Cultural Critique / Pop Culture / Sports / The Color Line

NBA Nerd Swag: The NBA’s Impotent Infantilizing Style

Black fashion in the last three to four years did hard U-turn and at the current moment we’ve completely decided to head retro with fashion and styles on both sides of the gender aisle.  I remember watching “Precious” which took place in the late 1980s and I couldn’t necessarily see a big difference in the style of clothes than what I had on myself.  We all watched the trend in about 2008, a mere three years after Dem Franchise Boyz made the club banger “In My White Tee” glorifying the loose baggy buy-it-from-Foot-Locker white tee shirt that came down to one’s knees.  Fraught with Girbaud strap jeans, and the ubiquitous all-white fresh Air Force Ones — size 10 if you’re Nelly.

This hard U-turn we made reached back only 20-25 years and scooped up the black urban fashion of the late 1980s and the early 1990s and did some weird hodge-podge with white suburban fashion from that era too.  Women started back wearing door knocker earrings and guys started wearing the skinny jeans.  Urban black males started skateboarding rather than picking up a basketball, and once formerly all-white shopping mall enclaves such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale, American Eagle Outfitters, PacSun and Rue 21 were getting this influx of black urban youth.  So much so, I remember driving down west 79th in Chicago saying to myself, “How you gon be a thug wearing Aeropostale and wearing skinny jeans?”

We saw it in the music videos and with these hardcore pop-rappers from Lil’ Wayne to Kanye West.  Whether or not it was on purpose or just an out-the-box fashion statement a la Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, seeing Lil Wayne with the jeggings on certainly made a statement that sent ripples across the social networking community and also it made for black hipster talk around coffee houses and dinner parties.  It spoke to a larger issue about what did it mean to be in this possibly post-hip hop era.  The longing for hip hop music to encompass R&B songs about

Lil Wayne performs onstage during the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE on August 28, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.

making love and being in love, rather than “making love in the club.”  It also spoke about the longing for rap songs to have a social critique out of the crucible from which it was birthed: the mean streets, the poverty.  Now, we have rap songs that don’t do traditional social critique, but rather act as brochures for the lifestyles of the rich, ghetto and famous, reflecting their capitalistic success and nothing more.

Pound sign swagg (with two g’s) indeed.

Enter the new crowd of NBA superstars.

This was the crowd of NBA players who want to achieve the superstar status that came in with the specter of LeBron James easily hailed as the next up and coming Michael Jordan with unprecedented offers from multinational companies.  But they also came in when plantation owner Commissioner Daivd Stern enacted the dress code for players.  It was initially seen as a way to control the “thug” atmosphere that some had considered rife amongst the NBA players.  Mind you over recent years we’ve had to deal with Ron Artest (yes, Ron Artest) rants and meltdowns on court; Latrell Sprewell choked his coach and allegedly showed up to practice with a gun once; Allen Iverson’s off the court image and troubles and how many NBA players have we seen throw up gang signs after they dunked on someone–or get dunked on?

Well, this generation of NBA players, many of them didn’t carry quite the same amount of baggage and hardscrabble life that the older ones do.  Take Paul Pierce or Allen Iverson.  Both of them are old enough to remember when an actual Biggie or Tupac album actually dropped–not some re-release they could download on iTunes.  They can remember when hip hop itself became mainstream and what that struggle meant for being black in America; when MTV Raps was on or when The Box was on and what informed their consciousness.  Instead, we listen to rappers some of which are lyrically light, and others rap about an existence that they themselves might actually be a lyric of–or they listen to the gutter foolishness of Waka Flocka or sport a #FreeBoosie t-shirt in the club just because.

Because they don’t carry quite the same cultural baggage, it’s easier for them to shed the image–not to mention the forced rule from massa Commissioner Stern.  So rather than wear your typical suit and tie clean cut image, being the black dandy’s that they are, they turn full force into what has been dubbed nerd chic.

Oklahoma City Thunder PG Russell Westbrook after San Antonio Spurs, Playoffs game, 2012

Mind you nerd chic is a bit different than the retro look I was describing that many of our black youth wear today.  When you think nerd chic, go to Steve Urkel.  Literally.  The tight jeans, the extremely fitted polo shirt, suspenders and throw some glass-less glasses or non prescription plastic lens glasses.  Even what used to be the horrid horn-rimmed polygon shaped dark brown state-aid provided glasses that the poor kid of the class had to wear because he was on the free-lunch program, has now become chic.  At the current moment, seeing what Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook would wear in the after game press conferences has now become a subject of the social networking water coolers the next day.

