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Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
Hair

Haaaaaair-ball!

Pseudo-conks. ‘Faids.’ Fresh buns. Beard gangs. NBA hair is at the bleeding edge of style

Mohawks to ‘frohawks, fades to braids. Dreadlocks, dyes, twists, parts, and something in the NBA Finals that came close to a conk. Peak hair expression has hit black America, with pro basketball at the forefront of the evolution.

Not all of these styles are new — black folks have been creative with their hair since forever. But in past eras, particular cuts heated up the ‘hood, and then the NBA reflected and magnified those individual trends. Think all of the NBA’s 1970s Afros or 1990s cornrows.

Today, when it comes to black men’s hairstyles, never has one league rocked so many. No one particular style is the style. Anything and everything goes — gloriously so.

Kinky hair arrived in the NBA in 1950, when Chuck Cooper became the first African-American drafted. In keeping with the suits and ties freedom fighters wore to the frontlines of the battle for racial equality, Cooper had the standard civil rights-era haircut: close on the top, closer on the sides. The black power movement fertilized Afros galore in the late 1960s into the ’70s, and they flowered in the NBA, especially Julius Erving’s. In the late ’80s, hip-hop got into the game. A balding Michael Jordan made clean-shaven domes forever cool in 1989. Rest in power, Anthony Mason and his razored designs circa 1994. Long live the cornrows Allen Iverson planted in 1998. The 2000s featured a return to classic fades and Caesars, to the point of anomaly Afros, but also early signs of the creativity – pigtails, yo? – flourishing today.

Now, with cross-cultural pollination and social-media megaphones smashing style boundaries, NBA hair feels like the new sneaker – something to flash, and customize. So sit back as we shape up The Undefeated’s favorite representations of this new black hair apex:

LUCAS NOGUEIRA

Toronto Raptors guard Lucas Nogueira (92) stands for the playing of the anthems before the start of their game against the Atlanta Hawks at Air Canada Centre.

Toronto Raptors guard Lucas Nogueira (No. 92) stands for the playing of the anthem before the start of their game against the Atlanta Hawks at Air Canada Centre.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

If one thing defines today’s hair era, it’s texture. Dudes have never been so happy nappy. No player grows it more rugged than Lucas Nogueira, the Brazilian 7-footer with the rain forest head cloud. If he picked it all the way out, it would be the biggest Afro ever. Even as is, it can’t be contained.

JAMES HARDEN

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets warms up prior to playing the Golden State Warriors in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on April 16, 2016 in Oakland, California.

James Harden (No. 13) of the Houston Rockets warms up before playing the Golden State Warriors in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Oracle Arena on April 16 in Oakland, California.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

O.G. of the modern movement. Nobody since Iverson has made his hair as big a part of his brand. James Harden has come a long way from looking like your accountant at the 2009 NBA draft, when he was picked third by Oklahoma City. He started growing his hair in the 2011-12 season, which obviously propelled him to the Sixth Man of the Year award. Harden immediately bolted to Houston and emerged with the full mohawk/beard hookup believed to conceal whales, weather systems, and the championship trophy the Oklahoma City Thunder never won.

IMAN SHUMPERT

Iman Shumpert #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers warms up before a preseason game against the Toronto Raptors on October 13, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

Iman Shumpert (No. 4) of the Cleveland Cavaliers warms up before a preseason game against the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 13 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Credit Iman Shumpert not only for being ahead of the curve on the high-top fade revival, but for growing it higher than Cliff Robinson — wait , bad metaphor — violating an NBA rule with his hair. After getting a massive do-chop three years ago, Shump’s flattop reanimated, achieving major status by the 2016 NBA Finals — when all of a sudden it wilted under what Undefeated style writer Jill Hudson charitably called a “texturized S-curl situation.” Maybe dude was attempting Malcolm X as Detroit Red. Then came the floppy topknot. Please let the Thugnificent be next.

KYRIE IRVING

Kyrie Irving (No. 2) of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on against the Detroit Pistons in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 20 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Got to respect the classic Caesar — close, even length all the way around — that never goes out of style. Even better with the beard connection. After Kyrie Irving’s trey over Stephen Curry won the Cleveland Cavaliers a championship last June, you’re going to see a lot more of this cut than Curry’s high-school-principal fade.

JIMMY BUTLER

USA forward Jimmy Butler (No. 4) talks to the media before practice at Toyota Center.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Just like his game, which after five seasons with the Chicago Bulls has gone from anonymous to All-Star, Jimmy Butler’s hair has grown into a marquee attraction. Maybe it’s the perfect top-layer twists, or the precise bald fade leading to his chiseled jawline, or just that dude gets megabuckets. He’s the perfect player for one of the most popular hairstyles of the past few years.

