The Pistons Are Building Their Team And Brand’s Future One Tunnel Look At A Time

Preparations pro athletes take before games are usually private — treatments from the training staff, a quiet moment alone in the locker room with their headphones on, methodically taking the same shot again and again in a warmup while the pre-game clock ticks down. The routine and order of each thing becomes ritualistic over time. For NBA and WNBA players, though, there’s another pregame ritual that’s become just as important, and unlike these other habits, wholeheartedly visible.

Tunnel looks, or the act of dressing for the 30-second walk from the player’s entrance of an arena to the locker room, has spawned its own voracious following and subculture in the world of basketball. The practice has its own dedicated pros, like P.J. Tucker, Diamond DeShields, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the undisputed originator of turning a low-lit and otherwise barren concrete runway into an event, Russell Westbrook. For some players, dressing for the tunnel is an opportunity to show off a new outfit. For others, it’s an art, an amuse bouche to set the tone for the particular flavor of game ahead they’re hoping to have. For fans, it’s another way to see and understand their favorite players, an off-court glimpse amplified by chroniclers like League Fits and SLAM’s All-Drip teams. Team social accounts have largely started to get in on the action, too, sharing pregame slideshows of their players arriving.

None have gone so far to embrace the practice as the Detroit Pistons. In early 2020, with its players often requesting arrival photos from the team’s game photographers, the Pistons creative team saw an opportunity. Gavin Rhoades, who had a position with Detroit previously, shifted into the role of lifestyle photographer, capturing tunnel looks and candid moments at events around the city. For a franchise that has been as long intertwined in the culture and identity of the place it calls home, the move was a natural one.

“For the Pistons, being a lifestyle brand and being intrigued both on the court, but also off the court, it’s important that we stay on the cusp of innovation,” Pistons VP of Brand and Marketing Strategy Tyrel Kirkham tells Dime. That innovation, Kirkham recognizes, typically starts by figuring out what’s important and interesting to the team’s players.

“Oftentimes it’s sitting down with them and understanding what their interests are, and then we can cultivate concepts based on their likes, and dislikes — we’ll do our best to avoid,” he says with a chuckle. “And that’s part of the open dialogue that we have with our players, with our coaches, obviously our city, embracing a lot of the things that are represented there as well.”

Detroit has never shied away from doing things differently. The franchise has previously brought in comedy writers like C.J. Toledano, previously with Jimmy Fallon and Bleacher Report and current founder of creative studio Follow Through, to write and produce its in-house entertainment, and recently named Big Sean as Director of Innovation.

“The brands that succeed in sports are the ones that figure out a way to showcase both the lifestyle and sport component of the brand,” Kirkham says, while also acknowledging that authenticity is crucial, especially when Detroit’s players “live and breathe fashion, the arts, music, entertainment.”

Understanding the best spot to capture a person stepping off an elevator or with the faint glow of the court’s lights behind them is one thing. But authenticity and the intimacy that goes along with it was just as crucial in Rhoades role of familiarizing himself with players outside of the arena. Part of the reason Rhoades was promoted into his role was because he’d already worked around the players in close quarters, as a locker room attendant and later a camera operator, essentially learning how to be close without being in a guy’s face.

“The beauty of it is that he builds a one-on-one relationship with each of our athletes. And we know he can tag along for family events, or a community event that they’re doing,” Kirkham says of the trust Rhoades has forged with players. “Or if Jerami Grant is interested in fashion, we have our guy there to capture the content on the runway. It really is just a beautiful relationship, and the commitment that we have to showcasing our players.”

For Frank Jackson, who is entering into his second season with Detroit, establishing a relationship with his teammates and Pistons creative staff comes from a quiet and deliberate place of authenticity, based on curiosity and creativity.

“As soon as I met [Rhoades], we had so much in common just from the camera he was shooting on, it was dope. I asked him what it was and then from there our friendship kind of took off,” Jackson recalls. “A lot of people think basketball is very one-dimensional and it’s just all basketball. And we are, in a sense, and that’s our work, but there’s a lot of other things that guys are interested in. And I think [the team] does a great job of capturing different moods or different things that guys are into.”

For a long time in Detroit, the story hasn’t, or couldn’t yet, be about basketball. Since the last championship banner was lifted in 2004, the Pistons have been on a perpetual rollercoaster of abandoned rebuilds and perceived relegation. In a league where relevancy is right or wrongly predicated on winning or being part of the conversation, Detroit, from the outside, had neither. It wasn’t anything new for Pistons fans or the team, and while external conversations around dynasties, league parity, and super teams raged on, Detroit hunkered down to wait for the noise of these storms to eventually tire out, sustaining itself with an ingrained sense of pride.

This capacity for turning inward and keeping up the work has been the gritty, determined marrow to any winning iteration of a Pistons team, and it’s been borrowed from the city that’s been the innovator of so much in American history, from music to food to the industrialized economy. When you put that all together, it makes sense that this current Detroit team, even with the fanfare of the number one pick in Cade Cunningham, is altogether without pretension. This is a working team.

When asked if the storied history of the franchise guides its approach to the future, Kirkham agrees that the Pistons have a “strong foundation and the historical relevance that many teams would die for,” but he and his team see that as a launching pad when looking forward to this next-generation team and the new fans the Pistons hope to attract.

