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The Belles of B-Ball: How NBA Players’ Wives Vie for Fashion Dominance

It's not always easy for a man to surprise his wife, but when Knicks player Tyson Chandler overheard his wife Kimberly talking about the romantic fantasy of Pretty Woman—the shopping sprees, the private jet, the diamond-and-ruby necklace that Richard Gere proffers in a black velvet box before snapping Julia Roberts’s white-gloved hand—he started to formulate an idea. She had just been sitting there on the couch at home, watching the movie with her cousin, and then later, while Tyson was in Vegas practicing, he gave her an unexpected phone call. “I’m on my way home,” he said. “I want you to pack a bag and be ready when I get there.” Suddenly, she was off to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Roberts’s character fell in love with Gere’s businessman, and the next ­morning, a stretch limo waited outside to take both of them to Barneys. “I was like, ‘Hello, what are we doing?’ ” says Kimberly. “And Tyson said, ‘Just come inside.’ ”

Marrying a basketball star can mean marrying a lottery-winner-scale fortune—and, just as for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, it’s important to look the part. Which means that joyful bouts of ­conspicuous consumption of the sort that Tyson arranged for his wife are helpful for the role. The NBA court is the stage for one kind of game, and courtside another: a fashion show where the wives check one another out, keeping count. “Everyone at games is looking at you to see what you’re wearing,” says Jennifer Williams, the ex-wife of ex-player Eric Williams. “Makeup’s not that important, but hair and the clothes, oh, gosh! There’s 82 games a year, and even if 41 are on the road, there can be three home games a week, and that’s a lot of outfits to put together. There’s pressure. You walk into the arena, and people know who you are and who you’re with. The wives are looking.”

Chandler’s one of the most fashionable wives, with small, dark eyes, a long neck, and the charisma of the most popular girl in school but also the nicest. She’s telling this story in the wood-paneled library of her compound outside Los Angeles, as big as a city block, where she’s swallowed up by an enormous patterned easy chair. Outside, horse trails snake among trees for Tyson, the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, to ride his black Friesian—an extra-large one, since Tyson’s seven-foot-one. Jumbo is the theme around here, in fact, with grandpa-bear-size furniture in sandy colors arranged in formal patterns under chandeliers the size of adolescents. “I wanted it to feel like a Southampton estate,” says Chandler as her polite kids (“I always say, ‘You must say, “I apologize,” not “Sorry,” ’ because the word sorry doesn’t mean anything anymore,” she explains) cartwheel down hallways. “My 6-year-old is like a 30-year-old. She’s always saying, ‘Mommy, your makeup is a-mazing!’ ”

It’s a family thing, the Chandlers’ interest in fashion, and Tyson probably had as much fun on the day he arranged at Barneys as his wife. When they arrived, they were whisked into a dressing room the size of a hotel suite, with racks of clothes throughout and shoes lined up along the perimeter, Stella ­McCartney frocks and Chloé pants and everything in her size. Tyson gestured around the room, saying, “Everything you want, you can have.” Giggling, Chandler said, “Okay, good! I’ll take it all!” Slow down, slow down, he said, try some of it on. She walked out with a bounty, like a Rick ­Owens jacket with a high collar and low sleeves—it’s probably her favorite Owens jacket. And the rest? “I don’t really remember,” she says. “I know I have some pieces still.”

To have so many things that you’re not sure which of them came from the lavish caper at Barneys is to be part of a very ­rarefied class of fashion consumers. For NBA wives, Louboutins are the shoe of choice, even if some of them shrink the heels at the leather spa (“I want the latest and greatest, but I can only wear 100s or 120s. So yes, I do cut those heels,” says Chandler.) Diamond rings with carats in the double digits are gifts, worn for special occasions and tucked away in safety deposit boxes the rest of the time. Birkins or Chanel 2.55 bags are ubiquitous, unless they’re being left in the closet on purpose. “I’m not really a handbag person anymore,” says Kobe Bryant’s wife, Vanessa. “I’ve collected Birkin bags, Chanel 2.55 jumbo flap bags, and the Marc Jacobs Stephen Sprouse collection for Louis Vuitton since I was a teenager. But now, as they say, everyone and their mom is buying a Birkin or a regular size 2.55 bag in black, taupe, or beige. I’ve been sticking to a magenta suede Proenza Schouler bag.”

The players have long been the stars, the peacocks, and always will be, but the wives are new American royalty, enjoying the rise in NBA salaries, like $15 million payouts per year for multiple years. And, as is often the case, the wives’ recent focus on fashion comes in tandem with a new interest in increasing their public profiles. “Ten or fifteen years ago, you couldn’t name the wife of an NBA player,” says Larry Platt, author of Only the Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson. “[Michael] Jordan’s wife, Juanita, was totally behind the scenes. When Iverson announced that he was getting married, most fans didn’t even know who his fiancée was. That’s how the players wanted it.” Rita Ewing, Patrick’s ex-wife, who made waves in the NBA in the late nineties with Homecourt Advantage, a steamy novel about players and wives, agrees. “There’s absolutely a shift in perception of the wives,” she says. “Anytime there’s more money, there’s more power. These players are getting paid so much more than the players in my day, so they’re bigger names, and bigger celebrities—and anyone who is involved with them is as well.”

