While some NBA players wear headbands as a proverbial eye-catching fashion statement, Donald “Slick” Watts used to wear one out of necessity.
Watts had already gone bald late in his teenage years. And after unsuccessful attempts using other methods to keep sweat from pouring into his eyes while playing for Xavier University (1970-73), he stumbled upon a headband.
“I was sweating, and I was sweating a lot being bald and I was trying to find a way to keep sweat from going in my eyes,” Watts said. “So I started putting tape on when I played and it pulled my skin off my head.
“So I went downtown one day and found one black headband and wore it for about two years. Then when I got to the pros, they started making headbands and my coach wouldn’t let me come into the game without it because he had gotten used to seeing me with it on.”
Watts played for the Seattle SuperSonics from 1974-78, where he popularized wearing headbands in the team’s colors. Even today’s NBA players noted that accessories such as headbands are as much a part of their game as are jump shots and crossover dribbles.
“When I was a kid, I started wearing them in high school because of style,” said Miami’s LeBron James, explaining why he wears a headband. “I started wearing a headband because of Allen Iverson, I started wearing an arm sleeve because of Allen Iverson, I got tattoos because of Allen Iverson.
“So it was a style thing.”
Even back to his days as a basketball star in Tacoma, Wash., Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas always wore a headband as part of his uniform. In Thomas’ world, he wasn’t fully dressed until he popped a headband across his head.
Thomas refers to it as a “Seattle/Tacoma thing.”
After Watts made headbands chic, along came another Seattle native, former Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry, who took his cue from Watts and continued the tradition of wearing a headband as part of his basketball fashion statement.
“Slick Watts was the man when it came to wearing headbands,” said Terry, now a guard with the Kings. “I wear them because I just like the way they feel and the way they make me look.”
Thomas, meanwhile, was simply following in the footsteps of Terry.
“Once I got to the NBA, I figured I wanted to wear headbands, and actually Jason Terry is a close friend of mine,” Thomas said. “He’s always worn headbands because of Slick Watts”
Detroit Pistons forward Andre Drummond has been wearing headbands since middle school, yet he doesn’t wear them every game.
“I never really wore them consistently,” Drummond said. “I wear them every now and then.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve just got to be in the mood to wear. I wear them whenever I get bored and I want to change things up a little bit and wear something new.”
Several years ago, Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki was decked out in a headband for a few games. But the decision had less to do with fashion and more to do with Nowitzki’s desire to keep his long locks from flopping all over the place.
“I wore a headband when my hair was really, really long,” Nowitzki said. “Other than that, I think it’s a bad look for me. But when the hair got really annoyingly long, I rocked it a couple of games.
“But I didn’t really like it that much, that’s why I cut [the hair]. Now I’m too old. It’s not a good look for a 40-year old to wear a headband, so I’m just going to go with the short hair.”
Some whispers around the league suggest James wears a headband to cover up a receding hairline. James, of course, disputes that.
Without naming names, Mavericks guard Devin Harris said: “Some people do cover up some things [with headbands].”
Harris went on to say: “You always want to accessorize. I think I wore a couple headbands when I was playing in New Jersey.
“I just never had good games while wearing them, so I just took it off.”
Many players don headbands to express their individuality. Either way, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle isn’t opposed to his players wearing a headband.
Carlisle just wants his players to perform once they’re in the game — headband or not.
“A lot of it is rituals that guys have,” Carlisle said. “Sometimes they take it off if they’re not shooting well.
“Look, it’s a personal thing, so it’s fine with me. I’m not as discerning about how guys look. I’m more discerning about how guys are playing. If they’re playing good, they look good no matter what.”
Besides Watts, James and Iverson, other players noted for their headbands include Wilt Chamberlain, Vince Carter, Cliff Robinson, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony and Chris “Birdman” Andersen.
Meanwhile, in a tradition started by ex-Utah coach Jerry Sloan, current Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin forbids his players from wearing headbands.
“I don’t have any headband players around here,” Corbin said. “I haven’t seen a headband yet that helps a guy make a shot or get a rebound.
“We’ve got towels if they want to wipe the sweat off their face. Plus, we got some nice looking guys, so I think the headband takes away from their look.”
When C. J. Miles, Deron Williams and Ronnie Brewer left the Jazz to play elsewhere, one of the first things they started doing was wearing a headband. That freedom of expression was not going to happen with the Jazz.
“It’s just part of being in the business,” Corbin said. “You understand when you go to different organizations, different franchises and what their standards are. You conform to it whether you like it or not.
“Some guys fight it and fight it for the wrong reasons, and it hurts their performance. But the sooner you accept it and just go with it — everybody is a little different.”
Thomas said superstition could play a role in why some players wear headbands. He’s just glad he had two headband-wearing role models in Watts and Terry.
“Jason Terry is a big mentor of mine, and one day I started wearing headbands in high school,” Thomas said. “I see Slick Watts around Seattle all the time and he still sometimes wears a headband.
“When he comes to a basketball event, he’ll have it off to the side of his head. I know I’ve always felt comfortable wearing a headband.”
Watts has become so accustomed to wearing a headband that he popped one out of his pocket and put it on his head while lounging around the hotel during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans this year. The headband has become part of his existence.
“I walk around with my little headband everywhere I go now,” Watts said. “I got my headband here.
“It’s one of the things that I use all my life.”
Unlike today’s players who wear their headband placed neatly across their forehead, Watts wore his slanted in a diagonal line.
“I’ve seen footage of him,” James said. “I wouldn’t have worn mine like that.
“That was a little too wild for me.”
Slick Watts made it stylish to wear a headband in the NBA. Many of today’s players have maintained the trend. Here are some notable headband wearers:
Slick Watts, Seattle: In the early 1970s when enormous Afros were the norm, the former Sonics guard stood out because of a clean-shaven head. He liked to wear his headband with a lean.
Vince Carter, Dallas: High-flying, dunk artist is still grabbing attention with his game and his appearance with the Mavericks.
Jason Terry, Sacramento: After helping lead the Mavericks to their only NBA title, Jet took his headband to Boston, Brooklyn and now Sacramento.
LeBron James, Miami: The four-time league MVP was the center of a Twitter eruption when his headband fell off during Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
Isaiah Thomas, Sacramento: Third-year man is one of the new-school players who have added the headband accessory.