The inside story of NBA players and their socks

Several years ago, Kevin Porter Jr., then a high school basketball star in Seattle, made a profound decision, one that would affect his life. He was creating his own team for the video game NBA 2K, and he decided to outfit one of the players in super long, over-the-calf socks.

“I really liked it,” Porter said, “so I tried it in real life. And I was like, ‘Yeah, this is my new look.’ ”

Porter has remained loyal to the style. Now a fourth-year guard with the Houston Rockets, he often complements his high socks by covering his knees with compression sleeves that are designed for his arms.

“So my legs can stay warm,” he said. “A lot of people make fun of having high socks. But honestly, it’s kind of like a ’70s or ’80s look. I’m different, and I like expressing that.”

Clad in their oversize sweaters, avant-garde scarves and bespoke suits, NBA players have long moonlighted as style-conscious trendsetters. Before games, arena corridors double as fashion runways. And once fans find their seats, the league’s stars function as billboards for the hottest sneakers on the market.

The NBA, though, has seldom allowed players much wiggle room when it comes to an undervalued component of their in-game attire: socks. Players, after all, are required to wear those manufactured by Nike, which has been the league’s sock partner for six seasons.

But even within that relatively confined world, players are constantly finding ways to tailor their approaches. Some pull their socks high, while others scrunch them low. Some want a brand-new pair every game, while others are fine cycling through the same laundered pairs for weeks.

There are even a few players who purposely take their Nike socks, which are labeled left and right, and wear them on the wrong feet — a practice that has always puzzled Pat Connaughton of the Milwaukee Bucks.

“I’ve asked, and nobody’s given me a good answer,” he said.

And while it seems most players prioritize function, some favor fashion — perhaps illustrative of a generational divide.

“I think there’s a culture change with the younger guys,” said Tony Nila, who has spent 30 seasons with the Rockets, including the past 16 as the team’s equipment manager. “I don’t know if they have so many sock routines or pet peeves. I think they’re more about looking good.”

For decades, most players simply wore the socks that teams gave them — sometimes lots of them. Mel Davis, a forward for the New York Knicks and the New York Nets (now Brooklyn Nets) in the 1970s, was known to throw on six pairs — six! — before lacing up his sneakers, which was a source of intrigue for opponents and teammates alike.

Sock protocols became more formalized in 1986, when the league created a line of products that included socks, replica jerseys, shorts and warm-ups. It did not take long for the league to mandate that its players wear socks that were produced by its sock licensee, a company called Ridgeview.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the socks were basic. Some had a couple of stripes around the ankle. Others had the team name running up the side. In 1999, the league began using an Indiana-based company called For Bare Feet, which made socks that were easily identifiable: plush and white with a small NBA logo.

“Great sock,” said Eric Housen, the Golden State Warriors’ vice president of team operations. “Guys loved those.”

Before the 2015-16 season, the NBA dropped For Bare Feet in favor of Stance. The Stance socks, though more playful and vivid, were not nearly as popular.

“Stiff,” Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics said. “Hurt your feet. Wasn’t too big on them.”

The Stance experiment lasted just two seasons. Philadelphia 76ers forward P.J. Tucker was not enamored with the brand. So, he procured several dozen pairs of thick, padded socks from his favorite sock purveyor, Thorlos — “Most comfortable socks ever,” he said — along with several dozen pairs from Stance, and had them delivered to a tailor for surgery: She cut them all in half, then stitched the tops of the Stance socks to the bottoms of the Thorlos socks.

The result was that the Stance design and the NBA logo were still visible while affording Tucker the comfort of his Thorlos down low, where it mattered. It was an ingenious way of skirting league rules.

“Socks are super important, bro,” Tucker said.

Nike, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment, does offer some selection within the margins of its game-sock cosmos. Its socks, which are a polyester, nylon, cotton and spandex blend, come in four lengths: no-show, quarter, crew and tall. (Housen could not think of a current player who wears the no-show socks; the last player who did, he said, may have been Luke Ridnour, a journeyman guard who announced his retirement in 2016.) Players can opt for a type of sock called “Quick,” which is thinner, or “Power,” which has more padding.

And there are different sizes. When Boban Marjanovic, a 7-foot-4 center, joined the Rockets in an offseason trade, Nila, the team’s equipment manager, was grateful that he had some size XXXL socks on hand.

But while there is flexibility in terms of the style and fit of the socks from game to game, teammates must wear the same color. As they rotate through different uniforms, some franchises mix it up: purple socks one game, black the next. Others keep it simple. Keen observers of foot fashion may have noticed, for example, that the New Orleans Pelicans strictly wear white socks, which forward Brandon Ingram prefers. Zion Williamson, Ingram’s teammate, adds pizazz by flipping down the sock tops to expose a colorful thread that runs along an inside seam.

“I like the orange stripe,” he said.

Lest anyone think the NBA is lax about its sock policies, consider Smart’s experience at the start of the 2017-18 season, when Nike was the league’s new partner. For the season opener, he folded the tops of his socks down because they felt more comfortable that way, he said. The problem was that he wound up hiding the Nike swoosh.

“I got a call from the league, and they said that Nike said I did it on purpose,” said Smart, who was sponsored by Adidas at the time. “So they were like, ‘You’ve got to wear your socks the right way or you’ll be fined.’ ”

How much? “I didn’t want to find out,” said Smart, who now has a deal with Puma.

Teams typically order their socks from Nike about a year in advance. Last month, Housen ordered about 2,500 pairs of socks for Golden State — about 150 per player — for next season. Each team gets an annual stipend for Nike gear.

A decent segment of the league wears two pairs. But within that subset are variations. Connaughton said he began doubling up when he was in high school because he believed it helped prevent blisters. Jabari Smith Jr., a first-year forward with the Rockets, wears a pair of Adidas socks underneath his Nike ones.

Sometimes, it depends on the sneaker. Larry Nance Jr., a forward with the Pelicans, said one pair of socks typically sufficed when he wore LeBron James’ signature Nike shoes. But he wears two pairs whenever he reaches for his Air Jordan 10s, which are “a little flimsier,” he said.

Tucker, who has an enormous sneaker collection, gets why all of this may sound so strange. Most people can get away with wearing crummy socks, he said. But professional athletes are different.

“Your feet got to feel right,” he said. “If your feet don’t feel right, forget it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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