The Death of the NBA Coach’s Courtside Suit

NBA coach Pat Riley in a suit
Image credit: Keith Allison / CC BY-SA 2.0

The NBA has seen a lot of changes over the last year or so. Think of the newly minted play-in tournament, for example, or the unprecedented case of last year’s hermetically sealed Disney World ‘bubble’. Then there was the strangeness of seeing masked benches and coaching staff on the sidelines of otherwise deserted arenas. Luckily seats have gradually started to fill up again as the season has progressed, although another new and conspicuous absence remains: that of the coach’s suit. 

The arrival of the playoffs this Saturday marks, as usual, the close of the regular season and the start of 16 hopeful teams competing for a championship title. But it also represents the end of an era. This will be the first full season in which NBA coaches have not worn suits on game days. 

The rules were officially changed by the league ahead of the 2020/21 season. While masks were now a must, suit jackets and sports coats were bust. Instead, the new dress code called for ‘business attire … dress shirts, pants, socks, and shoes’. The suits, sports coats, and ties that graced the league’s sidelines for decades were now optional, which is to say all but extinct. 

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach 1956
Bill Russell and Red Auerbach at a Boston Celtics game in 1956
Image credit: Jack O’Connell / Public domain

The beginning of the end of the courtside suit came with the arrival of last year’s playoff bubble. While coaches had gradually started leaving their ties at home in recent years, the formal look remained otherwise in place — a relic from the league’s early days, much like organ music and striped uniforms. But the bubble made for a different story. 

The pandemic’s extraordinary circumstances called for extraordinary measures and 22 teams plus supporting staff sealed up in Disney World for up to three months was just that. With everything that was going on in the world, forcing coaches into formalwear would have seemed absurd, and not a little impractical. When you have limited packing space and a Florida summer to contend with, blazers and dress shoes were never going to make the cut. 

As a result, coaches in the bubble opted for slacks, sneakers, and team-branded golf shirts. Working within this palette, different coaches took slightly different approaches: The Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens, for example, buttoned his polo all the way up, while veteran Spurs coach Gregg Popovich kept his untucked. Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder meanwhile got flack for wearing some very form-fitting pants, as the Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra rocked dark collarless polos and black Jordan 3s all the way to the finals.

It’s no surprise that coaches loved the comfort their newly sanctioned threads offered. ‘After being in quarantine and not even putting on jeans for six months, I’m leaning toward basketball casual,’ Minnesota Timberwolves coach, Ryan Saunders, told ESPN. He added: ‘My dad would have a fit’, in a reference to his father Flip Saunders, who, along with the likes of Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, and Lenny Wilkens, represent the famously suited-up coaches of yesteryear. 

What is surprising is how much opposition there was to the dress code change to begin with. ESPN reported that a poll conducted two years ago showed coaches were heavily in favour of holding on to the suited look. It turns out, most of them loved it. Mike Brown, assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, for instance, kept close track of his suit and tie combos so that he never repeated himself. “I have a whole process,” he told ESPN. “I like guys being able to show their personalities with their suit games”. Caring about clothing is something we’ve come to expect from players, whose wardrobe exploits have long been the cause of much media scrutiny, but it’s nice to know that it also matters to the more sartorially subdued seeming coaching staff. Even in the current post-suit season, I’ll regularly run up to my TV to try and identify a coach’s fancy-looking watch (Doc Rivers’ Rolex Submariner comes to mind, as an example). 

‘Although I look very good in a suit and tie, I will admit, I’m also very, very comfortable wearing a Nuggets polo and a pair of TravisMathew athletic leisure wear pants,’ coach Michael Malone said in the bubble last year. ‘I think I’ve done a very good job with the look.’ He wasn’t alone. Any hope Team Suits may have held on to post-bubble were soon put to rest. The actual experience of running along the court in athleisure turned the tide in favour of casual wear, and now it’s written into NBA law.

And while it might be sad to see suits disappear from another part of public life, if you look at Nick Nurse’s signature sideline squats or Spoelstra’s animated gesticulation, it seems clear that in the case of the NBA suits were never fit for purpose. Few others who don a coat and tie are doing low-level cardio for hours at a time. Lord knows what their dry cleaning bills must have come to. On balance, then, I’d say the coaches and their suits might be better off having slacks and polos be the ones taking the courtside beating on game nights.

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