“There are some intentional things that you see, when we’re talking about the past, when you can marry a Rick Mahorn to a Isaiah Stewart, or a Ben Wallace to an Isaiah Stewart, so you can get the lineage and see that it’s built on that blue collar, hardworking, we’re gonna hustle different mindset,” Kirkham says. “However, we want to also never lose focus of this young core that we’re building with Jerami Grant, Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, with Saddiq Bey, with Isaiah Stewart and the rest of our young, hungry and ambitious team.”

That young roster is going to communicate much differently than any of its Pistons predecessors, and largely does it through their phones and social media, but Kirkham and his team are able to keep up via a team-wide app that streamlines everything from the tunnel to special events. Green Fly, a hybrid mini social and photo sharing network, allows Pistons players to search for photos of themselves from the never-ending trove of snaps, whether in-game or off the floor. Players can also make requests through the app of Pistons team photographers to capture them at future events, certain times, or even specific plays on the floor.

Even players like Bey, who has no social media presence, is an avid user of Green Fly, sharing photos with family and friends and avidly making requests. It’s another way that, from the outside, we occasionally lose the sense that a pro athlete doesn’t mark occasions in their lives the same way as we do: by taking a picture of themselves in the moment, to have proof that it happened.

Kirkham shared a story that Cory Joseph, who was traveling when he joined the team last March, set up his Green Fly account on the road and watched as photos from his first two games poured in. Joseph immediately reached out to Rhoades to say that he’d never had anything like that at his disposal in his previous stops.

“And for us, that’s the ultimate compliment that we are providing a real service to our players,” Kirkham stresses.

For Jackson, having a photographer knitted into the inner workings of the team’s day-to-day has offered another positive outlet.

“It gives me a breath of fresh air in a sense, in that work environment, to allow just another viewpoint, or another take on the day,” Jackson says over the phone post practice, “So it’s been fun to have him around and to be able to bounce ideas off of each other.”

Jackson, who GQ coined the “Most Stylish NBA Player You’ve Never Heard Of,” is as low-key and considerate over the phone as he is with his eye for fashion. Born in D.C. and later going to high school in a small city south of Salt Lake City, Jackson got an early knack for editing his outfits into better versions by using the same anchor pieces and mixing up what he paired them with.

“Growing up as a kid, I did my summer shopping and that had to last me the whole school year, even into the future school years and whatnot. So it was always fun to me to, you know, all you need is really a couple pieces and you can mix and match and do a lot of creative things,” Jackson says.

Browse through Jackson’s mix of candid and curated Instagram photo dumps and you’ll see the same pair of perfectly worn-in orange tab Levis 505s paired with a soft vintage t-shirt and leather loafers in one slide, cowboy boots the next.

“I’m a big believer in wearing your clothes and re-wearing them,” Jackson says with a soft chuckle, noting that it was getting hand-me-downs from older cousins or friends that turned him on to vintage. “I feel like worn clothing or worn anything, like when you wear it in, it fits the best.”

Jackson is also half of the lifestyle brand Rare Roses, and has his own ambitions in photography, saying that it would be a dream to put together a large-format photo book some day, including some of the many photos he’s saved since joining the Pistons. While there is absolutely no confusion between the delineation of working and his creative pursuits, there is something unique that the team has offered to players like Jackson, who end up with a much more vibrant and engaging experience being in an environment that values their off-court interests as much as on-court capabilities.

For the Pistons, there is value added in being a franchise that sees creative additions not only as a way to make players happy and set itself apart, but also the tangible assist Kirkham, Rhoades, and their team offer to a player’s personal branding, charity and foundational work, and career ambitions after basketball.

“It intrigues me,” Jackson says, of Rhoades role with the team. “That’s something low-key I would even want to do,” noting that it’s a job that didn’t necessarily exist even five years ago, at least in the capacity that the Pistons have utilized it.

What stands out about the Pistons having, essentially, a lifestyle photographer on retainer, or the team’s use of a tool like Green Fly for no other purpose than to make it easy for players to save photos they like, or many of the team’s creative-driven initiatives, is that they are internal. There is the brand building element, which Kirkham is honest about, but the reason these things don’t feel gimmicky is because they aren’t. They are also just considerate, nice extras, things that often get overlooked in the well-oiled mechanics of a professional team.

“We obviously care about wins, but let’s control the things that we can control. And so much of that is creating the cool factor, being in the moment when it matters most and being proud of what we do,” Kirkham says. “And Detroit has that mindset, as it is the Detroit versus everybody mindset. It is the D-Up mindset of the continual rising of the city. And that’s the way I want the brand to follow.”

Like a lot of what Detroit is about, there’s a for-us, by-us mentality behind everything that shines, almost stubbornly, through. The purpose is in the preparedness, to look inward and project out past that, a lot like dressing for the tunnel. It’s in this vein that, as Kirkham talks about the way he sees the Pistons growing forward, folding the franchise’s history into its future, his voice is rhythmic in its resolve, even when his words skew poetic.

“As an organization, that’s the way we approach our craft daily,” he says. “We know that when the wins do occur, at mountaintop, brand meets winning. It’s going to be another beautiful day and harken back to the ’89, ’90 or ’04 era. We just want to make sure we’re ready.”

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