From Kobe Bryant’s performances as the Masked Mamba to Joel Embiid’s stint as the Phantom of the Process in the 2018 Playoffs, there are plenty of instances when an NBA player wearing a protective mask has caused a buzz. Some, like Bryant’s mask in 2012, became so iconic that reporters are still writing about it.
However, there are some concerns that masks may have negative effects on an athlete’s performance. The theory is that they can impair his vision, mobility, or comfort enough to affect their normal play style.
Why Do NBA Players Wear Masks?
Broken noses and orbital fractures are far too common in the fast-paced NBA brand of basketball. Masks, often made of carbon fiber or clear plastic, are currently the only way to prevent these injuries from occurring. They provide crucial support while allowing players to play without major restrictions. They also help avoid direct hits, ensuring a faster recovery and a triumphant return to the court!
Some players, on the other hand, choose to wear masks for injury prevention. Shattering your face is no joke, and wearing a mask can help you prevent that from happening. Even if you don’t have any major injuries to worry about, there’s always a chance that something could happen during a game—and having a mask on hand makes sure that doesn’t happen!
However, masks are not without their cons. There are concerns that, specifically in basketball, masks can impair a player’s vision, mobility, or comfort enough to detract substantially from their gameplay.
The 11 Best Masked NBA Players
While many players have worn masks in NBA games, only a few athletes have made a mark while wearing them. Here are some of the best masked NBA players:
1. Richard Hamilton
Richard Hamilton’s mask-wearing journey began in the 2003-2004 season after suffering a broken nose twice in two months. Initially, his doctors forced him to wear the mask as a means of letting the injury heal faster, but it soon became part of his signature look.
Hamilton performed better with the mask, helping propel the Detroit Pistons to an NBA championship in 2004 against the mighty Lakers. And while he never won another championship again, he remained a steady offensive contributor with the mask on for the rest of his career.
Initially meant for temporary protection, the mask became Hamilton’s trademark look that carried him through the rest of his career. These days, Rip’s the go-to guy for players such as Devin Booker looking for advice on how to wear a mask during games.
2. Kobe Bryant
In 2012, even a broken nose couldn’t keep the ultimate competitor, Kobe Bryant, off the court. So, for a brief period in 2012, The “Black Mamba” transformed into the “Masked Mamba” and scored 31 points and dished out seven assists in his first game wearing it. He kept up the high-quality play, too, as he scored 30+ points in the next 7 out of 10 games while wearing a mask.
It was a significant feat as the 33-year-old guard, with bad knees and a broken nose, was supposed to be at the twilight of his career. But instead, he kept playing like he had something to prove.
As with all things Kobe, his mask quickly became an iconic symbol of determination and resilience.
3. LeBron James
Remember that time in 2014, when LeBron James’ mask, in black carbon fiber, made him look like Batman on the court? A broken nose led him to this temporary look, which seemed to have had some sort of effect on the Knicks’ defense! In the game against the New York Knicks, LeBron amassed 31 points, leaving fans with an unforgettable display of skill. While this masked phase was short-lived, it deserves a page in the book of LeBron’s legendary career.
But that wasn’t even his most memorable performance with a mask on. He also scored his career-high 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats just a couple of games later while still wearing a protective mask.
4. Bill Laimbeer
Bill Laimbeer, former Detroit Piston, was one of the first notable players to wear a mask in the 1990s. He was one of the most feared players in the league because of his physical play style. And when he had to wear the mask for a few games to protect his face from getting constantly injured.
He also has the honor of being the first player ever to wear a clear plastic mask to an NBA game.
5. Russell Westbrook
Westbrook’s iconic performance with a face mask in 2015—scoring 49 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists—is the stuff of legend. The mask didn’t just protect his healing zygomatic arch; it seems to have amplified his sheer resolve and power on the court.
6. Joel Embiid
When Joel Embiid fractured his orbital when he collided with teammate Markelle Fultz late in the 2018 season, the Sixer’s franchise superstar had no choice but to sit out many games, including the first two of his first-ever playoff appearance. So, when he finally got some playing time, he had to do so in a menacing black mask reminiscent of the one used in the Broadway hit Phantom of the Opera. And in true Embiid fashion, he rocked with it and called himself the Phantom of the Process in a Tweet.
The black mask didn’t keep Embiid from playing his game, though. He scored 23 points and racked up 7 rebounds to help the Sixers win Game 3 against the Heat in a blowout victory.
7. Jaylen Brown
The Celtics’ do-it-all wing joined the masked ranks of the NBA in the 2017-18 season after taking an unfortunate tumble during a game against the Golden State Warriors. While the mask was only meant to be a temporary addition to Brown’s on-court look, his performances with it were incredible, averaging 28 points at a 51% shooting rate, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals.
Masked Jaylen (14 games):
37.5 MIN https://t.co/6IdzqbxaQH
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) March 27, 2023
In a way, it amplified his scrappy yet smooth playing style, marking another intriguing chapter in the basketball annals of Beantown.
8. Kyrie Irving
With his electrifying drives and acrobatic finishes that often leave opponents scratching their heads, Kyrie Irving has definitely experienced a couple of unfriendly elbows to the face. But even when he suffers facial fractures, he’d just don a protective mask and keep scoring just like he did against the Knicks in 2012. He made five out of eight shots from the three-point line and scored a total of 41 points.
9. Chris Paul
2012 was the year of the mask as superstar-caliber players such as LeBron and Kobe started wearing them. Chris Paul, another 2010’s superstar player, would add to the list. After breaking his nose in 2012, point God Chris Paul also sported a clear mask. Even with his face behind protectors, nothing could stop his command of the court. Even with the mask on for a stretch during that season, Paul helped lead the Clippers to a 56-26 record, showcasing his true grit and leadership!
10. Charles Barkley
Barkley’s tango with the face mask was short, but it reminded everyone of his toughness and dedication to the game. He was a force to reckon with, mask or no mask. In March 1992, while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, Barkley suffered a nasty elbow to the face during a game against the Phoenix Suns. The result? A fractured nose.
But being the competitive monster that he was, a fractured nose wouldn’t keep Chuck off the court. To prevent further damage, Barkley adopted a protective face mask on the next game against the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys. Even with the mask on, he’d have a stat line that read: 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 assists. What’s even more amazing is that he did all this before fouling out in the middle of the fourth quarter.
11. Ja Morant
While Ja Morant hasn’t been in the news for favorable reasons of late, he’s had some noteworthy on-court performances with a mask on. He injured his nose in late February 2023 and had to wear a mask for the next few games. On his first game back, he scored 17 points in just 24 minutes after coming off the bench for the first time in his career. And just a few nights after that, he scored an amazing 27 points and 6 assists while wearing a new custom-made mask. He did all this in just 29 minutes on the court.
Wrapping Things Up: The 11 Best Masked NBA Players
Given basketball’s high physical contact nature, facial hits and nudges are not rare. Facial injuries, therefore, are a pretty common occurrence in the NBA. By wearing a mask, players shield themselves from accidental incidents that could potentially aggravate an existing facial injury.
Fortunately, numerous instances of NBA players donning a mask following an injury show them continuing to deliver exceptional performances. In fact, many players, such as LeBron James, have even scored career highs while wearing a mask. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that masks add a touch of menacing coolness to a player’s persona.
So, the next time you see your favorite player wearing a mask in a game, don’t worry. They won’t be too distracted by their new accessory. It’ll even help them heal faster and get back to their best.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.