Fashion labels are capitalizing on NBA basketball stars’ pre-game entries into arenas—a moment often telecasted by sports broadcasters—jumpstarting a lucrative cottage industry that turns athletes into style influencers.
Fashion has the runway; basketball has the tunnel. What was once an unnoticed shuffle from the arena entrance to the locker room has evolved into a bona fide catwalk illuminated by flashing paparazzi bulbs, where NBA stars flaunt their outfits. At a mere 15 seconds, the tunnel walk is a concise affair—but the jaunt is closely watched by style-savvy basketball fans eager to emulate their idols and luxury brands anxious to place their latest clothing and accessories in front of the doting eyes of millions.
It’s no exaggeration. Instagram accounts dedicated to tunnel fashion, like @leaguefits and @nbafashionfits, have amassed hundreds of thousands of avid followers. The Athletic and WWD routinely publish best-dressed lists; GQ readers voted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the most stylish man last year. “Style icon is the perfect way to describe these guys,” vintage specialist Tom DeCeglie tells Business of Fashion. “It’s crazy how the tunnel walk has gotten to this level because I remember guys used to just come in wearing sweats, and that was it.”
Outlandish fashion statements have always been part of NBA culture—take Magic Johnson’s fur coats and Dennis Rodman wearing a wedding dress to promote his 1996 autobiography, among other antics—but have surged in the age of Instagram. “These players recognized that social media was an opportunity to demonstrate their own style and taste,” Matt Powell, a VP at sports marketing research firm NPD Group, tells Town & Country. Brief tunnel struts indeed offer a momentary glimpse into each player’s personality, from the sneaker-obsessed PJ Tucker to the avant-garde leanings of Jordan Clarkson, who once wore a kilt.
The entrances also afford players opportunities to promote causes close to them. Chris Paul often sports apparel from historically Black colleges and universities, which jumpstarted multiple initiatives. The Miami Heat wore hoodies after Trayvon Martin’s shooting; in the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, players were quick to wear jerseys emblazoned with phrases like “Say Their Names” and “Respect Us.” LeBron James routinely wore shirts promoting More Than a Vote, a nonprofit that raises awareness about voter suppression and registration, in advance of the 2020 election.
Fashion labels have picked up on players’ newfound status as runway models. In 2018, Thom Browne jumped at the chance to outfit James and his then-team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in his signature shrunken gray suits, a stunt that got the internet talking. Kyle Kuzma posted a tunnel shot of him flaunting a $3,000 Rick Owens puffer jacket, resulting in the garment selling out within a few days on SSENSE. “Brands are really seeing how much the tunnels and everything that we do kind of matters to society and pop culture,” Kuzma says. The next frontier? Styling college players, who are finally allowed to profit from their image.