Forget the Runway – The NBA Tunnel is the Real MVP

Shoe Surgeon Air Jordan 1 Warriors Pe

‘They’re targeting my generation – the hip hop generation’.

It was 2005, and Allen Iverson was responding to the NBA dress code enforced by the commissioner, David Stern. For many, including the now Hall of Fame 76er Iverson, the dress code was a direct attack on basketball’s heart and soul, the slow erosion and sanitisation of the hip hop culture to which basketball had become inextricably tied.

But Stern’s decision to implement a league-wide dress code also had unexpected repercussions, accelerating basketball’s relationship to the runway, and the sartorial mashup of high fashion and hip hop that we now see on a nightly basis. In 2019, the NBA tunnel has inadvertently become one of earth’s most important pseudo-runways and, when paired with Adam Silver’s revised sneaker laws, now sits at the forefront of Grail culture.

Forget Paris – this is Karl-Anthony Towns in the custom Nike Hyperdunk ‘Love Trumps Hate’. It’s LeBron James in the John Elliott Icon, and Kevin Durant in Jun Takahashi.

It’s the NBA tunnel: the real sneaker MVP.

John Elliot Nike Lebron Icon
John Elliot Nike LeBron Icon

Can You See the Light?

When PJ Tucker stepped out in Jerry Lorenzo’s Air Fear of God 1 on November 3, 2018, the air was sucked right out of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

The NBA’s resident journeyman, Tucker spent more than a decade lacing up his impressive collection of sneakers in a variety of locations, including the Israeli Premier League, Ukrainian Basketball Super League, and the Sutor Basket Montegranaro in Italy.

Accustomed to strange and hard-to-find Grails (like the $20,000 Stewie Griffin Nike LeBron 6), it’s hard to shock PJ Tucker’s fans – but these did.

‘We have a very organic relationship’, Jerry Lorenzo told Sneaker Freaker back in December. ‘PJ Tucker hit me up and reminded me about the shoes the day that I got them. I said “I got them, finally. Where do I send them?” He’s just like, “Send them to my hotel. I want to wear them in New York.” There wasn’t a big plan around it.’

Lorenzo’s description of his relationship with PJ Tucker serves as an apt depiction of the relationship between basketball and fashion more broadly – organic.

Powered by social media tidbits, the NBA tunnel has become a neo-runway, filled with floodlights and iPhone LEDs. Recently, the tunnel has paved the way for the John Elliott Nike LeBron Icon, Russell Westbrook’s nuclear Vetements and Rick Owens fits, Kevin Durant’s Undercover React 87s, Danny Green’s radioactive Prada Cloudbusts and, of course, PJ Tucker’s latest Jerry Lorenzo drip: The Air Fear of God 1 ,‘Orange Pulse’.

‘It’s the ultimate sneaker runway.’ – Mark Parker. ‘It’s the ultimate sneaker runway.’ – Mark Parker.

The NBA tunnel is a weird, contradictory, cognitive mashup between high fashion and street style. It's a hybrid that, at times, is desperately compartmentalised across the globe’s fashion weeks.

It also offers, for labels like Fear of God, a place to detonate sneaker hype in an organic sense, publicly consumed via its own distinct, self-perpetuating channel.

PJ Tucker and the Houston Rockets took a 119–111 win that night against the Brooklyn Nets, but it was Jerry Lorenzo that took the bigger W, catapulting the Fear of God brand into the popular consciousness in a way well beyond anyone’s earthly comprehension.

Russell Westbrook Acne Studio
Juergen Teller shooting Russel Westbrook for Acne Studios

A Courtside View into the Sole

The malleable world of fashion, basketball and sneakers is important for both brands and players.

Just 48 hours after legendary American comic book writer Stan Lee passed away, Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie pulled up in Miami with Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man flying across the uppers of his K8IROS sneakers.

‘Thank you for the memories’, Dinwiddie wrote, ‘nothing more needs to be said.’

Whether the political customs of Karl-Anthony Towns, the conspiratorial kicks of Kyrie Irving, or a simple RIP scrawled on the sole, sneakers in the NBA have long provided players with an aesthetic avenue to express internal thoughts, and offers fans – even if but for a split second – the chance to partake in these narratives.

It’s a moment crystalised by the Nike LeBron 15 ‘Equality’. Wearing white on the left and black on the right, the word ‘equality’ was embroidered in gold along the sneaker’s heels.

Only this time, LeBron had more to say.

‘Obviously, we all know where we are, and we know who is at the helm here’, LeBron told the media after Cleveland took the 106–99 win over the Washington Wizards. ‘Us as Americans, no matter the skin colour, no matter who you are, I think we all have to understand that having equal rights and being able to stand for something and speak for something and keeping the conversation going.’

Sneakers in the NBA exist both in a state of explosive maximalist individualisation and, somehow, cohesion. Whether in the shared sentiments of losing a loved one or the contempt directed towards factionalism at the top, the nexus between sneakers, basketball and fashion continues to provide an important mouthpiece for both spectators and players.

It’s a dialogue that moves beyond high-fashion’s exclusivity; beyond the price-tag of admission.

It’s the reason fans burst into tears after Russell Westbrook hands out Zer0.2s, and why Michael Jordan continued to wear the ‘Bred’ longer after they were banned. It’s why the Nike LeBron 15 is on permanent display at the Smithsonian, and why Allen Iverson continues to carry one of the most immutable style legacies in the NBA.

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