- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2000

Basketball has a silent language.

Michael Jordan seems to have written it, redefining its parameters in the mirror each morning. Older players try to mimic it. Most younger ones respond to it, hoping to become fluent through affluence.

The language is sartorial smooth the dialect of high fashion.

"What is it with basketball players and suits?" shock jock Howard Stern asks. "Patrick Ewing is even carrying a briefcase to Knicks games these days. Why? What's he got in there? He looks like he just robbed an attorney."

Despite Ewing's obvious talent for accessorizing, most members of the high-end clothing industry credit Jordan with bringing fashion hip to hoops. Apparently, the Be-Like-Mike mentality has morphed into a Look-Like-Mike philosophy, filtering from the NBA down to a new style-sensitive breed of college coaches.

"Michael Jordan dresses very well," says Jesus Lago, owner of Madrid Rome in Baltimore, the store that supplies tailor-made suits for Maryland assistant coach Dave Dickerson and only a dozen or so other preferred clients. "I believe he is a trendsetter for many of the basketball players. I really believe he is something of an idol for them even the clothes he wears. Quite often I have had guys bring me pictures of Michael Jordan and say, 'I want it to look like that.' "

Some younger college coaches among them Dickerson, Georgetown's Ronny Thompson and Duke's Johnny Dawkins have earned the Silver Swoosh from their peers and the respect of recruits for their attempts to emulate Jordan's look.

But most of the game's established sideline swamis, older men too concerned with picks and screens to worry about pins and seams, fall flat or simply rate as ridiculous on the game's fashion meter.

"I wouldn't know a suit from Sears from a Versace," says Utah's Rick Majerus, who has worn the same frumpy white sweater to games for six straight seasons. "I got a ball cap and a couple of T-shirts at a tournament we played in earlier this season, and I considered that a wardrobe.

"And I really don't notice what other coaches are wearing. My love life hasn't degenerated to that level yet. If I'm ever looking at anything other than the game, it's usually some voluptuous thing in the stands."

Perhaps because he's single, a slob or so focused, Majerus is one of the few coaches unaware of the style statements being made around him. Bob Huggins, the coach of top-ranked Cincinnati, claims not to care about such trivialities:

"I don't expend any energy on dressing zero," says Huggins, the Johnny Cash of the coaching establishment. "That's absolutely not what I care to be noticed for."

One coach, who preferred to remain nameless, was told of Huggins' plea of indifference and burst out laughing:

"Please, you're talking about Darth Vader. How could anybody wear that much black by chance? He picks out that stuff, doesn't he?"

Huggins dismisses his grim reaper reputation as a media creation but then cracks slightly, admitting that he "won't be showing up in teal anytime soon."

"I don't pay that much attention to it really," Huggins says. "The last time I noticed what somebody was wearing, [former Marquette coach] Mike Dean was wearing this god-awful light blue jacket. It really was the worst thing I've ever seen. I didn't know whether to vomit or laugh. And every year [former St. Louis coach Charlie] Spoonhour wore that same horrible orange turtleneck. He looked like the Great Pumpkin."

As one might expect, coaches have an acute memory for absolutely abominable choices those made by imprudent players produce scorn; those made by their coaching counterparts, pure mirth.

Louisville's Denny Crum, the brightly colored Cardinal, provokes universal snickers from the coaching clique for his obsession with school-color scarlet.

"Denny Crum's not that bad," Maryland's Gary Williams says sarcastically, "not if you like red blazers red blazers, red shirts, red ties … "

Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, who fancies black boots and Sans-a-Belt slacks, also gets a few mentions as the worst dressed in the business. But three of the coaches polled on the subject fingered the same DePaul assistant, though none could actually name him, as the profession's high priest of garish garb.

The Blue Demons' Tracy Dildy, a Chicago native with a penchant for zoot suits, wide ties and watch chains, apparently qualifies as the college game's ultimate Fashion Icarus.

"I tell you what, dude, the worst outfit I've probably seen on someone was on the guy at DePaul," Dickerson says. "I can't think of his name Tracy something. His outfits are not bad if you're going to a club or some type of after-hours event, but I think in college basketball you should stay within the conservative realm because you're dealing with a wide range of people.

"When I go into a recruit's home, I've got to look good, and I've got to be conservative. I can't go in there with the wild stuff like my man from DePaul. I wouldn't dare wear stuff like that. My wife wouldn't let me."

Beneath the sartorial sniping, Dickerson hints at the semi-serious issue at play amid the fashion folderol. Those few who have mastered the look that thrills have an added recruiting entree. Each season, as the NCAA continues to restrict access to the nation's top high school recruits, style-speak becomes a more important form of communication for coaches.

"You don't get to spend as much time getting to know recruits as you used to, so first impressions have become more important," says Georgetown assistant Thompson, the son of Hall of Famer John Thompson and a coach known for his flawlessly tailored look and recruiting prowess. "You don't want to walk into someone's house looking like a bum. If you're going to do it, you might as well do it right without being obnoxious about it.

"It happens a lot, where I'll walk in and the first thing a kid will say is, 'Man, that's sharp.' It's frustrating because sometimes kids notice the wrong things. But that's part of it, though. Having a good look is important."

Perhaps even crucial. Tennessee coach Jerry Green, who gave young Thompson his first assistant's job at Oregon in 1993, hired him in large part because of his dapper deportment.

"I thought he was just going to be super in the in-home visit," Green recalls. "He's such a personable, outgoing guy. Not only could he relate to the recruits because of his age, but he also had the look that makes a strong impression on a lot of these young guys. He is a great dresser, very clean-cut and polished. I think a lot of recruits looked up to him and wanted to emulate him the minute he walked in the door."

Thompson's recruiting results prove the point. Last season Georgetown signed a consensus top-10 class. And this season the Hoyas already have signed two coveted prospects.

But Thompson is hardly the lone fashion force among college staffs. Take a closer look at most of the nation's elite programs and you'll see at least one vision of vogue. And more often than not, the best threads on the bench will belong to the recruiting coordinator, not the coach.

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski could model for Modern Mortician, but assistant Dawkins is pure GQ. Connecticut's Jim Calhoun rarely strays from a double-breasted conservative look, but lanky assistant Dave Leitao oozes casual cool. Maryland's Williams is often swimming in hyperactive sweat shortly after tipoff, but Dickerson sits casually beside him draped in finery.

Most of Dickerson's suits (he admits to having 15) cost between $650 and $750. Tack on approximately $100 for his shirt, custom-made by Legacy Clothing in Georgetown the same store that makes shirts for former Georgetown players and current NBA All-Stars Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Add another $400 to $500 for a designer tie, shoes and belt, and Dickerson's average ensemble costs well over $1,000.

Thompson, who claims five suits and six sports jackets, confirms the estimate, stressing the importance of accessories.

"If you have on cheap shoes or a bad tie, you might as well forget it," Thompson says. "That kills the whole look. But if you've got on a good suit with a classy tie and a nice pair of Ferragamo or Gucci shoes, that can really set it off.

"Obviously, not everybody dresses. When you're Bobby Knight and Rick Majerus, you can wear whatever the hell you want. But certain people who don't have their resumes have to be more conscious of what they wear. I really think the business is changing in that respect."

Staff writer Jody Foldesy contributed to this article.

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