I was a youngster in the ’70s, and you if were street aware, a basketball fan and a New Yorker at that point in time, there was no way you could not acknowledge Walt “Clyde” Frazier. He would do this move where he would do a double pump, fake you out, you would jump, he would lean into you, make the shot, you would fall on him and it would be a guaranteed 3-point play. As a kid, I remember seeing that and thinking that was something he kind of owned at that time. He also played incredible defense and had this very cool way of bringing the ball down court.
When he and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe were both in the back court, it was a beautiful thing to watch them get busy. They were doing incredibly hectic stuff in a very cool and stylish way. Other players didn’t make it happen like that. Now it’s common: The street-ball thing became a big part of the game — a la Allen Iverson — and everyone post-Clyde. The NBA used to really frown on that flamboyant play until that became an attraction and a selling point.
Then of course then there was his personal style, which was much talked about. As a kid, looking at Clyde, I could see that he was just different than other players. He got the job done, but in a very stylish way. That was some real black stuff to do — taking the little we have and making it aspirational — like, I want to be like him, I want to walk like him, I want my hat to hang off my head like him. All these little subtle things were a way to hold your head up if you were black in America. And his way of playing basketball — the way he got it done — was the essence of being cool.
Photo: George Kalinsky for Madison Square Garden
I had a pair of Clyde Pumas like other kids, and I wore them into the ground. See, at that time in New York, it hadn’t entered the super-fly, sexy sneaker era. It was more about wearing our sneakers down to the ground and with holes in the bottom. Unlike the Jordans later on, the Clydes didn’t have commercials or the big hype around them. But in terms of the being-cool-in-New-York-City thing, if you had a pair of those, it said a lot. So that was the beginning of the era during which sneakers were more than just shoes to play basketball in. They were shoes to look good and stylish in and Clyde’s sneakers helped usher that in.
One of the first movies that I went to see alone was Bonnie and Clyde. So I had the whole Bonnie and Clyde movie experience. And then soon after, Clyde got that nickname because he was dressing up in that type of gear. He had the mutton chops sideburns and there were photos of him in a Rolls Royce wearing something Bonnie and Clyde-inspired with the hat.
I remember some magazine did a profile on him where they showed this photo of his bedroom, and he had this round bed with a mink bedspread and a round mirror over the bed. Whoa. That was something that was talked about by any and everybody! I don’t know about the round bed and the round mirror, but I wouldn’t mind having even a mink throw on my bed!
He’s a real stand out guy — being a stand out fashion guy has always been a part of his character — but what‘s also cool about it is that he’s got this very low-key, demure personality; one that you wouldn’t associate with someone who likes to wear these loud outfits. So that’s a unique combination in it of itself. I love the fact that he has introduced very colorful phrases into New York basketball fans’ lexicon, like “dishing and swishing” and “posting and toasting.”
The essence of having style is having the courage to go out and do something that no one is really doing. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that his pony and cow skin suits are a bit extreme for me, but I respect his stylistic courage and fortitude for thinking: ”I’m wearing this and I don’t care what anyone else thinks because I’m gonna rock it.” And I respect that because I understand that it’s key to what made black people’s style so unique.
We were doing stuff that nobody else was doing and didn’t care what anyone said. Like, I’m wearing this and I know it’s fly, and if you don’t dig it, I. DON’T. CARE. That’s a strong statement that’s really lacking right now. I want to see people take some chances because some of them are going to work!
Born in Brooklyn as Fred Brathwaite, artist, writer, director and all around connoisseur of cool, Fab 5 Freddy was catapulted into the spotlight when he was name checked on Blondie’s 1980’s hit “Rapture.” He was the original host of MTV’s seminal show YO! MTV Raps, has directed a number of music videos and his art has been exhibited around the world.