How many more NBA drafts will the cable networks be able to put on? This is a moral quandary over equitable employment practices, mental health and, frankly, racial optics. It’s not a fashion question. As fashion, the answer is probably “forever!” The broadcasts have added a procession that gives some pomp to the circumstance.
A bunch of small children line the stage and slap the hands of the giant players as they enter from backstage; then, flanked by parents, siblings or, yes, agents, the draftees head down to their table on the arena floor. This has proved to be an ingenious development. It gives a television show — a long one — some actual show. And what’s being shown (shown off) are the clothes.
You used to have to do some work to find a shot that took in a whole outfit. The scarcity of those images wasn’t because the players were too tall. It was because the networks didn’t seem to care about who wore what. Nobody’s here for fashion! But some of us were. Now the reporters and anchors are even cheering and jeering each other’s clothes.
This is to say that the broadcast of the draft that took place Thursday night, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, is now of a piece with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the ball sequences on “Pose.” It’s a night of looks and shade and, in its way, extra-ness.
At ESPN, the anchor Rece Davis noted that “the players are dressed for success, some very subtle and classy, others, making a little bit more of a statement.” As he spoke, the camera and editing rolled its eyes, first, at Mfiondu Kabengele, the ultimately snazzy eventual 27th pick (to the Brooklyn Nets), who was flashing his embroidered jacket lining. Then they found Ja Morant (picked second, by the Memphis Grizzlies), who was in pinstriped purple everything. That seemed a reasonable doubt. Even at Morant’s comparatively ordinary height (he’s only 6 feet 3 inches), all that purple was delightfully excessive, like watching the Joker audition to join a pack of grape Now and Laters.
Now, the broadcast of the walk to your seat really does put some pressure on how everything fits, how it all moves — for TV, which comes with stresses separate from Instagram’s. For Instagram, you’re dressing for followers. For TV, you’re dressing for anybody who happens to be at an airport or a Buffalo Wild Wings. You want things to pop. Yet you don’t want to poke out any eyes.
The looks were strong this year — bold, bright, sharp, flattering. A few were gloriously absurd. Some were courtesy of J.C. Penney. Just about all of the 24 dudes who walked onstage walked in loafers — loafers that glittered, loafers that, on Cam Reddish, embroidered as they were with the Versace medusa, hissed. The belching pocket square crisis of drafts past appears to have abated. Jewelry (necklaces, chains, crucifixes) is the new and, to my eye, improved hankie. And the hair — it poofed, billowed and geysered. (Morant’s basically twisted into bangs.) The wave cap is dead. Long live the hair sponge!
Going in, we’d all been prepared that the night’s star would be Zion Williamson, from Duke. He’d certainly be the top pick (to the New Orleans Pelicans). So somebody urged him to dress like the guy who’d go first. And what he wore is one way to do that: creamy tuxedo jacket, white shirt, silky and ribbed, open to the top of his chest. It was everything you want to see for an event that kicked off at 7:30 on a Thursday evening and was staged within spitting distance of a Best Buy, a Shake Shack and the D.M.V.: glamour, confidence, swagger, a spritz of sex — but only a spritz. (A gold, diamond-studded cross dangled from his jacket pocket.)
Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Once you saw Williamson cross the stage in that star-making cream, you could see that his pants were giving him some trouble; they seemed to be bunching in the crotch.
It’s true that Williamson is the most exciting player to enter the league since LeBron James was chosen first 16 years ago. But some people, including the folks at ESPN, went too far. They saw Williamson and reached back to James’s get-up on his draft night in 2003. These are not — I repeat, not — comparable events. James wore a flouncy suit, as white as Noah’s dove. The jacket must have had 5,000 buttons. He looked as if he was trying to win a Boyz II Men marathon but only got to “End of the Road.” Williamson, on the other hand, was dressed like a man on his way to get new gadgets from Q.
EVERY YEAR, I watch this thing and see the parades of gray and slate and concrete and charcoal, and I’ll say to the TV, “Oh, no. Who died?” The draft is not a job interview. It isn’t even really the first day of work. It’s a party. Get low, get bodied, get some colors. Take a risk.
But maybe not too much risk. You could wind up like Bol Bol, the 7-foot-2 son of the N.B.A. legend Manute Bol; he went 44th in the second round to the Miami Heat, who immediately traded him to the Denver Nuggets. Bol Bol could have worn anything, maybe by anybody. But Young Thug’s fashion brand got there first. According to Bol, it’s called Spider. So there was a splooge of white webbing right there on the whole left side of his black double-breasted number, which he wore over a blacker turtleneck. Not one ounce of it was complimentary. The jacket, for some reason, was cropped short enough to bring this poor fellow terribly close to “bellhop.”
Darius Garland, who went fifth and is off to Cleveland, was more like it. He wore a sandy kimono jacket and matching pants. Underneath was a white band-collar shirt, which had a medallion chain over it. He kept the robe open and basic, as if he wanted to push the envelope but didn’t want to have read what was inside. Maybe it was too casual, But you can’t be mad at a move like this. No one else did anything like it.
Well, Nickeil Alexander-Walker might have surpassed everybody in the “no, he didn’t” department. Gray suit in a reptile-skin print, bolo tie (with his initials), loafers. This guy — who went 17th, to New Orleans — could have been a used-car salesman in a “Men in Black” movie. But he wound up the winner of Chris Isaak night in Stankonia.
Are we sure Tyler Herro was here for the N.B.A. draft? Because there are boxers and Ultimate Fighting Championship titlists who would have killed for all of the controlled chaos of his snug suit. It was a riot of flowering purples and blue-greens (worn tieless over a black shirt and glowing gold ropes).
R.J. Barrett went with a lilac-rose — by Indochino, I’m told — over a black shirt and tie. It seemed fit for the prom. But it grew on me. You could see how beautifully constructed it was. From certain distances, the pinkishness appeared to achieve the substance of cake fondant. And up close, it looked light enough to wrap a gift. The blazer flared a touch at the bottom, adding something princely and maybe even Prince-ly.
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN for this night to end? Not just at midnight, but, like, forever? Since we’re in this era of re-examining people, places and things that get taken as granted, why not the draft? Here are a bunch of mostly black, mostly American athletes being paraded, bought and dealt by a league whose upper management is almost entirely white. And we call the people who own the teams, well, “owners.”
The players have no real say in what team they wind up on, which means no say in which city they live in, the bosses they report to or who they work with. The money and fame are nice. But what money can’t buy is sound mental health. The commissioner, Adam Silver, senses unhappiness. And the basketball press, namely in the probing work of ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, has wondered about the morality of a draft. No one really has to mention race or the history of slavery. Headlines and stories on the subject draw the parallel every time they use the term “abolish.”
Williamson symbolizes the dawning of a new age of freedom and choice for players. He can write his own ticket, we’re told, more than previous draftees could. In the meantime, the pageantry of what otherwise is a trade show serves a higher purpose than distraction. You’re watching mostly black men enjoy a night off from being called “beast,” “freak,” “monster,” “a big” and “specimen.” You’re seeing them consider their bodies in another way and, on one of the biggest occasions of their lives, express what they think of themselves and who, maybe, they think they could be.
So even if that person winds up looking like a superhero’s chauffeur or Prince the lollipop, it’s O.K. They’re in the N.B.A. draft. So who they also are is a winner.