As the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics face off in the NBA finals, each team’s players have been bringing their top game to the court — and their best looks to the tunnel.
Basketball stars have turned their game-day arrivals into runway shows. The “tunnel walk,” in which players make their way from an underground arena entrance to the locker room, has become an opportunity for them to flex their fashion muscles before getting into uniform . Stephen Curry, Golden State’s star point guard, has been using those appearances to showcase the work of independent Black designers.
Sherri McMullen, the owner of the Oakland boutique McMullen, has been working with Mr. Curry and his stylist, Sheraine Robinson, since early this year. “His camp reached out to see if I was available to style him for Black History Month, specifically with a focus on highlighting underrepresented Black designers,” Ms. McMullen said.
Throughout the month of February, Mr. Curry posted many of those outfits on his professional Instagram account, @sc30inc, tagging men’s wear labels like June79, Talley and Twine, and Spencer Badu in his posts. On Feb. 28, he wrote in an Instagram caption on his personal account, @stephencurry30, that while Black History Month might be ending, “#BHMFits doesn’t stop here.” In the postseason, he would continue to work with Ms. McMullen and Ms. Robinson to source pieces from Black designers and shine a light on their work.
The finals present an opportunity for players to show off their style and to get designers’ names in front of a large audience. According to Nielsen, nearly 13 million viewers were watching at the peak of Game 1. (Game 2 peaked at more than 14 million viewers.)
For that reason, Ms. McMullen said, “the first look is always really important.” Patrick Henry, a Los Angeles designer who goes by “Fresh” and has a line called Richfresh, created a custom wool suit accented with red lightweight, green and yellow colorblocking as a nod to Pan-Africanism. An Instagram video featuring the look, shared by the accounts for the NBA and Golden State, has nearly five million views.
“If nothing else, Steph wearing my clothes helps solidify my brand,” Mr. Henry said. “I’m an independent operator, so moments like this are very important for the growth of my brand. And when he wears my clothes, it makes other NBA players pay attention.” He added that other players’ stylists reached out to him on Instagram after the tunnel walk.
For Game 2 of the finals, Ms. McMullen turned to the designer Akintunde Ahmad to outfit Mr. Curry. His label Ade Dehye makes frequent use of screen printing and manufactures its garments in Ghana.
“It was a big win to see someone of Steph’s magnitude wearing my overcoat,” said Mr. Ahmad, who was born and raised in Oakland. “We’re not talking about him wearing it to the carwash where someone may have taken a picture — we’re talking about walking into the NBA finals where all eyes are on him.”
Mr. Ahmad said that engagement on his personal Instagram page and sales on his Shopify site spiked in the 48 hours after Mr. Curry’s appearance. “This is also a big win for folks in the realms of sustainable fashion and production of goods in West Africa — and Ghana, specifically — because it shows that there are things coming out of that region that people often overlook,” the designer said.
Whitney Michel, a Parsons graduate whose minimalistic Michel Men line includes socks, hats and bandannas, designed the sky blue sweater that Mr. Curry wore during Wednesday night’s pregame walk.
“It’s a stamp of approval and feels like validation that I’m on the right path and should continue grinding it out,” she said, adding that “it really speaks to supportive industry people like Sherri, and those like Steph who really care about raising voices for people that are worth it, but maybe don’t always get support.”
“He’s helping open doors that others might otherwise not answer unless it’s Black History Month or Juneteenth,” she added.
Randy D. Williams, of Talley and Twine, was excited to see Mr. Curry wear his brand’s Worley chronograph watch ahead of Game 2. “It’s typically a longer route for the smaller guys competing with prestigious designers who have name recognition because they have been around for 100 years and are giving celebrities free products,” he said. “Unless celebrities make it a point to do what Steph’s doing, it’s really an uphill battle for smaller brands.”
Mr. Curry, who declined to comment for this article through his publicist, has a particularly strong influence over consumers. After Mr. Curry wore a green terry cloth tracksuit from Trophy Hunting back in May, the night the Warriors won the Western Conference championship, the company sold hundreds of the tracksuit, according to Jason Gaines, a founder of Trophy Hunting.
Mr. Gaines said that Mr. Curry spurs sales even outside of California — “New York, the Midwest and all over because he has fans everywhere, including overseas. We always get a huge hit of orders from China and South Korea.”
“These basketball players have influence like musicians and rappers,” he added.
And that influence isn’t limited to fans. “These players are more influenced by each other than they’re willing to admit,” Mr. Williams said.
Courtney Mays, a stylist whose clients include Chris Paul, the Phoenix Suns point guard, said that the tunnel is linked to social media, “which is linked to consumerism.”
“And so when you see Chris, Steph, LeBron — fill in the blank with player’s name wear a product — you might purchase it and in turn are supporting that small business,” she said.
The visibility is notable. The NBA’s Instagram account — which frequently highlights tunnel walks — has 67.8 million followers. The Golden State Warriors and Mr. Curry have tens of millions of followers on Instagram.
Ian Pierno, a stylist who chronicles fashion from NBA and WNBA stars on the Instagram account @LeagueFits, put it another way. “Celebrities like actors and musicians only have a few red carpets a year, but basketball players play anywhere between 80 to 100 games ,” he said. “They basically have a red carpet every third day of the year if you spread them out.”
Joe Williams, who runs @LeagueFits with Mr. Pierno, said that translated to “100 different opportunities to be a platform.” “When you look at another popular sport, like professional football, there’s only about 20 opportunities,” he said.