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NBA Players’ Love for Turtlenecks, Explained

Steve Jobs, LeBron James, and Drake walk into a bar...

LeBron James in turtleneck
LeBron James.
Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

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Unless you’re a fan of rewatching cop movies from around 1970 — Shaft or Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, anyone? — you might not see a lot of turtlenecks out in the wild. Sure, the piece is pretty trendy right now, but it’s not always the easiest to pull off and look good in. The exception to this rule is NBA players, who were early adopters to the turtleneck — one of the few items of clothing that easily fits their abnormally large bodies and is cleared by the league’s dress code.

The turtleneck is beloved by the likes of Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade, Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, and a pair of Cleveland Cavaliers, Kevin Love and LeBron James, among many others. Maybe no one pulls it off better than James, who recently wore a turtleneck for the cover of his Sports Illustrated “Sportsmen of the Year” issue.

Clippers guard Chris Paul in a turtleneck
Clippers guard Chris Paul in a turtleneck.
Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

What may have really helped the turtleneck catch on is that it’s one of three tops, along with a sweater or “dress shirt,” sanctioned by the NBA dress code. And out of those options, Megan Ann Wilson, an athlete stylist who works with NBA players like Andre Drummond, Wesley Johnson, and Stanley Johnson, says that it’s not hard to understand why NBA players gravitate toward turtlenecks.

“They're definitely something more guys can fit off the rack instead of the typical button-up or something you might have to get tailored,” Wilson explains. “Most turtlenecks are made from a knit — knits are stretchier.”

But this is only the engine that gets the whole thing moving. The other reasons turtlenecks have caught on are much less practical, and therefore a lot more fun — kind of like a windmill dunk compared to a lay-up.

“Some players just think Steve Jobs is super wavy,” Wilson says.

Hm. What’s that now?

“Someone like Steve Jobs, or even the guy behind Snapchat, are kind of the tycoon guys that NBA players look up to,” she adds. While us “normal” guys may look up to NBA players as style icons, we forget that famous, successful millionaire athletes also need people to look up to. But they have to go bigger and richer, like the creator of Apple computers and the iPhone, one of the most ubiquitous products in modern culture — and the NBA, apparently. “I never get green texts from any NBA players,” Wilson jokes.

Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony in turtleneck
Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony in a turtleneck.
Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

There’s also the fact that NBA players are aspiring more and more to be like Jobs. “It's becoming a lot more trendy to go out and be an entrepreneur and be different,” Wilson says. (Think different, maybe?) Golden State Warriors’ Andre Igoudala invested in the online retailer Twice and became its menswear director. James invested in Beats Headphones and made a cool $30 million when Apple acquired the company. Anthony has his own venture capital firm called M7 Tech Partners. So maybe it’s not that far-fetched that these players would look up to someone like Jobs. Because you know what’s cooler than a million dollars? A billion dollars.

And you know what/who is less cool than both of those things but apparently still a factor in all this? Aubrey “Drake” Graham. “Turtlenecks have become a go-to choice because of the “Hotline Bling“ video last year,” Wilson says. “I don't think that's the only reason why turtlenecks have become cool again, but I think that video was definitely part of it.” If you haven’t seen the video, 1) I’m honored the first thing you’ve decided to do since emerging from your coma is read this, and 2) for large parts of it, Drake wears a large ribbed turtleneck. People made memes out of it. Wilson says that a lot of the requests she gets from players come in the form of screencaps of rappers. Screenshots from Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video would have been impossible to miss in 2016.

Players have been wearing turtlenecks long before that video came out, though, and even though it’s fun to imagine LeBron watching Drake and dreaming of becoming the next Jobs, it probably comes down to the fact that turtlenecks are one of the few items NBA players can buy and wear like normal people.