KENNETH FARIED

Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried (35) drives toward the basket during the first half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried (No. 35) drives toward the basket during the first half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

First, let’s set the record straight on the difference between dreadlocks — the rope-clumps created by leaving hair uncombed, popularized by Rastafarians and recently abandoned by The Weeknd – and braids. Kenneth Faried’s hair is carefully assembled into braids. Which look best when a high-energy player nicknamed the Manimal whirls them into an electrically charged mane. Nuff respect to the braids MVP.

ELFRID PAYTON

Elfrid Payton #4 of the Orlando Magic looks on before the game against the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Arena on April 10, 2016 in Miami, Florida.

Elfrid Payton (No. 4) of the Orlando Magic looks on before the game against the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Arena on April 10 in Miami.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Speaking of dreads, young fella is one oversleep away from legit Bob Marley. People get major YouTube hits analyzing the tendrils of Elfrid Payton’s headpiece. In an era of unprecedented hair variety, the Magic point guard has achieved the pinnacle of individuality: There is no name to describe his hairdo, and no way to replicate it.

DEMARRE CARROLL

The Toronto Raptors' DeMarre Carroll, a former member of the Atlanta Hawks, walks over to hug Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer before the start of play on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, at Philips Arena in Atlanta.

The Toronto Raptors’ DeMarre Carroll, a former member of the Atlanta Hawks, walks over to hug Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer before the start of play Dec. 2, 2015, at Philips Arena in Atlanta.

Curtis Compton/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

A fade with braids? Can we call that “faids”? With blond tips? Go ‘head and express yourself. We’ve even seen DeMarre Carroll occasionally add cornrows to the ensemble to hit for the full hair cycle.

JOAKIM NOAH

NBA player Joakim Noah looks on during a game between the Florida Gators and the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Gainesville, Florida.

NBA player Joakim Noah looks on during a game between the Florida Gators and the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Sept. 10 in Gainesville, Florida.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Biracial athletes with Joakim Noah’s hair texture have one simple choice: You gotta flow, Jo. His abundant locks used to be gathered into a ponytail that would make Troy Polamalu envious. Now we haven’t seen a man this fierce in a bun since the ancient Japanese samurai.

JEREMY LIN

Jeremy Lin #7 of the Charlotte Hornets looks on against the Miami Heat in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2016 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Jeremy Lin (No. 7) of the Charlotte Hornets looks on against the Miami Heat in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 29 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Jeremy Lin’s parents are from Taiwan. He does not have curly hair. But for sheer variety, creativity and audacity, big up the first Asian-American NBA star. Way more flavor than any Harvard graduate deserves.

ALLEN CRABBE

Allen Crabbe #23 of the Portland Trail Blazers before the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on February 2, 2016 at Moda Center in Portland,Oregon.

Allen Crabbe (No. 23) of the Portland Trail Blazers before the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 2 at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

From malls to burger spots, you’ve seen the mohawk/afro/fade mashup with optional blond highlights. The best in the NBA belongs to Allen Crabbe, a Portland Trail Blazers wing. Also seen on Jared Sullinger, Kelly Oubre, and Champ, the Mavericks equine mascot. Not for nothing, Crabbe got his new cut just before his breakout third NBA season. Look good, feel good, play good.

BRANDON INGRAM

Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers is seen against the Denver Nuggets during a preseason game on October 7, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California.

Brandon Ingram (No. 14) of the Los Angeles Lakers is seen against the Denver Nuggets during a preseason game on Oct. 7 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

 

Tapered at the sides and neck, long and wild up top – this “Duke Starting Five” cut swept the nation when modeled by the 2015 NCAA champs. Apparently Brandon Ingram noticed before committing to Duke for his one-and-done 2015-16 season. Now that Ingram is a Los Angeles Laker, one of the NBA’s best subplots is whether Ingram’s game and/or cut will eclipse D’Angelo Russell and his bun-top fade.

VINCE CARTER

Vince Carter #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies warms up before the game against the Chicago Bulls on December 16, 2015 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Vince Carter (No. 15) of the Memphis Grizzlies warms up before the game against the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 16, 2015, at the United Center in Chicago.

The oldest player in the league is repping the ’90s harder than Foxy Brown at a Def Jam reunion. But with a modern twist – smooth scalp paired with the luxurious beard. The 39-year-old Grizzly (his team, not his chin) is starting his 17th NBA season. Like every old head, Vince Carter knows that when hair stops growing on up top, it sprouts faster everywhere else.

KAWHI LEONARD

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots a free throw against the Detroit Pistons on October 10, 2016 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Kawhi Leonard (No. 2) of the San Antonio Spurs shoots a free throw against the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 10 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Back when Latrell Sprewell was choking out coaches and Iverson’s look had NBA commish David Stern shook enough to impose a new dress code, who’d have thought cornrows would ever be … safe? Retro? Almost boring? That’s what they are on Kawhi Leonard, who inherited Tim Duncan’s spot as the quietest superstar in the league. No fancy braid patterns for Leonard. Just 3s, clamps, dunks … and a cornrowed brother hoisting the NBA Finals MVP trophy. That one’s for you, Commissioner Stern.

Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving dudes the bizness on a basketball court near you.