Hoop style has been evolving, too. In the last few years, NBA players have moved from the nineties era of baggy jeans, T-shirts, and Jacob the Jeweler watches with changeable straps to last decade’s custom-made suits by a fleet of personal tailors to the current era of high fashion, with stylists to outfit them in top designers for postgame press conferences and beyond. Some of this style—Dwyane Wade’s bow ties, Kevin Durant’s ­backpack, and everyone’s chunky-framed glasses—is goofy, purposely so.

Being with such vivid men has always been a challenge, with their female fans and travel schedules, as well as wardrobes. But these days, there’s a new empowerment among NBA wives, whether it’s a genuine love story, like Kimberly Chandler’s, or sweet marriage in tandem with a branding exercise, like Carmelo and La La Anthony’s, or even starring on Shaq’s ex-wife Shaunie O’Neal’s Basketball Wives, a reality show on VH1 that’s been maligned by many in the community as perpetuating false stereotypes about black women (as well as about basketball wives, since nearly every cast member is divorced or separated from an NBA player, not actually married).

In any case, these days, supersize man and often much smaller wife are stepping out together quite a bit, dressing each other, comparing notes. At the Chandlers’ outside Los Angeles, Tyson calls from ­Manchester, where he’s practicing for the Olympic Games; an assistant wanders through his closet with an iPad as Tyson peers into the camera remotely, pointing at his Alexander Wang and Helmut Lang collection for pieces to be sent over to add to his wardrobe, since the weather isn’t quite what he expected. “The players are just competitive-natured people, and with fashion they might get a sense of competition with each other,” his wife says about the guys’ embrace of top designers. “That’s just my personal opinion. But I think it’s great. If you enjoy fashion and you’re financially blessed, then go for it.”

This summer in Paris, Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire wandered around in his black Givenchy T-shirt with a teeth-baring shark on it, and his longtime on-and-off girlfriend and mother of his three children, Alexis Welch, in hers with a picture of a Rott­weiler. They visited Chanel and small vintage stores, where Welch bought some hat pins and sunglasses. ­Inspired by the collection of hand mirrors decorating a wall of Le Meurice’s lobby, Welch started to buy her own on the trip, a few in copper and another with a turquoise inlay, and a few days ago her mother sent Welch one that had belonged to her grand­mother to add to the pile. “I love how each mirror has a story, something to say,” she says softly.

And then one night, on the balcony of their rose-petal-strewn suite at Le Meurice, as a hired band played in the background, Stoudemire proposed to Welch, brandishing an 8.5-carat diamond ring and telling her he wanted her and their three kids—Amar’e Jr., Ar’e, and Assata, named for the former Black Panther Assata Shakur—to move from Miami to New York. (His previous girlfriend, the musician Ciara, was photographed on the red carpet of the MTV Movie Awards the day the news broke, flashing about a ­dozen diamond rings spread across her fingers, tweeting, “Rings stacked … Dress Balmain.”)

“We all want to encourage our men and support them,” says Welch on a recent ­afternoon in Miami, eating lunch while Amar’e does “daddy care.” “This is a partnership. We’re going to get everything balanced, and that will be reflected on the court. I’m taking care of the household, making sure the kids are straight, the dog has his food, making sure Amar’e can be a dad at the end of the day, do something that has nothing to do with basketball.” She’s excited to be in New York, with her three little A’s in tow. “Amar’e’s going to get on the grind, everything’s going to fall into place,” she says. “This year, we’re bringing a championship to New York.”

Of all the NBA wives, there are few more well-known yet less vocal than Vanessa Bryant, part of a class of female sphinxes like Huma Abedin and Silda Spitzer, her public profile shaped by the events in Room 35 of the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera. Bryant rarely speaks to the press, but as the spotlight shifts to NBA wives, she’d like to say something, though she’s wary of revealing what has been hidden. “I thought things would go away, if you don’t feed into the b.s., and no one would think about you,” says Bryant, sitting on a black horseshoe-shaped couch on the palazzo outside of her pastel Newport Coast mansion, the Pacific spread beneath her, a Pomeranian named Gucci at her feet. “Now I realize I do have to talk about certain things. Still, I don’t like the limelight. There’s a lot of good you can do with fame, like creating awareness for a foundation, but a lot of negativity comes along with it.”

Bryant has long had an ice-queen image; she’s famous for staring into the distance during Kobe’s press conference proclaiming his innocence in the Colorado case, rubbing his hand with manicured nails and pushing her straightened hair out of her face. “I know that my husband has made a mistake—the mistake of adultery,” she said in a statement at the time. Today, she’s bubbly, with an easy laugh and the look of a porcelain quinceañera doll, her black hair going all the way down her back, though she filed for divorce nine months ago, after ten years of marriage. Papers speculated that she would end up with half of Kobe’s estimated $150 million fortune. But the relationship is on the mend, at least for now. “Um,” she says, “yes. We’re working on things.”

