To Mask or Not to Mask, According to NBA Players

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) adjusts his mask after a timeout in the second quarter against the New York Knicks Saturday, Jan. 8, 2005, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
TONY DEJAK/Associated Press

LeBron James knows what it's like to wear a protective mask, and all indications are he'll wear one again when he returns to action after breaking his nose last week. According to ESPN's Michael Wallace, "he's been fitted for one and will wear it in games the next few weeks."

Wallace also says James will try a mask out during Wednesday's practice with an eye to returning for Thursday's game against the New York Knicks. For James' part, wearing one "feels like something, someone has a hand constantly in your face," per Wallace.

James isn't the only one to popularize the protective mask recently. From Richard Hamilton's trademark mask to Kobe Bryant's crime-fighting variety, masks have become something of a fixture amongst the NBA's injured faces.

Most of these faces are too valuable not to protect, especially once already rendered vulnerable by a broken nose or something of that ilk.

If James does opt to wear a mask, the good news is it won't keep him from dunking. 

RICK HAVNER/Associated Press

If he has his way, though, it might keep him from making friends.

Credit: LeBron James' Instagram

Here's a look at other recent stars and their forays with the protective mask. Some found them far more tolerable than others.


Kobe Bryant

Bill Haber/Associated Press

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The only thing better than Kobe wearing a mask is of course him wearing a black mask and looking like the superhero we all know he secretly is during his down time. And even if you don't believe in superheroes, it's pretty cool that one of his masks fetched over $67,000 for charity.

Oh, and the mask caused no discernible damage to his on-court heroics.


Kyrie Irving

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Irving has twice worn a mask in his short career. The first time, he went the crime-fighter route, and it paid off in a big way. One can only conclude the mask was singularly responsible for a career-high 41 points at Madison Square Garden.

One could also conclude Kyrie should fracture his jaw more often, but that might be a little too much pain for the consequent gain.

Almost a year later, Irving donned a clear mask—this time for a broken nose.


J.R. Smith

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

If it's not one thing, it's another for J.R. Smith. Earlier this February it was a fracture to his left cheek bone, which—you guessed it—required a protective mask. The injury put an end to a 12-game streak of double-digit scoring.

After missing a game and suffering through a four-point return to action, Smith returned to form with 19 points in a win against the New Orleans Hornets.

The mask seemed to work just fine, but that doesn't mean Smith had to like it (via the New York Post's Marc Berman): “It’s uncomfortable, but I’m playing with it. I got to deal with it. It’s not better than I thought. It’s worse.’’

For his part, head coach Mike Woodson seems to think this whole mask thing is an unnecessary fixture of today's kinder, gentler NBA (again from Berman): "All I can do is relay that I had that same injury and I never wore a mask or missed a game. Times have changed a little bit, but it’s what it is. Nobody ever told me about a mask. They told me it would eventually heal. That’s it. I broke the same bone."

So much for so-called modern medicine. Toughen up, league!


Alexey Shved

ANDY CLAYTON-KING/Associated Press

Your first reaction to Alexey Shved wearing a mask may be to recoil in horror. Those are probably good instincts.

And at times he just looked like it was way, way too early in the morning. With such an intense reaction to how he rocked his mask, the question must be asked: Has Alexey redefined a genre? At the very least, he deserves some honorable mention.

A terrifying trend, indeed. However, with an era coming to an end, Shved's sentiment's echo J.R. Smith's.


Richard Hamilton

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/Associated Press

Hamilton truly popularized the mask in the modern era. He didn't quite make it look good, but he wore it often enough to make it look normal. That in itself is an accomplishment. The mask has become synonymous with him, so much so that taking it off just looks painful.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Hamilton originally covered up to protect himself after a broken nose. He explained to IGN's Victor Kelly that he continued wearing it so as to prevent a similar fate: "I continued to wear the face mask for protection. It was not something that I did to help me concentrate on the court at all. I continued to wear it because I felt comfortable and I didn't want to re-injure it. It was a decision I made to be safe while I'm on the court playing."

Others have satirically speculated it was all about the ladies

Whatever the purpose, it certainly remained a topic of conversation. When he signed with the Chicago Bulls, Hamilton left no doubt that the look would remain the same (via ESPN's Melissa Isaacson): "Everything. Head band, mask, that's my look. That's like my cape. I can't live without it. I can't play without it. That's my twist." 

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The lesson seems to be that the mask works much better for some than for others. Some can't live with it—Hamilton couldn't live without it.