'Girdles' add padding to NBA fashion statement
Players protected under jerseys

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Little-known fact about the NBA: Real men wear girdles.

No, not the type that first comes to mind. These girdles, the ones worn by almost every NBA player these days, are more strategic than cosmetic.

Beneath the increasingly baggy shorts, many of today's NBA players wear compression shorts, or girdles, that feature shock-resistant padding for the thighs, hips and tailbone. And some players, such as Miami Heat Most Valuable Player candidate Dwyane Wade and Orlando Magic standout Rashard Lewis, have taken the cautious approach a step further by wearing rib and sternum pads stealthily concealed beneath their jerseys.

Most NBA locker rooms these days resemble their NFL brethren what with the players padding up as if they are going into battle. And NBA players' need to protect themselves against the hits from foes and hard spills on the hardwood debunk the foolish myth that basketball is a non-contact sport.

Defense on the low block sometimes resembles a wrestling match with players banging shoulders, throwing elbows and using knees for leverage. Rare is the drive to the hoop that there isn't contact of some kind. And more often than not, a player will hit the floor as the big bodies collide in mid-air.

"It seems like every year the players get bigger and stronger and you just want to do something to protect yourself from all the hits that you take," said Lewis, who is always padded up beneath his Magic uniform. "We get a lot of bumps and bruises from all of the knees and elbows that we get hit with. You get an injury and you're out for awhile. I just think it's smart to protect yourself."

In some ways, the layered look has become the NBA's hush-hush hidden secret. Some players don't want others to know they are protecting themselves with pads because it might project a "soft" image. When asked recently if Cleveland Cavaliers players wore padded girdles for protection, Cavs athletic trainer Max Benton said yes. But when asked to name those players, Benton shook his head as if he was protecting a White House secret.

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And then there are the star players who have taken to openly endorsing the products as a marketing and money-making tool. Magic superstar Dwight Howard is the lead spokesman for Adidas' TechFit PowerWeb undergarments, while San Antonio's Tim Duncan wears the TechFit padded model.

Wade and Golden State swingman Corey Maggette are the lead spokesmen for McDavid Inc., an Illinois-based manufacturer that has branched out from just providing football products to now basketball gear.

Wade, who has done numerous television commercials on his ability to get back up after taking hard hits and nasty falls, was a natural to be the face of McDavid's basketball gear. He signed a two-year endorsement deal with McDavid last summer before the Olympics in Beijing. Wade wears the HexPad Thudd short to protect his hips, thighs and tailbone. And the V-Hex body shirt, priced at $59.99 for the general public, protects Wade's ribs and spine.

McDavid estimates that at least one player on every NBA team wears their protective gear under their jerseys. Wade said more players are going to the protective undergarments because they do help withstand the rigors of an 82-game marathon season.

Magic operations manager Rodney Powell said that more than half of the 13 players on Orlando's roster wear some kind of padding under their uniform. The lined girdles with padding for the lower body have become the most popular model used, Powell said, and he estimates that 90 percent of NBA players wear some kind of protection now.

"They do protect you from injury and I'd say they help the most from when you fall on the floor," said Magic guard/forward Mickael Pietrus, who has missed time this season with wrist, thumb, rib and ankle injuries. "If anything, I wish they would let me wear more padding with all the injuries that I've had."

Pads for protection
At 7-foot-1, 350 pounds, Shaquille O'Neal can dish out some major punishment to the players who try and stop him from scoring around the basket. But O'Neal also takes plenty of hard hits from the players who intentionally foul him and send him to the free throw line rather than allow an uncontested dunk.

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O'Neal said he's worn upper-leg pads since his playing days in Orlando in order to avoid the deep bruises that come from knee-to-thigh contact and stray elbows.

And O'Neal was among the first NBA players to seek midsection protection. In the 2004-05 season, O'Neal's first in Miami, he suffered bruised ribs that knocked him out of action. Heat trainers went to Miami Dolphins trainers for assistance, and eventually O'Neal was fitted for a McDavid padded, compression shirt. Hence, McDavid's expansion into basketball gear.

Orlando's Howard wears his sleeveless Adidas compression shirt without his jersey before games when he's doing shooting drills. His chiseled 268-pound frame is perfect for the skin-tight white and black shirts with silver webbing. He has opted for the non-padded version because he doesn't like to be restricted in any way when playing.

"I like feeling the contact when I'm getting hit and the refs aren't calling it," Howard said with a sarcastic chuckle.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy likes the idea of players wearing more padding to avoid injuries. He requires that all of the players wear knee pads in practice to avoid knee-on-knee collisions.

The NBA has no specific rules against the padding players wear, in part, because the league never anticipated that the trend would be so widespread. But players are instructed that all teammates must wear the same color and the undergarments can't be visible under jerseys. Also, all padding must be soft and no metallic gear is allowed.

The league did ban full-length leg tights two seasons ago. But they have allowed shooting sleeves on players' arms as long as there is no logo visible.

Big business
Money, of course, is a major factor in the business of dressing NBA players both with their uniforms and undergarments.

Adidas signed an 11-year deal with the NBA estimated to be worth $450 million in 2006 to become the official uniform and apparel provider. Adidas makes about $165 million a year selling jerseys and apparel to fans worldwide, according to other estimates.

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Starting next season, Adidas' line of TechFit gear (padded and non-padded) will be a part of the standard uniform issue to players. Because of its exclusive deal to be the NBA's uniform provider, Adidas wants players wearing its undergarments for marketing reasons.

Adidas is also a leader in the development of a new, lighter jersey for NBA players. Their all-star jerseys, debuted in February in Phoenix, were just 8 ounces -- 3 ounces lighter than the current model. And a TechFit jersey, similar to the skin-tight one Howard wore in the dunk contest at the all-star game, is just 5 ounces and could be used in the NBA by 2013. The seams of the jerseys are heat-melded instead of sewn, reducing the weight.

For now, though, players seem more than willing to sacrifice some added weight for the hip, thigh and tailbone protection that the padded girdles provide. Wade said no amount of padding can fully protect players, but it does at least give them a peace of mind.

"No matter what you're wearing, you're still going down if you're going in there," Wade said of his forays down the lane. "If you're not willing to take the contact, it doesn't matter what you're wearing."