As the sun shines on her diamond bangles, a Christmas present, as well as a diamond ring that’s a whopping 25 carats overall, a Valentine’s Day present—“Everyone my jeweler talked to was afraid of tension-setting it for me, but he finally found someone who wasn’t worried about cracking the stone,” she says—Bryant talks about her fashion, which she loves (at a basketball game, she once wore a T-shirt with the words FASHIONABLE MOTHERFUCKER in Gothic font on the front). “I’m inspired by Ann Miller and Monica Bellucci,” she says. “My mom dressed so ladylike, with high-waisted knee-length skirts, nylons, and long tailored coats, always on her way to work.” As far as Kobe’s style goes, “for the longest time I tried convincing Kobe that he should wear things a little more fitted,” she says. “And for years and years he was like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable, I feel like they rise.’ And now all of a sudden the stylist says it, and it makes sense.”

Today, Bryant is in the process of packing her Alexander McQueen blazers, Chanel and Rick Owens leather jackets, ­Giuseppe Zanotti “no heel” ankle booties, dark denim J-Brand skinnies, the new Louis Vuitton polka-dot scarves, and red patent Louboutin Pigalle spiked ballerina flats for the Olympic Games. “I plan to wear the flats with my red blazer, white T-shirt, and skinnies to support Team U.S.A.,” she says. She loves high heels—she has more of them in her closet than flats or sneakers, though she lives a pretty casual lifestyle—and owns a pair of Louboutin’s Marie Antoinette shoes, a pink confection with embroidery throughout by Jean-Francois Lesage (price tag: $6,295). “Her head is hanging on the ankle strap,” she says about the shoe.

Bryant hesitates when asked too many questions about fashion, though. “I think people imagine that I sit at home with all the time in the world to do my hair and makeup, but that’s certainly not the case,” she says. “I’m up at 6:30 in the morning with my kids. I’m taking them wherever they need to go.” She doesn’t use a nanny—“That’s the way I was raised”—and says that she has never missed a sports game or practice of her daughters, 6 and 9. This afternoon, she’s checking on the portable nebulizer her daughter uses for her asthma to take overseas. The medicines that doctors push for asthmatics make her uncomfortable, and she’s interested in starting a foundation for alternative treatments. “I’m not sure where she got asthma from, but I’m really careful,” she says. “When their dad’s over and he sprays deodorant, I ask him to go into another room. My youngest daughter has allergies to olive trees. We had twelve olive trees on this property, and after we took her to an allergist, I had them excavated.”

When we start talking about the rumors that have gone around about Bryant, like that she and Khloé Kardashian have almost come to blows, she waves a hand. “Everything is false,” she says. “Khloé was at my 29th birthday. I don’t get involved in the drama. I’ve been with Kobe since I was 17, so I’ve seen plenty of players, and plenty of wives, come and go. It wouldn’t benefit me whatsoever to have an issue with any of them, whether they were a girlfriend, or a wife, a person-of-a-month, or … you know. And I think that’s why the Lakers as an organization give me the access that I have, that other wives don’t have.” She talks about the tunnel on the way to the locker room that she stands in to give Kobe a kiss after games, the one that cameras always pan to. “If you notice, I am the only one allowed in that tunnel,” says Bryant. “I don’t like standing outside and giving him a kiss in front of all the cameras. So I stand in there to get away from them. But then the cameras end up following. And if the girls are there, sometimes, that’s their kiss good night for Daddy, and when he comes home, they’re asleep.”

Do her daughters like watching the games? I ask. “No, not really,” she says. “It’s two and a half hours, and it’s their dad, and you have to think about their point of view—would your child want to sit there and watch either you or your spouse work?” Do you like it? “Oh, yes,” she says. “I love basketball. And I know what goes on behind the scenes, so I have a different perspective on things, but still, I do. I certainly would not want to be married to somebody that can’t win championships. If you’re sacrificing time away from my family and myself for the benefit of winning championships, then winning a championship should happen every single year.”
Bryant declines to get more personal, choosing instead to talk about how much she enjoys New York—“I looked for a place there, just for a quick vacation home for my kids, but we love staying at the Plaza”—and about the old days, when she fell in love with Kobe. They met after he saw her at a video shoot; she was only a senior in high school. “He’d come to school to get me in a black Mercedes, and flood the school with roses,” she says softly. “My curfew was 10 p.m., and he got done with practice at 2 p.m., so that’s how we’d see each other.”

They scheduled their wedding right before the playoffs, to throw the media off, and she’s proud that pictures were never published of their wedding. “I was 18 and a half, and I remember requesting a dress without flowery lace or tulle,” she says. “Vera Wang designed what she called a ­glamazon-mermaid gown for me, with fabric-covered buttons down the back.” These days, the dress is stored in her cedar closet, in the exact same condition. “I love it,” she says. “It’s perfect.”          

Photo: Gillian Laub/New York Magazine

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