A Nerd-fashion wave is spreading across the NBA--a movement that is transforming the image of young, rich, African-American athletes. You would have spotted geek chic all over this year's All-Star Game, where Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook and others sported Steve Urkel--style glasses throughout the weekend. You see it in Dwyane Wade's cool-dweeb bow ties, in Amar'e Stoudemire's prep-perfect plaid shirt. You might have first sensed it in the form of Durant's now signature backpack--often worn with a single strap buckled across his chest--when he started wearing it to his press conferences last postseason. (The 6-ft. 9-in. Oklahoma City Thunder forward keeps his iPad, headphones, a phone charger and a Bible in there.) Without delay, Nike produced--and sold out--a limited-edition line of Durant backpacks; a full collection is coming this fall. Durant had taken geek chic to a new level.
The market is impressed, and so are tastemakers. "I love seeing the guys doing this," says stylist June Ambrose, host of the VH1 reality show Styled by June. "They all seem to find comfort in these clothes, and you can tell the style makes them feel studious and smart."
In geek chic, Ambrose sees a playful rebellion against the NBA rule passed in 2005 that requires business-casual dress for players sitting on the bench because of injury. Instead of going corporate, the players--many of whom had been leaning toward throwback jerseys, baggy jeans and bling--went preppy. "Geek chic is a clever way to show some character without feeling like you're going to Wall Street," Ambrose says.
But geek chic is more than just a personal style statement. Professorial, downright dorktastic African-American NBA stars are defying the expectation that they wear an intimidating hood facade, which is changing how we view black athletes--and how they view themselves. "It's an obvious turning point," says Wesley Morris, a Pulitzer Prize--winning film critic from the Boston Globe who wrote an insightful essay on the roots of NBA nerddom for Grantland.com in December. "We now better understand who black men can be, what they can sound like." President Obama, Morris notes, deserves some credit for this shift. "Black men are breaking out of the hole we've been put in," he says.
Recently I had a chance to ask Durant--who just nabbed his third straight scoring title and clinched the Thunder's first playoff game with a last-second shot--why he started to dress "like a nerd," as he puts it. He's driving north on an Oklahoma City highway on his way to conduct a kids' basketball clinic, and he laughs as he considers the question. First, he says, he had to overcome some nerves. He wanted his NBA peers to accept him--backpack, horn-rimmed glasses, buttoned-all-the-way-up-to-the-collar plaid shirts and all. "Everyone wonders what people think, and I was just one of those guys," he says. The moral of this story: achieving absurd success at every professional level--in Durant's case, college player of the year in 2007, NBA Rookie of the Year in 2008 and more--does not necessarily quench your craving for approval from the cool kids.