NBA coaches in suits: profitable Bank shot $10,000 wardrobes are free in promotion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The crisp lines of the deep blue double-breasted suit suggest the man is a well-heeled corporate barracuda, the type who devours million-dollar deals for lunch.

But then he reveals himself with a scowl pacing, pointing, clapping, stomping, kneeling, muttering, squawking, shrugging, twirling two fingers above his head, wiping his forehead and within 12 minutes, his jacket is unbuttoned, and five minutes later, his size 16-33 shirt is spilling slightly over his belt.

Such are the nightly gesticulations of Jim Lynam, head coach of the Washington Bullets. But he looks good. And so do seven other head coaches in the NBA who patrol the sidelines decked out in natty custom-made suits courtesy of Hampstead-based, tradition-bound Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc.

Gone are the days when professional basketball coaches committed flagrant fouls in polyester. Bank, more than any other apparel retailer, has capitalized on these changing haberdashery habits, sartorially setting up nearly a third of the NBA coaches in $10,000 wardrobes free of charge in exchange for the use of their names in promotions.

And, as in the case of head coach Allan Bristow of the Charlotte Hornets, Bank will even furnish written guidelines to coaches lost in the X's and O's of apparel.

"You'd be amazed at all the decisions you have to make on game day," Mr. Bristow said. Coordinating his clothing "is at least one decision you don't have to make. It may sound simple to a lot of people, but it's mind-boggling to me."

The deal, however, seems to make sense to Bank and the coaches. It's hard to gauge the impact on the retailer's bottom line, but the promotion, in its second year, has exposed Bank's dapper threads to more than 18 million NBA fans an image boost for the 85-store chain at a cost of about $100,000 in clothing, travel expenses and charity tie-ins.

For their end of the bargain, the coaches strut Bank's stuff and, once a year, give "chalk talks," short briefings about game strategy, to selected Bank salesmen and their best customers. In return, they get free attire designed with room for arm flailing and other contortions required on the job.

"Their garments need a certain amount of freedom," explained John Ciambruschini, an associate designer for Bank.

Fashion-impaired

Chalk up the arrangement to a fashion-impaired coach who lost his temper.

It was in the spring of 1993, and Mr. Bristow of the Hornets threw his flashy, gray-striped suit jacket onto the court, kicked it as an act of protest against a perceived miscall by a referee and promptly found himself thrown out of the game.

It was a good thing, apparelly speaking.

"He didn't look good," recalled Timothy F. Finley, Bank's chairman and chief executive, a former 5-foot, 10-inch high school point guard who attended that game in Charlotte.

Apparently, the Hornets brass didn't think their coach looked good, either. About a month after the jacket-throwing incident, Mr. Finley and the team talked about outfitting the coach as part of a promotional deal.

"They thought Bristow's wardrobe was questionable as well," Mr. Finley said.

Aside from his distaste for Mr. Bristow's attire, Mr. Finley arrived at a compelling conclusion to go ahead with the proposal: "We couldn't do any worse," he said of the coach's clothing. "He's totally colorblind."

The Bristow make-over took some ingenuity, though. The coach, expert in the fine art of the fast-break, master of Byzantine defensive alignments, needed a written instruction guide about which tie goes with which slacks with which jacket. "What we would do is put a label behind where the tie bar is or inside the lapel, so if he has a number L1 sport coat, we would have a list of ties that would match that, T8, T9, T10, etc.," Mr. Finley explained.

Thus informed, Mr. Bristow said, "All I have to do is match them up."

Whether the coach's new-found sartorial splendor translated into winning is another matter. A year before the deal, the Hornets finished with 44 victories and 38 defeats during the 1992-93 season. In his first season draped in Bank's best, the team ended up 41-41. But a year later, the Hornets rebounded with a 50-32 record.

For Bank, the numbers appear to show improvement as well: Sales in Charlotte, for example, have jumped 20 percent since Coach Bristow got with the program.

It's gotta be the suit.

Coach Bristow was enthusiastic enough about it to spread the word to other head coaches, which led to the recruitment of Mr. Lynam of the Bullets; Rick Adelman of the Golden State Warriors; Garry St. Jean of the Sacramento Kings; Bill Fitch of the Los Angeles Clippers; Dick Motta of the Dallas Mavericks; Brian Hill of the Orlando Magic, and Lenny Wilkens of the Atlanta Hawks.

It wasn't a hard sell, not even for men who make an average of $1 million a year: Each coach gets eight custom-made suits, 10 dress shirts, 12 silk ties, four leather belts, 10 pairs of socks and four pairs of shoes.

Alien material for some coaches. "Let's face it," said Dominick Giangrasso, a Bank assistant designer. "When they run practices, they wear sweat suits."

For example, Mr. Lynam of the Bullets had never spent more than $250 to $300 for a suit. Now, he seeks help from apparel referees. "My wife is good at that," he said, "so if I'm out of bounds, she blows the whistle."

Anything less wouldn't do not in the NBA, whose growing minions have made it a marketable sport. Indeed, decked out in Bank's finest, Coach Lynam is just one of a legion of promotions that blankets USAir Arena in Landover, for Marlboro, Amtrak, Coca Cola, Geico, McDonald's, MCI, Nissan, BGE, NationsBank, Hechinger, CVS, Keno, Sports Authority, Mobile Motor Oil, Safeway and Bell Atlantic. Even the yellow VIP seats advertise their sponsors on the back of the chairs: Coors, AES The Global Power Company, and others.

Lesson from Riley

The NBA sells. And so can its coaches, which the league learned in the early 1980s when Pat Riley won championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, pumped life into the NBA and made fashion statements in Armani threads. Since then, other coaches have made deals with Perry Ellis, DKNY and Hugo Boss, among other retailers who recognize the cache of the coach.

"The average businessman, management type, identifies closely with the coach," said Michael Goldberg, executive director of the National Basketball Coaches Association. "There's conflict, teamwork, there's goals."

But there's little fear that NBA players will follow suit.

According to a recent edition of the Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia, the rules of the game restrict what players can wear on the court:

"While playing, players must keep their uniform shirts tucked into their pants, and no T-shirts are allowed."

Bank, however, has its eye on another set of potential fashion plates: college basketball coaches and retired athletes.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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