Every NBA player today is forced to wear a mask while they’re not on the court due to Covid-19 health and safety protocols.
However, some players have been forced to wear a different type of mask in-game since decades earlier. While they certainly make a player stand out and appear menacing at times, that’s not the reason a player puts them on.
Let’s take a look at the reasons why NBA players wear or have worn masks, the history of mask-wearing in the league, and the NBA superstars who are so often associated with the “masked man” look.
Masks aid recovery and prevent further injury
The primary reason professional basketball players wear masks is to aid the healing process by reducing the risk of further facial injury—such as a nose injury, broken cheekbone, or orbital fracture. Oftentimes, a doctor will not permit the player to play in a basketball game without a protective face mask.
The beginning of the mask
Due to the physical nature of the game of basketball, players have used different types of protective headwear for a very long time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for instance, started wearing goggles a couple of years into his NBA career due to how often he was poked in the eyes. It was around that same time that the most infamous early incident of a protective face mask in the NBA came to be.
On December 7, 1977, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the Houston Rockets. Early in the third quarter, Rockets center Kevin Kunnert got in a grabbing and pushing battle with Lakers forward Kermit Washington. When they got tangled up near halfcourt, Houston power forward Rudy Tomjanovich intended to interfere as a peacemaker to separate both men. But Tomjanovich was punched straight in his face by Kermit in what turned out to be a life-threatening shot.
The results: a fractured skull, broken jaw, broken nose, alongside other facial injuries and leakage of spinal fluid. Tomjanovich was lucky to even be alive, let alone be back on the basketball court just five months after the punch.
When he returned to the hardwood, Tomjanovich wore a white mask that covered almost his entire face. It protected his forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin. The masks we’ve seen NBA stars wear since are much different, however, as Tomjanovich’s injuries called for extra protective headwear.
But the fact the former Rockets forward managed to play so soon after suffering such severe injuries set a precedent for many players who in the future opted to play with a protective mask rather than sit out games while still recovering. The craziest part of his story is Tomjanovich managed to earn another All-Star selection after the infamous punch.
Famous players who wore masks
There have been some notable NBA superstars to wear masks after suffering facial injuries. All of them did it for protection purposes; to avoid further injury or to be cleared to play while still healing a broken bone or other facial injuries. However, all of these stars wore different types of masks and showed off different styles.
During the 2012 All-Star game, the late great Kobe Bryant broke his nose after a collision with fellow star Dwyane Wade. Kobe embraced Mamba Mentality and decided he wasn’t sitting out any games after the All-Star break.
In the Lakers’ first game after the break, “Bean” stepped onto the court wearing a clear mask and proved to be unfazed by it, dropping 31 points and dishing eight assists en route to a win. After a three-game with the clear mask in which he averaged 30-plus points, the Mamba opted for a different look and decided to play with a black mask.
The experiment was short-lived, as Kobe Bryant ditched the dark mask after only half a game in which he shot just 2-for-10 from the field and instead returned to the transparent mask.
Kyrie Irving is another player who’s wore a mask multiple times throughout his career. His most notable masked performance came in the second year of his career, one game after he broke his jaw in a matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Irving wore a black Zorro-like mask and scored a then career-high 41 points against the New York Knicks to go along with five assists and five rebounds. Uncle Drew also wore a mask for a brief stint while playing for the Boston Celtics, but opted for a clear version that time.
Perhaps the most notable instance of a player wearing a dark mask came in 2012, when LeBron James of the Miami Heat donned a black carbon fiber mask. The King looked like a superhero straight out of an action movie, and his performance was nothing short of the look.
His black carbon fiber mask was mysteriously banned by the NBA without much of an explanation. The problem was its color, and he switched it out for an identical mask that was transparent instead of black.
The change might have been for the better, though, as LeBron dropped a career-high 61 points under his new mask and added seven rebounds and four assists.
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker was also forced to wear a protective mask during his first career NBA playoff run in 2021. Book suffered a broken nose after an unintentional headbutt from LA Clippers point guard Patrick Beverly during the 2021 Western Conference Finals.
Despite the injury, Booker just couldn’t get used to the mask and decided to take it off after missing an easy layup in the third quarter of Game 4 of the Clippers series. Unlike the other players we’ve discussed today, Booker really struggled playing with the mask, hence why he got rid of it mid-game.
Richard “Rip” Hamilton may be the most recognizable masked man in NBA history, and that is because he permanently incorporated it into his game apparel.
Hamilton first had to wear a custom fit mask after breaking his nose multiple times in the 2003-04 season. But even after his nose healed, he decided to keep the mask around and wore it consistently throughout the rest of his career.
Perhaps the mask gave him an extra sense of confidence because Hamilton’s game reached new highs after he started to wear the mask. He became a multi-time All-Star and led the Detroit Pistons in scoring during their 2004 championship season.
Does mask-wearing hinder the player?
Even though the masks worn by NBA players aren’t just generic masks but custom-made for the player, they can inevitably be uncomfortable for the player.
In 2017, Kyrie Irving, playing for the Boston Celtics at the time, complained that playing with a mask was like “having somewhat foggy blinders on”. He did, however, say that the transparent one was preferable to his previous black mask because it wouldn’t affect his peripheral vision.
So while face masks might not have a dramatic impact on a player’s ability, it’s easy to understand why players don’t wear them unless required to. By contrast, mouthguards are often voluntarily worn by basketball players.
Why were black masks banned by the NBA?
As already mentioned, the NBA mysteriously decided to ban Lebron James from wearing his black mask and forced him to change it to a clear one. No one knows the exact reason, but there are a few theories: to aid the player’s visibility, to help other players on the court see the mask wearer’s eyes, or simply because they didn’t like the look of it.
The interesting thing is that the league doesn’t appear to actually officially ban players from wearing black masks, but rather requests certain players from doing so. Joel Embiid was rocking a black mask well after the ‘ban’, but the NBA didn’t do anything about it.
Even though most NBA players would rather not wear a protective mask, it’s usually their only choice if they want to step on the court while still recovering from injuries.
And while the general purpose of wearing the mask is protection, there’s also some style and swag that comes with masking up. But if it’s just for style, players already have plenty of options to define their unique appearance through a combination of sneakers, arm sleeves, headbands, wristbands, and tattoos.
We’ve seen many players have some of their best performances ever while wearing a mask, so it will be interesting to see how masked players continue to perform in the future. But given nobody has adopted a mask on a permanent basis since Rip Hamilton retired, it’s quite likely we will see protective masks make a comeback only when they’re absolutely needed.