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Hoopless Dreams

The NBA Store Plays Ralph Lauren's Game

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The NBA is no longer just a sports league. It is now something more exalted -- a brand. That's the raison d'être of the newly opened NBA Store, a 35,000-square-foot showplace on Fifth Avenue, not far from the Disney Store, the Coca-Cola Store, and NikeTown. Here, at the corner of 52nd Street, says Rick Welts, the league's chief marketing officer, the NBA "can take its place among the great global brands."

The store's exterior is what we've come to expect of a brand palace: A gold-leafed NBA logo is "hand-carved" into the limestone, a hoop and ball hang over the front door, and the revolving doors have eerily disembodied brass arms holding basketballs as handles. But the merchandise seems off-theme. The main floor is dominated by the Logoman Collection, a line of polo shirts, pastel sweaters, and other Wasp attire featuring a silhouetted basketball player embroidered on the chest in lieu of a polo jockey or a wee crocodile. The only balls for sale are golf balls.

Photos of retired NBA greats like Julius Erving and Jerry West displayed between stacks of pullovers tell the story. Merchandise such as the $150 Hugo Boss NBA golf shirts -- two brands in one shirt! -- is intended for older, more affluent customers, the sky-box crowd. Other merchandise is harder to figure. Who would shell out for an $8,000 Waterford crystal vase inscribed with a picture of Larry Bird? Or an $1,800 spangle-covered, basketball-shaped disco purse? "This is a level of products that didn't exist before," Welts observes.

While architecture is hardly the point, the NBA Store does have one notable design feature: A central ramp, with team logos projected on it like stepping stones, leads customers in a spiral to the lower level. Here's the real stuff -- team jerseys, WNBA Barbie dolls, a "Pose Like a Pro" digital-photo studio -- crass and colorful. The ramp is the conduit from the new NBA, the lifestyle brand, to the old NBA, which still has something to do with basketball.


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