It takes a relentless amount of confidence to walk into a basketball game donning a black Supreme faux fur coat, color-coordinated with skin-tight black pants and a Louis Vuitton bag dangling from the right arm, but that’s exactly how Kelly Oubre rolls. Tall white socks slip into his mostly-black Converse shoes to complete the outfit, the contrast bringing the colors to life.
He poses for pictures to display to his 600,000 Instagram followers, who wait breathlessly to see the NBA’s most prominent bright-eyed, beanie-wearing reserve forward’s newest outfit. Commenters jokingly flood reply sections, typing lines like “delete this before my girl sees” or “making sure my girlfriend isn’t in the comments.”
“I’ve always dressed ahead of my time,” Oubre says with a smile.
This is how Oubre, a member of the Phoenix Suns at the time of this writing in 2019, became a fashion icon despite his modest NBA success. On the day he was drafted in 2015, Oubre eschewed the classic pre-draft look in favor of a bright red suit with spiked gold shoes. In November, Converse — a once-proud basketball brand now owned by Nike and increasingly in the lifestyle category — signed him to a multi-year shoe deal that’ll see him wear Nike on the court, but rock Converse in casual settings like pregame walks and event appearances.
As a rookie, Oubre invented an alter ego known as “Wave Papi”, saying it signified “staying cool, calm, and collected.” That phrase has become ubiquitous enough to define his style.
But even he remembers a time when the very body that allows him to stand out positively did so for an entirely different reason.
“My dad used to call them ’Gorilla Arms,’” Oubre says, motioning to his 7’3 wingspan. “Because they’d hang over so much to the point where I’d broaden my shoulders so my arms would be shorter.”
Before professional ballers start making millions of dollars, finding any clothes that allow them to fit in with the rest of society is a daily struggle. Basketball players aren’t built like other athletes. They’re long and lean, with wacky-inflatable-tube-man arms that dangle to their knees. Their disproportionate bodies break all the rules of clothing manufacturers, leaving many to go to unique lengths to try to find something — anything — that wears normally.
Over dozens of interviews, basketball’s tallest and longest athletes revealed the strategy, the frustration, and the solutions to fashion overlooking their unique needs.
That’s what a 6’2, 10th grader A’ja Wilson remembers her father yelling after he took her Catholic school uniform out of the wash. Wilson’s hands gripped one shoulder tight while her father held the other, and they’d move the shirt in opposite directions.
“We’d pull the shirt just so it’d be long, at least when I got to school,” Wilson says. “Then, I’d get to school and I’d just pull the arm sleeves up.”
Though she’s a decade older, former WNBA MVP Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks employed a similar tactic with her shirts and jeans.
“There’s an art to it,” Parker explains. “You can’t break the seam, but you can stretch it around the shoulder to the wrist.”
Before they were famous hoopers with never-ending arms, basketball prodigies were kids with never-ending arms. Their greatest gifts cost them their desired fashion looks, which take on added value during adolescence.
“The shirts either weren’t long enough in the torso or weren’t long enough in the arms,” says Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, who boasts a 7’1 wingspan. “So I always struggled.”
What can be fixed now with promises of custom-made wear was once impossible to afford. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family’s house when he was 9 years old, Oubre journeyed to Houston with his father. Along the way, he slept in a cockroach-infested motel. Oubre Sr. told ESPN it was as if they were “living like peasants.”
”I didn’t have the money to go and custom order stuff,” Oubre says. “I had to find stuff at thrift shops and in Goodwills.”
Getting the clothes is one thing; making them actually fit is another. Stretching the clothes, as Wilson and Parker did, worked for some, but ran the risk of tears in material.
Others searched for more reliable methods. Nets guard Allen Crabbe, who now has a 6’11.25 wingspan, says he’d buy bulkier watches or bracelets to cover the skin on his wrists.
“Sometimes, you can get away with certain small stuff,” Crabbe says.
But small stuff isn’t always enough. Nets teammate Jarrett Allen, a big man with a 7’5 wingspan coming out of high school, could only find one long-sleeve, collared button-down shirt that fit him through high school and college: a white dress shirt handed down from his brother, who is four years older. Living in Texas’ warm climate meant he didn’t have to wear it much, but when the temperatures dropped and he needed to dress up, it was time to bring out old reliable, and only old reliable.
“Even shopping for pants, you’d find one pair of pants out of the all the sizes the store had,” Allen says. “Like 20,000 pairs, and one fit.”
