Fashion has always carried a lot of weight in the NBA. Think of “Pistol” Pete Maravich and Walt Frazier’s three-piece bell-bottomed suits in the ’70’s, Larry Bird’s impeccable mullet in the 80’s, Michael Jordan’s and his killer Armani’s, and Allen Iverson’s cornrows, chains and tattoos. That’s off the court, though. On the court, style is equally important. Always has been. Dr. J’s Converse kicks and tube socks, Jordan’s longer shorts, signature shoes and fist pumps after game winning jump shots. In short, aesthetics and basketball go hand in hand. Headbands, wrist bands, high socks, low socks, tattoos, shooting sleeves, knee pads, Nike, Reebok, Adidas. You get the picture.

In our current NBA era, fashion may be more important than ever. The stylistic pendulum has swung from the more casual “everyday” baggy wear (early 2000’s) to a more trendy, retro, and sophisticated persona–or, as NBA commissioner, David Stern called it, “nerd wear.” NBA superstars now arrive to arenas in perfectly tailored suits, bow ties and rather large spectacles, looking more like a college professor or Pee-wee Herman than a professional athlete. Over the years, the shoes that players wear on the court typically match their uniform (which, if done collectively, of course, means that the whole team will match.) Not so much anymore. Now, the trend is to wear shoes that directly clash with the color scheme of the rest of the uniform–mostly neon shades like lime green or pink and purple. This last season, LeBron James, who plays for a team to whom colors are black, red and white, wore an eye-catching highlighter green color version of his infamous signature Nike shoes. This has become a trend growing as fast and as large as James Harden’s beard.

Perhaps one of the pioneers of this kind of “against the grain”/unconventional aesthetic is Oklahoma City Thunder point guard, Russell Westbrook. From patent leather pants to myriads of chains–nothing is off limits for Westbrook. Steve Marsh’s GQ’s piece on NBA style describes him, and other elements within our topic quite well:

NBA: All Star Game-Celebrity GameWestbrook’s style-provocateur act has already become renowned in the NBA, because he stars on one of the league’s two best teams, appears regularly on nationally televised games—where coverage of that short catwalk from the bus to the locker room is de rigueur—and is expected to return to the NBA’s fashion week, the Finals, in June. But he is only one point of light in the league’s new style-savvy firmament, just one Instagram account in a sea of vanity-mirrored baller selfies. After all, the Thunder are merely watching the Heat’s (bespoke-tailored) throne. While Kobe Bryant can stand outside the Lakers locker room and proclaim to me, “I’m the Valentino of the NBA,” as he explains that he’s leaving “the preppy-hipster look” to the younger generation, Miami’s swaggy Big Three—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh—cannot relax. Not in a league where Amar’e Stoudemire can be found posting up in the front row of the Lanvin show at Paris fashion week, where Rajon Rondo’s retinue is trying to persuade Givenchy to pour a custom mold exclusively for his size 13 feet, where Steve Nash can pull the faux-disaffected Clooney, brushing off my questions about his style with an “I don’t take it that seriously” while going Gatsby (that’s Kobe’s nickname for him) in a suit from a Canadian made-to-order Internet clothier that he has a financial stake in.

As if NBA players didn’t already live under the pressure to perform (!), appearance off the court now falls underneath the large umbrella that makes up their identity. Marsh also sheds light on the nature of basketball as a particularly individualistic sport, and how “attention” is inevitable, also suggesting that our “self-aware” digital age is a massive factor, hitting on some of our more popular subjects, as far as social media is concerned:

More than in any other sport, basketball showcases the individual; we can see each player’s tics and idiosyncrasies when he’s on the court, and that’s how we begin to decide who we think he is. And at least as far back as Frazier, no sport has been more enmeshed in the allure of black culture and style. But recently, whether it’s sparked by the explosion of social media or the imposition of David Stern’s corporate-friendly dress code, or whether it’s just the logical outcome of the ongoing gene splice of NBA superstars to multinational apparel companies, the players are more self-aware than ever, more cognizant that personal style is a prerequisite for personal brand. Whether they actually love fashion or not, they understand the need to be perceived as style leaders, at least of some kind, in order to maximize their shoe-company contracts.

Whew! Identity upkeep is taxing. And for NBA players, maintaining your own “personal brand” by being all GQ during post-game interviews, and posting productive stats night after night are one and the same. In other words, “you are what you wear” and “how you play.”