Dressing for Success in the NBA

by Robert Butts | 10/18/05 5:00am

David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, recently proposed a dress code for his league's players. Stern said he may require business-casual attire at official NBA functions.

Leaving aside for the moment the merits of an NBA dress code (which anyone who has watched an NBA draft and seen the plum suits and mustard vests that pass for formal attire in the basketball world knows is a dicey idea), the main fact that Stern's proposal reveals is what a hypocrite the commissioner is.

More than anyone else, Stern is aware that his league has made approximately a bajillion dollars from the cross-marketing of NBA basketball with gangster rap and urban apparel and other products that appeal to the vaunted 18-24 male demographic. Stern is also aware that the NBA's new edgy image doesn't sit well with consumers in Middle America who were reared on a steady diet of non-threatening superstars like Michael Jordan.

Stern would like to have it both ways -- to keep cashing-in on street ball while dressing-up his players to soothe Main Street sensibilities. For this sleight of hand act, he fully deserves the criticism his proposal has generated.

Fortunately for Stern, though, he may come out of this controversy looking like the good guy. Not because he deserves it, but because his players rushed to the rescue by making even bigger asses of themselves.

Take, for example, NBA star Marcus Camby. When informed of the dress code proposal, Camby made this brilliant counterargument: "I don't see it happening unless every NBA player is given a stipend to buy clothes."

On a related note, Camby will be paid $7.15 million dollars this season. I think this undermines his argument a bit.

As an experiment, I checked the Men's Wearhouse, and they have some decent big-and-tall suits going for around $219.99 -- and that's if you spring for all-wool. So I did a little math and found that, even after Uncle Sam snatches half of Camby's salary, even allowing him a generous $2 million for living expenses, and even assuming that he invests $1 million in his S&P 500 index fund, that still leaves him with enough cash to buy 2,500 suits. He even has change left over to spring for some bowties and wingtips.

The average NBA player's salary is about half of what Camby makes, but even on a paltry $3 or $4 million I think players could find room for some Dockers and pinpoint oxfords.

Many other Americans, by contrast, do not make millions of dollars but are still expected to follow some kind of dress code. They pay for their suits and skirts out of their own pockets, and if they're lucky they get to wear jeans and Hawaiian shirts on casual Friday.

As such, I would politely suggest that Camby take one of his dress socks (I budgeted for plenty of them) and shove it in his mouth. He can go sit at the back of the bus with fellow NBA star Latrell Sprewell, who famously spurned a 3-year, $21-million contract offer by complaining that "I've got a family to feed." If feeding his family is a challenge at $7 million per annum, perhaps Sprewell ought to investigate Costco instead of wherever it is he shops now.

The problem with remarks like Sprewell's and Camby's is that they betray such ignorance about the fans who make these exorbitant salaries possible. Not just in the NBA, but throughout baseball, football and hockey as well, ticket prices are so high that taking a family of four to see a game costs well in excess of $100 -- and that's as long as you're willing to sit in the nosebleed seats. That also doesn't include parking, or a program, or any concessions at the game. Stick a few hot dogs and big foam fingers on top, and you've gone from arm-and-a-leg expensive all the way up to blood-from-a-stone expensive.

Some of that money goes to build new stadiums, some of it goes to the owners, some of it goes to charitable causes. But a lot of it also goes to players like Sprewell and Camby. They have the right to make every one of those dollars that they can -- such is life in the market. That said, fans also have the right to expect a little humility and a little class from athletes.

In this case, having class means not complaining about the cost of a few suits when you could buy hundreds out of your petty cash, especially since the decision between buying a suit or a ticket to an NBA game may be very real for the fans that support your lifestyle.

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