In a recent article, David Leonard in an Ebony.com article entitled “Rebirth of Geek: The NBA’s Nerd Swag Reigns” he talks about how this image goes up against stereotypical images of black males in this country:

Similarly, Sean Gregory identifies his clothing choices as a window into his broader appeal and demeanor: “In Durant, African-Americans are blessed with an ideal front man: a seemingly humble superstar” evidence by his “refusal to play the part of ego-driven hoops celeb” as well as clearly his propensity to wear glasses rather than chains, a backpack rather than headphones, and sweater in lie a hoodie.  If you didn’t know that plaid and mismatched colors was a sign of humility and a lack of ego, now you know.

The efforts to celebrate “nerd style” are wrapped up in larger questions of identity.  For several commentators, it is punctuates an expanded definition of Blackness (in the tradition of Touré’s post-Blackness theories) available in contemporary America.  Under this logic our changing world allows for Allen Iverson and Kevin Durant, Kanye West and Little Wayne, Brittney Griner and Nicki Manaj, Michelle Obama and Cory Booker to exist under a larger umbrella of blackness.  According to Touré, “I see [Black irony] in NBA star Kevin Durant’s penchant for nerd chic, wearing glasses and a schoolboy backpack and thereby taking the air out of the Black male imperative to be masculine, tough, and cool.”

ORLANDO, FL – FEBRUARY 25: Dwyane Wade #3 and LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat cheer during the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest as part of 2012 All-Star Weekend at the Amway Center on February 25, 2012 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Leonard goes on to quote Wesley Morris who I think aptly says “‘Nerd” is a kind of drag in which ballers are liberated to pretend to be someone else,” and I think I couldn’t have said it better.  He compared the drag to the other pop stars such as Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga and drag queens who indeed have these other alter egos in which they create and give a full lifestyle to.   Leonard makes his final push where he says, however, the drag stylings of the NBA nerd chic do nothing but reinforce the stereotype that identifies “nerd” with safe, and ergo, white.  That is to suggest the over sized baggy Rocawear jeans and God forbid you put on a hoodie, is emblematic of dangerous, thuggishness and yes, blackness.

Don’t believe me, turn on any conservative talk show and bring up the issue of what Trayvon Martin was wearing.

But, I’d push the envelope a bit more.

I’m not convinced that they are dismantling the stereotypical image by still embracing the larger stereotypical narrative through nerd chic exactly.  Actually what I see is fully grown men dressing like children.

The image of this nerd is one that was deified and demonized in their childhood from common images.

Think about Steve Urkel.

Family Matters was a staple black sit-com in households across the country.  What was supposed to be a foil character turned into the central focus of the story lines.  He was deified because his image was just that famous, but being called Steve Urkel on the playground was a supreme insult.  It attacked one’s masculinity, one’s sexuality and one’s status on the playground–the only worse insult was to be called gay.

So think about Steve Urkel to Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  These both were young men, children at one time, who categorically did not fit with the dominant image of what it meant to be black and male in the 1990s.  Neither of them could get a girlfriend (until Myra Monkhouse was written into the plot) and they were always the un-cool type.  But if you think about it, the un-cool type meant they lacked the sophistication, the social maturity that they’re counterparts always lacked.

For this group of NBA superstars, it seems to me they’re harking back to their childhood.

Only children wear loud obnoxious suspenders.  Only children wear extremely fitted polo shirts tucked into their jeans.  Only children walk around with a Spiderman or Superman backpack you buy from Target.  You know why only children wear them?  Because their mothers dressed them and they think it’s cute.

While aesthetically I can appreciate what this class of NBA players can sometimes put together with tweed and plaid and at times clashing colours, on the other hand, I think it unknowingly undermines their image and their stature in who they really are.  What I appreciate about all of the guys I’ve named is that they are not involved in court side brawls, unnecessary baby-mama drama and none of them have been arrested for drug possession or weapons possession.  You don’t hear about them in the club ready to shoot it up or showing up somewhere with a bunch of goons who tumble out of ivory white Escalades.

