"It's Just the Culture Right Now": How Supreme Conquered the NBA
It happened once. Then, two days later, it happened again. Scrawled across the screen, the word "Supreme," in its signature Futura Bold Italic font—borrowed (if not entirely appropriated) from the work of artist Barbara Kruger—barging into an NBA game, minus the usual league-wide deal that accompanies just about every other logo seen on or around an NBA court.
Kelly Oubre Jr. did it first. The 22-year-old Washington Wizards forward known across social media as "Wave Papi" took the floor at the Barclays Center against the Brooklyn Nets with a red Supreme shooting sleeve pulled up over his right knee. When the Wizards went to the locker room at halftime, one of the team's trainers told him to switch out the sleeve—a cease-and-desist of sorts. Oubre obliged, "no questions asked," though he was a bit perplexed about having to remove an athletic accessory that also featured the NBA and Nike logos.
"They shouldn't have sold it to me or they shouldn't have dropped it if we can't wear it and it has an NBA logo on it, because I play in the NBA, right?" he said after the Wizards' 107-96 win. "So I should be able to wear anything that has the logo of what I represent. So I don't really understand the movement behind that.
"But it's just something wavy, honestly. I don't know if it's too wavy for them, but I was just having fun, man."
JR Smith received no such locker room reprimand from Cleveland Cavaliers staff when he sported a black Supreme sleeve on his left arm on national TV against the Los Angeles Lakers two days later on Dec. 14. He did, however, hear about it from the league office later on.
"I thought it looked dope and matched our uniforms," Smith said afterward, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon.
LeBron felt the same way, and let his millions of followers on Instagram know about it.
Just like that, the world's biggest streetwear brand—with a reported valuation north of $1 billion—became a topic of conversation in the public sphere that surrounds the best basketball league on Earth. But those moments, however buzzworthy, were merely windows into Supreme's popularity within the NBA. A true culmination was coming, with hints dropped before Oubre or Smith made their waves.
Supreme's popularity took root not on or around the hardwood, but rather on the ramps, rails and halfpipes of skateparks in New York City. James Jebbia, an American-born British citizen who had opened the streetwear store Union NYC in the late 1980s and teamed with now-famed surf/skatewear magnate Shawn Stussy in the early '90s, founded the first Supreme store on Lafayette Street in SoHo, where it's stood since 1994.
Over the ensuing decades, Jebbia's brand spread—by way of trucks, decks, shirts, hoodies, beanies and more—to Los Angeles, opening it doors on fashion-forward Fairfax Avenue in 2004. Supreme went on to hop the Atlantic, with outposts in London and Paris; open up shop in Brooklyn; and make its most indelible mark in Japan, with seven storefronts across the Pacific.
Absent in the brand's expansion was a glitzy marketing campaign with an astronomical budget. Instead, the gospel of the box logo spread by word of mouth and the visibility of those who wore it—chief among them, skating legend Tony Hawk.
That's how TJ Warren, now a high-scoring forward for the Phoenix Suns, first found out about it. Warren gave up skating after eighth grade, when he decided to take basketball seriously. Gone were the trips to Wheels Fun Park in Durham, North Carolina, but the interest in extreme sports remained. He watched Hawk's documentaries and indulged his former pastime virtually with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, the Supreme logo flashing on his TV at every turn.
So Warren went to the Supreme website, bought himself a crew-neck shirt with the box logo emblazoned on the side. And thus began a collection of apparel that's become the envy of many an NBA peer in recent years.
"It's just something I've been on for a long time," Warren told Bleacher Report. "And it's not surprising that guys are starting to take notice and it's gaining recognition and popularity."
Supreme's broader notoriety came, in large part, by way of its collaborations with other brands. The first of those—the release of the Supreme Vans Old Skool in 1996—dropped just two years after its founding, and hewed closely to the company's skating roots.
Over the years, Supreme partnered with clothing companies the world over, from Japan's A Bathing Ape to England's John Smedley, through which it established cache as an encroaching outsider in the world of fashion.
