crossover Capsule collection project this week featuring exclusive streetwear brands like Eric Emanuel, New Era, New York Sunshine, Everest Isles, Look Studios, and Blackstock and Weber.
Dorset said, "Since the beginning of basketball, uniqueness has been part of what players have wanted to display by what they have on. That's something we're going to see celebrated through this small capsule that we have now."
If you're listening to this before Saturday, August 1st, good luck. The merch drops exclusively on the website for Lapstone & Hammer - a premier Philadelphia lifestyle brand specializing in premium sportswear - at 10 AM Eastern.
As part of the 76ers Crossover Capsule, Allen Iverson and Matisse Thybulle helped model some of the apparel. Not only did Thybulle serve as the subject for a few pictures that dropped on social media, the talented rookie content machine took a few photos on an old-fashioned film camera as well.
The Sixers' originally hoped to create a physical space in Center City like a pop-up to display the capsule in the spring, but as we know well know the world had different plans.
"With this pivot and COVID-19 we took a shift to celebrate playing basketball in the summer," Dorset said. "We viewed this as part of return to play. We're trying to bring some energy into 76ers basketball coming back."
Proceeds from the 76ers' Crossover Capsule will benefit the Urban Affairs Coalition.
The introduction of the 76ers Crossover Fashion capsule, of course, comes at a compelling time.
Over a thousand miles away, the Sixers are one of 22 teams bubbled inside the Walt Disney World Resort, hopeful to help the NBA pull off a restart that four months ago was considered improbable.
And for two different but very important reasons, what players are wearing is a topic of conversation.
On one front, players can replace the names on the back of their jerseys with words and phrases that promote social justice. This is part of the league and players association's joint efforts to recognize that black lives matter, and rally around the fight against systemic racism.
The other reason why what people are wearing is a story in the Magic Kingdom is because there are the comprehensive safety measures being implemented to protect the NBA's Orlando campus from the spread of COVID-19.
Players, along with coaches and other staff, have been given titanium rings designed to detect subtle variances in bodily functioning, such as heart rate, breathing, and temperatures, that are linked to the coronavirus.
Disney World Magic Wristbands are also being worn to limit where and how many times you have to touch things with your hands, like room keys.
Masks are obviously a must just about everywhere, with the exception of select on-court personnel.
Given the circumstances surrounding the NBA's return to play, and the heat and humidity customary to central Florida this time of year, the league's famed dress code is also getting a few tweaks.
Instead of having to wear sports coats and suits on the sidelines, players and coaches can now go with short or long-sleeved polos.
And with this the middle of the summer, the fashion vibes are inherently a little more laid back, it's summer!
Here's Alex Subers.
"I'm wondering how many full outfits the guys packed. I know there's a lot of shorts and a lot of sweatpants. I'm wondering how many fits they packed. I'm not sure there are going to be that many people dressing up."
With the league also placing restrictions on the media presence inside its bubble, player fashion content figures to be different too.
"I'm not sure how many people are going to be dressing up for when they're walking into games," Subers said. "I think the times we might see people in the bubble dressed up is if they're sitting out a game, or if they're injured. Then, they'll be wearing some outfits for when they're on the bench. Just with the limited media, limited press I don't know if there are going to be [traditional] walk-in photos. I also just think these guys might start running out of outfits. I don't know how much they packed! [narration: think shorts, t-shirts, sweats, and hoodies] It's going to be interesting. I'm excited to see how that plays out."
The rules may have changed, but one thing remains the same: NBA fashion is a story worth following.