To which I say, let your actions speak for yourself.

L to R: Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Miami Heat

My issue, and yes, it is an issue, with the image they’re creating is that nothing about it seems authentic.  At this point, it seems like Westbrook and Durant are just going to put something on because they know they’re going to be the talk of Media Take Out or Bossip the next day not because they’re attempting to create a style for themselves.

Perhaps it’s too early to tell.  It takes time for one to develop a style, even for large superstars as they are.  If that’s the case, then more power to them.  In the meantime it seems that they have infantilized themselves for the sake of getting more Twitter followers.  Not to mention, the larger issue of black male stereotypes is still enforced.  While it may be reinforced through seeing it as nerd chic, I actually think the rush to identify with something that is 1) childish at times and 2) something deified in their childhood is an interesting fashion U-turn that was made.

On a final note, I truly wonder what David Stern thinks when he sees this.  I’m quite sure he didn’t imagine fashion and style to be the center-point at times on ESPN beyond the initial controversy.  Regardless of the enforcing of stereotypes, I do see the fashion as resistance.  It serves as a resistance to the norms of fashion in general; it’s helped fuel a new genre of black urban dress.  Where guys are going back to getting high top fades, sloped like gumby and guys getting parts like Theo Huxtable or LL Cool J and still throwing in a bit of millennial fashion ingenuity.

However, I’m sure this isn’t the NBA David Stern was trying to shape.  For that, I’m glad.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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7 thoughts on “NBA Nerd Swag: The NBA’s Impotent Infantilizing Style

  1. I think you made a valid point that it can appear childish but you have to account for the fact that these players aren’t too far removed from their teenage years. In fact some would still be in college, where they would still protected from the total responsibility of being an adult. Their peers are college age and they dress like their peers. On top of that fashion is cyclical so whether we like 80′s or 90′s fashion its about time for it come back around. It’d rather them dress like this reflecting what could be considered a post-Black representation of Black males than in a bunch of dull suits. The NBA thrives best as a source of entertainment when there are appealing personalities to showcase. I’m not saying they need to get all Sambo but the should be able to express themselves the way the want through fashion. Think about Clyde Frazier and how he dressed, he looked nice had his own style but it was quite pimpish. That could be looked at negatively. The only thing is there are multiple personalities at the same time showcasin nowadays so that multiple how bad it may or may not look. Good post and well written

    • @iQuell

      Well there’s another side of the NBA fashion that is straight up GQ styling–and looks GOOD! From Dwayne Wade being on the cover of GQ to my ACL injured favorite player of the NBA and team Derrick Rose, there’s another side of the fashion that doesn’t come off as something they’d wear if they were gonna do a guest spot on Seasame Street in Elmo’s World. THAT’s the side of the fashion that I think has a little bit more power. IF you catch Chris Paul, his suits are always nice, but I’ll admit at times he doesn’t look comfortable in them. But Wade definitely wears the suits well, and knows how to add some style to them without looking like some monochromatic droid who’s just doing it cuz Stern said so.

  2. Whatever they wear some people will find it negative. It is very interesting how Stern and media respond to things. I am of the opinion that for a great many reasons Stern should have been removed as commissioner at least a decade ago and future commissioners should have a 10 or 15 year term limit.

    As you say fashion is resistance.

  3. Interesting break down brother, If I may though, I would go further than describing the appearance as dressing like children and more a case of self emasculation in order to not appear masculine in a society that is threaten by masculinity. What we are observing are two sides of a coin that swings on a pendulum on confusion. On one side is the hyper masculine/thug/slash/ down low, knee-grow imagery as perpetrated by the entertainment industry and embraced by those who would do anything to get their fix (like a crack head would).

    Keep in mind the last visual imagery of a manly locking African is that of Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye and or Bob Marley. Since then we have had Prince, Ready for the world Baby face and the like. On the other side of the coin there is this effeminate looking image disguised as fashion, but we fail to identify as something no real masculine designer would ever put together.
    If we are acting like females, then who is the male? Nature makes no mistakes.

  4. It’s outside the scope of your discussion, but if you want to talk about grown men dressing like children, I wish some scientist would explain to me what posseses some guys to walk around with freaking PACIFIERS in their mouths. Yes, PACIFIERS.

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