The Cleveland Cavaliers, with an assist from a New York-based designer, made their first big play on Friday night just by entering the arena. As they paraded into Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis before Game 3 of their playoff series with the Indiana Pacers, the Cavaliers wore coordinated ensembles: made-to-measure suits, ties, shoes, bags and eyewear by Thom Browne.
The scheme was hatched a while ago by Dwyane Wade and Browne, then kept alive by LeBron James after Wade was traded back to the Miami Heat in February.
“All of us suiting up together was just a new idea and something we all wanted to try,” James, a four-time winner of the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, wrote in an email.
For players at the top of the professional basketball food chain, just showing up has become an opportunity to preen. No matter that the corridors may be lined with trash cans. The walk from the team bus to the locker room is a runway, with attendant paparazzi.
“It’s become a way to one-up each other,” said Calyann Barnett, a stylist who works with players like Wade and the Pelicans’ Rajon Rondo. “It’s become almost like high school. Who’s going to have on the best outfit? Everyone’s going for that Best Dressed. Now, what is Best Dressed? It’s as many labels as you can throw on.”
The Cavaliers intend to wear the suits for away games for the remainder of the postseason — however long that may last for the team.
“We have the same outfit on every night when we warm up,” James wrote. “Dressing the same isn’t special. Being in a designed suit by a master craftsman is truly special.”
So is a sense of off-court unity.
“We haven’t seen this before,” said Brennan Rabb, a stylist who works with James. “There’s a deeper message about unison.”
That message is especially important to the Cavs, given their roster shake-up in February and rumors of James’s possible departure in the off-season. For now, though, the team is focused on trying to reach the league finals for the fourth consecutive year.
Usually, the outfits and accessories worn by players off the court — versus the standard uniform on it — have emphasized the individual, rather than the team.
“There are a lot of basketball fans who root for players and not necessarily for teams,” said Juliet Litman, the managing editor of The Ringer, a sports and pop culture website.
Fashion allows certain players — like Wade, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Golden State’s Kevin Durant — to distinguish themselves. Westbrook, who translated his stylishness into a collection for Barneys New York, has put out a book of his collected outfits and inspirations.
“It’s so much easier to feel like you know a basketball player than it is to feel like you know a baseball player,” Litman said. “In concert with the league and through their own brute force, they have carved out a niche where they are legit celebrities and they are their own brand.”
The modern era of the label-flexing player began with the institution of the N.B.A. dress code in 2005, widely seen as an attempt by David Stern, then the commissioner, to curb styles like baggy jeans and do-rags that were worn by players like the former Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson. The code mandated “business casual.”
But the rules are broadly interpreted, and the league has issued a few warnings to players who pushed the limit this season.
Today’s superstars, multimillionaires enjoying their bounties, have cultivated a taste for the finer things: wine, cars, jewelry, luxury fashion. Once hobbies like these occupied the off-season. Now, the lines blur. Courtside at Fashion Week, front row at the arena — what’s the difference, really?
“Expressing myself through fashion is such an important part of my N.B.A. experience,” James said. “It’s really another way to have fun and experience my love for the game. I love mixing it up with my shoes on the court, sometimes at the podium post game. And of course there is the walk into the game. Using the tunnel walk to express yourself, say what you’re feeling — that is a very cool change my generation brought to the game.”
Blogs and websites have chronicled every four-figure Amiri shredded jean, Saint Laurent jacket and Off-White sneaker — a de facto uniform if not a codified one. DM Fashion Book feverishly tracks every appearance; even ESPN occasionally joins the fray.
For his Cavaliers project, Browne said in an interview, he wanted to emphasize not the individual player but the collective unity of the team.
James and Wade already counted themselves among his fans and clients, and his tailoring, introduced in the early 2000s, helped redefine the silhouette of fashionable suits for a generation, not least by hiking up the pants to high-water, ankle-baring heights. In their matching gray suits, cardigans and high trousers, the players entering the arena Friday looking freshly imported from one of Browne’s typically Kabuki Paris runway shows. (The headlines write themselves: “Cavs Debut Calves.”)
James said he was grateful to Wade, whom he called one of the N.B.A.’s “most important fashion innovators,” for passing along the project before he returned to the Heat.
“It represents all of it — camaraderie, solidarity, brotherhood,” James wrote in his email. “It definitely creates a feeling like we are one and in this together.”
Browne began a discussion with Wade last fall at the Fashion Group International Night of Stars awards, where Wade presented him with an award.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting if they all wore tailoring, and tailoring in a very uniform way, to really show the strength in a uniform?” Browne said of the discussion.
Browne knows whereof he speaks. As a swimmer at Notre Dame, he was required to wear a navy jacket and gray trousers to meets and, as an adult, hews closely to his standard wardrobe of his own gray suits (with long pants in the winter, shorts in the summer).
“I wanted to represent the team as a strong unit,” he said. “It’s not a fashion thing for me — it’s more of a cultural image.” A company spokeswoman said Browne did not pay the team to wear the suits as a promotional agreement, though she declined to go into further specifics.
Browne, who follows the Heat and grew up on the 76ers and Michael Jordan-era Bulls, said he would be watching — from Hong Kong, where is traveling on business.
“These guys represent so much to so many people, especially young kids,” he said. “They look up to these guys to see what they can aspire to. And they represent working hard to be really good at what they do. That’s ultimately what everyone is going to see.”