The Rise of the Low Fade in the NBA
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this might be a cross-cultural cut for the ages.
By Devon VanHouten-Maldonado
It’s Drake Night in Toronto, and the Raptors are enduring an early-season shellacking courtesy of the Golden State Warriors. The man of the hour, Drake himself, sits courtside and lobs taunts at the visitors from the West Coast. The baby-faced rapper and the Splash Brothers — Steph Curry and Klay Thompson — have something besides trash talk in common. They all sport the same kind of haircut: the low fade.
The low fade is giving the classic high-and-tight look a run for its money as the new favorite style of many NBA players and fans, and given its prevalence on the hardwood, it’s a fair bet the cut will be making its way to city streets. At the start of last season, Curry’s hair was tightly shaved. But as the Warriors began their historic though ultimately disappointing run, Curry began to draw power from his curls. He left a few centimeters of fun on top and faded down to clean skin around the base of his skull. There’s little doubt that Curry’s MVP season — his second in a row — helped popularize the style.
In this campaign, Blake Griffin of the Clippers is rocking a fresh low fade, and so is Phoenix’s Devin Booker, a 20-year-old rookie who is widely touted as the future of the game. (No pressure.) Add to the low-fade chorus the Bucks’ 21-year-old jolly Greek giant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the tornado from Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook, and you’re beginning to hear a serious style statement by the younger NBA generation. “It used to be all about tapers and the all-even, but now the low fade is starting to emerge in the NBA and in entertainment, so everyone wants to emulate what they see,” says John Solis of Legends Barbershop in Los Angeles, a longtime haunt of NBA and Hollywood stars.
Someone’s got to be brave enough to get a cut that a lot of people might think is wack, but then maybe that same style will blow up.
John Solis, Legends Barbershop, Los Angeles
According to Solis and other students of hairology, low fades characteristically begin to taper from longer to shorter hair around the ears and neck rather than up around the crown, as with the high-and-tight or the classic fade. Part of the laid-back style’s appeal is its flexibility, with athletes and their barbers adding signature variations to the cut. Some players let their natural hair shine through rather than clipping most of it off; others keep it clean while still dropping the taper line down around the ears.
Credit barbershops as the incubators for all this hirsute creativity. In Black communities, “the barbershop is like church, and basketball is like Jesus to the church,” says Carlos Rodriquez of the TES barbershop in Portland, Oregon. Player stats, controversy, trash talk and reverie have long been an integral part of barbershop banter as well as inspiration for the fresh cuts that walk out the door. Furthermore, cultural mixing in barbershops often inspires fresh concepts — and ends up making a Jewish-Canadian rapper and a multiracial basketball MVP heroes of hybridity, even down to their haircuts.
When it comes to hairstyles, trends can fade fast, so barbers have to stay on top of their game. In the 2000s, braids became popular when the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony and the Sixers’ Allen Iverson dominated the league, Solis tells OZY. “Someone’s got to be brave enough to get a cut that a lot of people might think is wack, but then maybe that same style will blow up.” If a slick rookie with a man bun starts having a breakout year in 2016–17, or if an underdog team goes to the finals next spring on the back of a new superstar whose crowning glory is a frohawk, then the low fade may, well, fade away. If Curry sticks to his do and his MVP ways, however, the low fade has a shot at entering roundball’s hair hall of fame alongside the high-and-tight, “which is never out of style,” says James High of Brooklyn’s Miracles Barber Shop. “That’s where it all started.”
Watching the Cavaliers — a veteran team in which almost no one is rocking the low fade — get beat down by the young and low-faded Milwaukee Bucks last month seems to be a hopeful sign that the Curry coiffure will have a winning season, regardless of which franchise takes home the championship hardware. Double down on that with a Grammy for Drake, and the low fade just might be a cross-cultural cut for the ages.
- Devon VanHouten-Maldonado, OZY AuthorContact Devon VanHouten-Maldonado