In time, Supreme began to gain a foothold in the wider world of sports by working with Nike. In 2002 came the Nike Dunk Low Pro SB Supreme, followed by the Dunk High Pro SB Supreme in 2003, the Nike Delta Force ¾ Supreme in 2004 and the Nike Blazer SB Supreme in 2006.
Even though the kicks were, by definition, Nike SB (Skateboarding) shoes, the aforementioned models were produced by Supreme, with Nike lending its logo and basic designs to the cause.
The relationship flipped in the fall of 2007, when the Air Trainer 2 SB sneaker collection dropped, along with a Nike SB x Supreme Melton Wool baseball jacket. At that point, Nike took over the manufacturing with Supreme sprucing up the look for a street-sensible audience.
It was around that same time that a young P.J. Tucker was busy building his basketball career overseas. The Toronto Raptors had waived the former University of Texas standout during his rookie season. After failing to latch on with an NBA team following summer league with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tucker took his talents to Israel, where he became the Super League MVP, and later Ukraine, where he was an All-Star and league-leading scorer.
In between, he visited Paris, where he happened upon some other American tourists. One of them was decked out in box logos that, to him, were entirely foreign. Tucker was intrigued.
"I had no idea what they were wearing," he said. "I was like, 'What is that?'"
Tucker started collecting. T-shirts here. Hoodies there. Shoes everywhere.
By the time he returned to the NBA in 2012, with the Phoenix Suns, the league's style revolution was in full effect. The players had taken commissioner David Stern's 2005 dress code and flipped it on its head. Instead of stewing under Stern's edict against baggy pants, baseball caps, low-hanging chains, Timberlands and XXXL white Ts, basketball's fashionistas—from Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to Amar'e Stoudemire and Russell Westbrook—embraced the opportunity to push the envelope by digging deeper into their wardrobes. TV cameras followed along, turning their arena entrances into de facto runways.
And in that flow, Supreme—by then dipping into high fashion with Levi's, Adam Kimmel, Liberty of London, Schott NYC and Comme de Garcons SHIRT—started to show up in the league.
Helping drive that influx into NBA consciousness was the brand's rise among pop culture leaders. Nas, N.O.R.E and Sade stepped out in it. So did Rihanna and 2 Chainz. Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner were spotted with box logos. Tyler, the Creator, once a frequent denizen of the drop lines outside of the Supreme store in L.A., opened up his own stores—first, Odd Future, then GOLF—across the street on Fairfax. Public Enemy has its own capsule dropping on March 15.
"They collabed with some of my favorite artists," Warren said.
Still, within the NBA, Supreme was largely limited to hallways, locker rooms and the occasional bit of casual wear worn by injured players on the sidelines. For all the products the box logo had adorned that were fit for skateparks, nothing had yet emerged that was ready for the hardwood.
That all changed in 2014, with the release of the Nike x Supreme Air Foamposite 1. At long last, Supreme's partnership with Nike brought the box logo to a basketball shoe, with its own spin on the Air Force 1 soon to follow.
Nick Young, already a Supreme patron through both his L.A. roots and his friendship with fellow brand aficionado Gilbert Arenas, wore black Supreme Foamposites with gold swirls during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers on ABC. Swaggy's Los Angeles Lakers lost that one by 23 points, but his 18-point performance helped put the flashy footwear at the forefront of NBA consciousness.
The following year, Supreme slithered onto the Holy Grail of basketball shoes: the Jordan Brand. With the release of the Nike x Supreme Air Jordan 5 came more cameos in NBA games, courtesy of Tucker's feet—much to the surprise of his peers.
"Everybody, especially with sneakers, they have grails and things that they think shouldn't be worn on the court or they're too good to be worn on the court," Tucker said. "I think any sneaker that's made can be worn in any fashion. I think especially basketball shoes, the Supreme Jordan 5 is a basketball shoe, so it's meant to be played in."
In just a few years, Supreme became omnipresent across the NBA. The Suns, with Tucker and Warren on the roster, emerged as an epicenter. Derrick Jones Jr. wore a pair of Supreme x Nike Air More Uptempo's during the 2017 Slam Dunk Contest. Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, former teammates at Kentucky, followed in P.J. and TJ's footsteps.