Women’s jeans weren’t long enough on Parker, so she wore men’s pairs that her aunt sewed to look more feminine. She also wanted to wear a popular Tommy Hilfiger style of overalls, but she couldn’t, even with the extenders specifically made to make the overalls taller.
She wasn’t alone.
“I couldn’t wear dresses that I would’ve loved so much,” Wilson says. “They’d be in my size but it’d come up to like my hip. My mom would say ‘That’s a shirt!’ And I’d say ‘It’s a shirt on me, but it’s a dress on another girl.’”
When all methods inevitably failed, many players were left with no choice but to wear clothes that didn’t fit.
“Usually you have to sacrifice and squeeze in,” says second-year Portland Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins.
Pacing down the hallways of Colorado’s Platte Valley High School in baggy JC Penny’s carpenter jeans, 16-year-old Jason Smith was in his safe place. His shins were covered safely with loose-fitted denim, hidden from the eyes of his judgmental peers.
At 7’, he was the tallest kid in school, and one of its most recognizable. But despite his size and fame, the two-time state of Colorado basketball player of the year admits he was susceptible to teasing.
“I couldn’t do the high-waters,” says Smith, now an 11-year veteran currently playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. “Because you’d get made fun of for the high-waters. It’s stylish now, but back in the day? Nah. You were gonna get bullied.”
Smith was in high school from 2000-2004, when baggy clothes were being popularized by pros like Allen Iverson and others. For most of the early 2000s, high school ballers followed suit.
”When I was a kid, a lot of stuff was baggy, so we’d wear Rocawear and stuff was long,” Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson says. “It was easy to get a 3XL.”
When Smith and Thompson were in high school, NBA players didn’t have to worry as much about sleeve length or having too loose a fit around the torso. If Michael Jordan’s boot-cut jeans are any proof, nothing was supposed to fit correctly.
But that was before then-commissioner David Stern enacted a mandatory dress code in 2005, which required players “wear business casual attire whenever they are engaged in team or league business.” By that description, Stern meant “a long- or short-sleeved dress shirt, dress pants, and dress shoes.” He prohibited sleeveless shirts, T-shirt-jerseys, headgear, chains, and sunglasses.
The dress code wasn’t universally popular then, and still isn’t now -- Spurs star Tim Duncan famously declared it a “load of crap” when it was first enacted. But several players have referenced Stern’s policy change as a driver for the newer sense of style around the league.
“It was like, ‘OK, now we got to really dress up and we can’t just throw on a sweat suit,’” Heat star Dwyane Wade told The Associated Press in 2014. “Then it became a competition amongst guys and now you really got into it more and you started to really understand the clothes you put on your body, the materials you’re starting to wear, so then you become even more of a fan of it.”
The effect was that baggy clothes slowly went out of style. If players needed to put in effort when walking into the workplace, they may as well look good while doing it.
”I think people were getting healthier and they wanted to show off their body a little more,” says Kesha McLeod, a professional stylist for James Harden and Rockets teammate P.J. Tucker, among others.
Some players adjusted quicker than others. Detroit Pistons star forward Blake Griffin, who had a 6’10 wingspan when he graduated high school in 2007, used to rock what he called “crazy baggy stuff” up to 4XLT — extra large tall. But when he entered the league, his style immediately changed.
“I remember when I got drafted, guys were making fun of my draft suit for being too tight,” says Griffin, who was selected No. 1 overall in 2009. “My jeans, everything I wore, people would make fun of how tight it was. When I came to the league, the older generation had the baggy, baggy stuff. Our generation went smaller.”
In the years since, even the more timid felt increased pressure to wear outfits that are more form-fitting. These days, McLeod doesn’t know of anyone who sticks to loose clothing.
“Not even my older conservative clients,” she says. “They don’t want wide-leg. They’re not even preferring straight-leg.”
But this new era of fashion simply presented a new problem for our most unique-bodied athletes: how to find tighter clothing that actually made their long limbs look good?
With fancier clothes, the easiest fix for the wealthiest athletes comes straight from their pockets. Money doesn’t solve every challenge, but it does buy Harden a perfectly fitted lime-green Grinch jacket for a widely viewed Christmas Day game, and it also pays the salary of the mastermind who drew it up. More than ever, stylists and high-end designers cater to the needs of even the more subtly dressed giants.
“Designers realized who was paying for those Gucci shoes that only came in a 16, and they were maybe buying 90 pairs of them just for them to have during the season. They realized who was spending the money, and it was the bigger, the larger, the taller,” McLeod says. “But now it’s the norm to go up to a size 17 or a 46-L suit in different sizes.”
