Saturday, February 24, 2018
Sports

COMPETITIVE COUTURE

The beautiful millionaires arrive in couture. Cameras are there to greet them as their fans stand by on social media, craving glimpses of their custom-fitted ensembles. Suddenly, however briefly, the bowels of basketball arenas are turned into the shabbiest fashion runways in the world.

For all their dazzling feats on the court, NBA stars have somehow made an event out of simply showing up at games. The sports world and the fashion world cannot look away, even if the setting is an underground tunnel in, say, Oakland's Oracle Arena — approximately 9 million miles from Milan.

"Oh, it's beautiful," said Sarah Oliphant, an artist who designs backdrops for fashion shows out of her studio in New York. She would not stage these NBA arrivals any other way.

"These are high-powered people with megamoney behind them in every possible way," Oliphant said. "But the runway is a linoleum floor and a concrete-walled tunnel," and you can see Teamsters setting up in the background.

She added: "I couldn't have even thought that up. It's brilliant. Whoever came up with this is brilliant."

The NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are shaping up as one of the season's biggest stages — for fashion, of course. The basketball has been decent, too.

"You stress over outfits for days," the Warriors' Stephen Curry said, "and you wind up wearing it for 30 seconds when you walk from the parking lot to the locker room."

But those 30 seconds are important. Important to ESPN and Turner Sports, which have filmed these entrances throughout the postseason to help fill pregame airtime. Important to viewers at home, who want to see their favorite players behind the scenes. Important to fashion designers, who benefit from mainstream exposure. And important to the players, who have come to delight in the strange pageantry of it all.

"I've got to make sure everything looks good coming out of the car," Curry, the league's most valuable player, said. "You don't want to have a missed button or a wrinkled shirt."

It is an oddly blue-collar environment for high fashion. Nobody made a bigger splash in recent weeks than Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose team fell to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Westbrook's bursts of sartorial pyrotechnics — denim overalls one game, zebra-print blazer the next — were offset by an obstacle course of trash cans, ladders and heating ducts.

"It's become an event unto itself, which is kind of amazing," Brett J. Banakis, a stage and film production designer, said. "So you'll have Russell Westbrook wearing a lime-green jumpsuit and walking past the most banal objects possible."

Banakis has been a fan of Westbrook's since they were students together at UCLA, where Westbrook played basketball and Banakis played trombone in the marching band. (They were once on the same charter flight to the Final Four, Banakis said.) Banakis said it made sense for high-profile players to embrace their opportunities to flash some individual style, even if their milieu is a loading dock.

"Most of the time, you see them wearing uniforms," he said. "So this is really their only moment to say, 'This is me.' "

Curry said he did not realize that he needed to care about his 30-second pregame walk to the locker room until he made his first playoffs appearance with the Warriors in 2013. All of a sudden, camera crews were waiting for him. He knew then that he had to put more effort into his attire. It has become an important part of his game-day ritual.

"I would wear most of this stuff anyway, especially for the playoffs," he said. "You want to feel good for each game."

There are other logistical hurdles, said Tim Corrigan, a senior coordinating producer for ESPN. Because home and visiting teams often arrive at different entrances, Corrigan assigns crews to camp out at each location. Players also show up at various times. When the Warriors are on the road, for example, they have three buses that leave for the arena in 30-minute increments. By now, ESPN's crew knows that Curry tends to take the last bus, which usually pulls in about two hours before the game.

Once he arrives, Curry takes measured steps past the assembled masses, his strides slow but purposeful.

"It's a normal walk," assistant coach Bruce Fraser said, "for someone who knows someone else is staring at him."

Other players are more elusive.

Marreese Speights, a reserve forward with the Warriors, tries to avoid the cameras altogether. His strategy? Take the last bus to road games and be the last player to disembark, his hope being that everyone will have vacated the premises by then. Besides, Speights has no illusions that the cameras are there for him.

"People want to see their favorite players all dressed up," he said.

The spotlight that follows Curry does not affect everyone. Steve Kerr, the Warriors' coach, often shows up for home games in a T-shirt and sweatpants. (He carries his suit in a garment bag.)

Others take greater pains to be more fashion forward. James Michael McAdoo, a second-year forward, has friends who send him news clippings and video snippets of Curry that just happen to feature McAdoo standing in the background. McAdoo does not want to look like a slob.

"My wife makes sure I dress up for the finals," he said. "I let her iron my shirts. I pick out my outfit a little bit earlier. It's not like I just wake up from my nap and throw on whatever. Let's make sure I have something that's a little choreographed for each game."

Curry has become an active participant in the whole process. He goes so far as to watch clips of other players making their arena entrances.

"All the time," Curry said. "You want to see what the other guys are doing."

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