So did Phoenix's opponents, who frequently queried the two on how and where they copped their pieces, some hoping to hop on the bandwagon as hypebeasts.
"Almost every game, somebody says something or is looking for a connect to be able to get something," Tucker, now helping the Rockets to the best record in the NBA this season, said. "It's always something."
"I'm sure a lot of guys don't really know it's a skateboarding brand," Warren said.
Popularity has its costs. No longer can fans waltz to the Supreme website and fill up their carts with retail-priced items as they please. Nor can they stroll into the storefronts and emerge with whatever they want.
"Now, it's like two seconds, they're all gone," Warren said.
Despite its pop culture prominence, Supreme has opted not to dilute its brand by putting out more product. The company's releases remain limited. Its capsule collections have become feeding frenzies, with fervent fans and opportunistic scalpers alike lining up around the block—or furiously flooding the Supreme website—whenever new items drop.
But most NBA players have neither the time in their busy schedules nor the desire to huddle with the masses or click away in the few minutes that gear is actually available at retail on the internet.
How, then, have pro athletes been able to infiltrate the streetwear world amid such ridiculous demands?
Some, like Swaggy P, employ friends and relatives to stand in line for them, for a fee. Those who signed with Nike, like Tucker, tap their shoe reps to help them out. Others use their Instagram pages to attract and build relationships with secondary-market resellers.
"They keep me up to date on new stuff they have coming in and what they can find for me," he said, "if I let them know what I like."
Others without those connections often find themselves at places like Project Blitz, a secret L.A. warehouse where celebrities from sports and entertainment frequently find their most coveted items, at a cost. Once a small eBay business run out of a garage, Project Blitz and owner Andre Ljustina now open their doors to John Wall, Trey Lyles, Jordan Clarkson, Ben Simmons and Nerlens Noel, among others. Many have taken to slapping shipping stickers on a wall inside the warehouse to mark their verticals.
Even with access, however, acquiring what a player wants isn't easy, often requiring a willingness to spend $250 on a $50 shirt, or $3,000 on a sweater that once retailed for $120. "It's crazy," Warren said. "It gets really intense."
Thanks to the NBA's new deal with Nike as its primary apparel partner as of this season, the door has opened for Supreme to become officially enmeshed with the league.
"Supreme has been on our radar for quite a while," said Lisa Piken Koper, the NBA's Vice President of Merchandising Partnerships. "We admire their business model and are excited about the new apparel line."
The first hints of that partnership emerged in October, before Oubre and Smith made waves. Word spread that Supreme and Nike would release an Air Force 1 Mid collaboration with the NBA. Then came reports of NBA jerseys made in conjunction with Supreme, to retail for $325.
On March 4, Smith showed up on both his Instagram page and Supreme's wearing the new apparel—homages to the '90s and early 2000s, when NBA jean collages were all the rage.
Three days later, the capsule dropped. Within hours, queues of customers had ransacked the new gear from storefronts. Within minutes, the website was sold out.
This wasn't the NBA's first foray into streetwear—it's licensed in the past with Mitchell & Ness, Just Don, Maison Kitsune, Reigning Champ and Timberland, among others—nor will it be the last time the league pairs its intellectual property with Supreme.
"While we can't share any details right now," Piken Koper wrote via email, "we do have plans to work with Supreme in the future in connection with our Nike partnership."
The crossover, then, is all but complete. The NBA has returned to the streets, and Supreme, once the underground domain of skateboarding, has conquered corporate America.
"It's just the culture right now," Tucker said, "How things are going the way things are looking, the way these guys are looking, the product they're making. It's not stopping any time soon."
Josh Martin is a writer born, raised and based in Los Angeles. He has covered the NBA for Bleacher Report, written for Yahoo Sports, Complex's First We Feast and the Los Angeles Clippers; and is the editor of USA Today's Lonzo Wire. Follow him on Twitter @JoshMartinNBA and listen to him and B/R's Eric Pincus on the Hollywood Hoops podcast.