The rise of Instagram and NBA red carpet-types of pregame walks certainly accelerated this change, though high-end designers still took a while to fully buy in. Even McLeod was using a more sophisticated version of Wilson and Parker’s stretch tactics a few years ago.
But now, players are prepared at the biggest fashion events of the year. Suits enclose their muscular shoulders, sleeves fit to the end of the wrist, buttons snap at the torso, and dresses are all the right length.
Regular brands have also mastered more form-fitting dress-down looks for long-limbed players. Most hoopers reference their brand’s ability to make sweats in XLT for their lounge clothes. The sleeves come long enough, and the fit is loose, but not laughably so. When asked about what they wear to hang casually with friends, Brooklyn’s Joe Harris points to his navy blue Nike sweatshirt, while Toronto’s OG Anunoby — who is uncommonly long for a wing player with his 7’6 wingspan — cites his black hoodie.
But the options are still limited for when a player is doing anything other than walking the red carpet or lounging on their couch.
“It’s still a struggle now,” Crabbe admits.
“I still can’t find things that properly fit my arms,” adds Boston Celtics all-star big man Al Horford.
Everyday clothing rests in a complicated middle ground for basketball pros. Even they can’t blow money on an entire perfectly-fitted closet. The time required to provide measurements alone wouldn’t be practical, to say nothing of the cost.
Brands also can’t provide any universal sizing for just basketball players. Not only do ballers have among the most unique bodies on Earth, but there are varieties even within their exclusive group. Kevin Durant and LeBron James, for example, play similar positions on the court, but they couldn’t dream of wearing the same fits.
“Kevin can’t really wear baggy because he’s so slim,” his stylist Nchimunya Wulf says of the player once coined The Slim Reaper. “I often say, if you put Kevin and LeBron in the same outfit, they’d look completely different because their body types are so, so different. It just wouldn’t look right.”
As basketball trends quicker, taller, and longer, we’re seeing more unique body types like Durant’s. There are also complete anomalies, like possible 2018-19 NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — nicknamed the Greek Freak for his oversized build — and 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, whose 7’1 wingspan would have ranked 18th out of 70 men’s players tested at the 2018 NBA Draft combine. They’re just as tall as previous anomalies like future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Lauren Jackson, but slimmer and harder to sculpt clothing around.
At least some have found a silver lining.
“When capris started to become a fad, and everyone was cool about not wearing bell-bottoms or long gauchos, I’m like ‘Cool I can totally fit in,’” Wilson laughs. “That’s all that I wear right now.”
Lailaa Parker is 9 years old, but already has her own fashion sense. The olive green coat she wore with a pair of ripped jeans at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game to meet Justin Bieber was just the beginning.
”She wears whatever she wants,” mother Candace Parker says. “I think she looks crazy sometimes but she doesn’t get made fun of.”
Lailaa is already one of the tallest kids in her class, which makes sense considering her mother is a 6’4 WNBA star and her father is Shelden Williams, a 6’9 former first-round NBA Draft pick. One day, Lailaa may have trouble finding clothes that fit, just like her parents once did.
But her mother, who spends her WNBA offseasons broadcasting NBA games for TNT, sees firsthand the way the basketball community has coped with their long limbs. They’re giving the next generation, like Lailaa, a head start.
“Look at some of our icons, what James Harden is wearing and what Russell Westbrook is wearing, they’re confident in it,” Candace Parker says. “Everybody else is like ‘What the heck are they wearing.’ But they’re confident in it, and that makes them cool in a sense.”
The long wingspans of basketball pros will always be a gift for three hours per night and a curse thereafter. They’ll prevent these ballers from fitting in a normal button-down properly, which make them creatively disguise their best on-court attributes when they’re not playing, to the detriment of their self-esteem.
But no matter how it changes, future basketball pros can learn to embrace their unique style needs.
Take Oubre, for example. Three days after the Wizards’ game in Toronto, GQ listed Oubre as one of the 10 best-dressed men of the week, alongside celebrities like John Legend, Jonah Hill, and Kanye West. He made the list again the week of Jan. 7, 2019 for his Supreme sweatsuit, and again a week later for his Boris Bidjan Saberi vest. In late December, GQ’s Megan Gustashaw declared that Wave Papi “is a new breed of NBA style icon.”
So what’s Oubre’s advice?
“Find your niche, what you like and what’s comfortable,” he says, smiling. “And make it look as wavy as possible.”
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