Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Stylist, designer and consultant Courtney Mays is the visionary behind some of the best-dressed players in the NBA. Today—thanks to Mays and the mentors who she credits before her, such as Rachel Johnson, stylist to LeBron James—the convergence of style and sports happens in the tunnels of arenas around the league, game after game.
“I think that Rachel really pioneered the idea that the tunnel could be that five-second runway,” Mays says. Players are no longer arriving with their heads down in sweats or ill-fitting suits; the new NBA player pregame uniform consists of luxury brands, tailored suits and intentionally styled clothing. But it’s not just about showboating or competing for the best-dressed player—the weekly catwalk is to let the world know there is something to say that is stronger and more impactful than any three-point shot or triple double.
“LeBron, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony are the veterans of this movement. We’re paying attention to what they’re wearing as they arrive to the arena. Now what you’re seeing is the guys taking back their power,” Mays says. “I can dribble, I can dunk, but I’m also a businessman, or I have an affinity for fashion. Like you’ve seen Klay Thompson coming into the arena on his bike and Russell Westbrook, he really pushes the envelope with his style. It’s cool that the guys have started to use style to influence a culture.”
Mays understands that it may start with fashion, but that’s the vehicle, not the message. It’s about an image—it’s important how the world perceives you, especially as a Black man or woman.
“I think Black people are the arbiters of style. Most of our country is based on Black culture’s definition of what’s cool, whether that’d be music, fashion or food,” Mays says. “Whether our counterparts realize it or not, they are idolizing these athletes, and they’re Black men and women. We can stand in that power if we allow ourselves to and use style to be in that conversation.”
While fashion and sports can seem like opposites, to Mays, both are part of her DNA. Her father, an NFL player, and her mother, a flight attendant, instilled in her a strong sense of style and the importance of always looking your best. Growing up in Cleveland, Courtney always had a love of sports, playing basketball, field hockey and lacrosse all through high school. She went on to the University of Michigan, destined to be a pediatrician. As college does, it teaches us to explore other interests. Courtney joined a fashion club while in college and fell in love with art history. Her next stop was New York City—she told her mother she had an internship with Tracy Reese (one she didn’t have) just to get permission to go to the style capital to pursue her dreams. Fast forward to 2022 and Mays is the go-to stylist when it comes to menswear.
“I’m sort of like a tomboy, for lack of a better term, in my own style sensibility,” Mays says. “I love the tailoring of menswear. I love menswear fabric. Even when I think about our home, I’m looking at pinstripes, herringbone and Glen plaid. Those are the fabrics I gravitate towards. My perspective has evolved because fashion has become genderless, and I love playing with sizing.”
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Just like her NBA clients, Mays rocks a uniform that is the epitome of her personality: easy, comfortable, classic, approachable and understated, with a point of view. She may not be the center of attention, but she commands attention, making you curious enough to wonder about the person behind the black suit, plain tee and must-have sneakers. Her approach to style and life is with purpose and passion.
“Everything we do is intentional,” Mays says. “With Chris Paul, when he was the president of the players association, we really were trying to make sure that his image reflected that, being presidential, making sure he always had that businessman swag. You’re creating or curating those identities through fashion.”
While NBA players’ above-average muscular frames are the envy of most men, off-the-court dressing is more than a challenge. Even with her own six-foot frame, Mays can creatively craft and manipulate a head-turning look, regardless of the size or body type. Her point of view is just as strong in front of the camera as it is behind the scenes, challenging designers to expand their boundaries to include more inclusive shapes and sizes.
“I recently went into the Nike store, and they started carrying plus size, which is a huge feat,” Mays says. “I would love to create or even help to encourage those brands to just do better when it comes to size inclusivity. And there’s such an opportunity there when it comes to men and women—they’re missing out on a whole market of people who just want to look cool and feel cool, but don’t have access to pieces that fit them well.”
Mays understands the power of image. She’s more than a stylist; she’s an activist and influencer, using fashion as her voice to let the world see and hear Black men and women.
“Style is a way of storytelling. Style is a platform to speak about larger issues. Style is how you present yourself to the world without having to open your mouth,” Mays says. “Style is a combination of all the things that are you, whether it is your taste in music or your history, where you’re from. It’s so many things. It’s crazy; it’s just clothes, but it is also so much more than that.”
Senita Brooks is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.