NBA basketball extends way beyond the four corners of the team arena. It’s also about setting trends and making fashion statements– headbands, tattoos, shooting sleeves, and to some extent, face masks. Speaking of, players wear face masks to protect broken noses and other injured facial features, but it’s also a way for some to express individual style.
Years back, a masked LeBron James took the league by storm but was told to ditch the protective gear and go for a clear one. Why are black face masks banned in the NBA after giving the go signal at first? The answer might surprise you.
Are Black Masks Banned in the NBA?
To “ban” means to officially and legally prohibit something. Hence, a ban must officially be in an organization’s rule book. In the case of black protective masks, there is no such rule in place. Therefore, wearing black masks is not officially banned in the NBA in that sense. But as already mentioned, the NBA reached out to LeBron James after his game wearing the Zorro-like mask and “requested” him to switch to a clear one for a pretty crazy reason.
Why are Black Masks Banned in the NBA?
On a February 20, 2014, game vs. the OKC Thunder, LeBron was whacked by Serge Ibaka on the way to the basket. He was bloodied, left the court, and subsequently missed the next game against the Chicago Bulls on February 23. He returned on February 27 against the Knicks wearing a black basketball mask for broken nose, putting up 31 points, four rebounds, and four assists in a 103-81 road victory.
And thus, the legend of the black mask was born. Before a game against the Magic that weekend, James revealed he got a request from the league asking him to ditch the black mask. As already pointed out, wearing black protective masks was not explicitly forbidden in the NBA’s rule book, making the logic behind the request seem senseless to James (and many).
So, why are black face masks banned in the NBA? It’s an unbelievable reason, but the league believed it gave James an unfair advantage because the opponents couldn’t read his eyes. As unstoppable as James was (and still is), the black protective mask’s dark outline was said to “hide” the eyes, making it harder for the opposition to read James’ plan of attack. But wasn’t that the point?
Anyway, the league’s decision was a big-time bummer for everyone. It makes no sense why the NBA prohibited James from wearing black masks, but allowed it for everyone else if they so choose.
5 NBA Players Who Wore Black Masks
Believe it or not, LeBron James wasn’t the last to come and play an NBA game looking like Zorro, nor was he the first. The NBA allowed others before and after him to wear a black mask. Here are the five NBA players who wore black masks in a game:
1. Kobe Bryant
Bryant wore a black mask for three games after the All-Star break in 2012 after Dwyane Wade broke his nose. Kobe did well, scoring at least 30 points in each of those games. While the Black Mamba looked like a superhero crime fighter in comic con, he ditched the look, claiming it became too hot and foggy after a while. It was previously reported Bryant chose the black mask out of a lineup of five because it was the most comfortable.
Maybe Kobe was telling the truth, or the fact that he started the game 2-for-10 that prompted the change. Either way, it didn’t work out as well as the Internet would have liked, but it was fun while it lasted.
Masked Kobe’s highlights from March 6, 2012.
Started the game wearing a black mask, but took it off after the first quarter. Wearing a clear face mask, Bryant had 15 points & 5 assists. And he nailed a 20-foot buzzer beater to send the game to OT.
The Pistons won, 88-85. pic.twitter.com/Qc1nVo60ji
— NBA Cobwebs (@NBACobwebs) March 17, 2020
2. Kyrie Irving
Kyrie wore the black mask on December 15, 2012, after sustaining a broken jaw in a game against the Bucks. He then proceeded to score a then career-high 41 points in a one-point loss to the Knicks as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is the only time Irving wore a black protective mask, although he did sport the clear one as a member of the Boston Celtics in 2017.
3. LeBron James
If Kobe and Kyrie obviously ditched the mask for comfort reasons, James was forced to let go of the superhero look because the league (and the opponents) simply wanted a clear look at his eyes. To be fair, the eye design of LeBron’s mask is narrower than Kobe’s or Kyrie’s, which could have factored into the decision.
As previously mentioned, LeBron only got to wear the controversial accessory once. And while James admitted the reason behind the unofficial “ban” made no sense, he reiterated he would comply with the league’s request without any holdup.
4. Joel Embiid
After LeBron wore a black basketball mask for broken nose and was notified to stop doing so, the league permitted Joel Embiid to wear one in the 2022 Eastern Conference Semifinals. How was that so?
Before you scream “double standard,” there was a reason for it. Embiid specifically asked the league for permission because he needed unique material for the mask. It is made with a combination of polypropylene and embedded carbon fiber filaments, making it super lightweight and essentially indestructible. The mask was also fitted with goggles molded to perfectly slide into his face.
Why did Embiid and the team go to extra lengths on this one? Well, Embiid had to have surgery after fracturing his orbital bone in a collision with Markelle Fultz. In 2014, he had already suffered an eye injury in Kansas, so the Sixers decided they couldn’t take another risk even though the orbital fracture had nothing to do with the previous eye issue.
5. Jaylen Brown
After Embiid played through the discomfort of an orbital bone fracture, it eventually healed, leading to a point where he no longer needed to wear the high-tech mask. And from out of nowhere, Jaylen Brown decided to carry the black mask torch.
Like the others on this list, Brown had to wear a mask because of a facial injury. He suffered one in a win over the Sixers on February 8, 2023, colliding with his own teammate, Jayson Tatum.
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) February 9, 2023
Brown admitted it can get hot and uncomfortable while also speaking about the adjustments he needed to make it work. He wore it for 19 games and brought back the look in Game 5 of their 2023 playoffs first-round series against the Hawks for precaution.
So, why was Jaylen Brown allowed to wear a black mask? The NBA did not explain, and Brown himself didn’t elaborate on it, except that he had to wear the mask longer because he ran the risk of undergoing facial surgery if he was hit again. Embiid’s reason was about the mask materials, and perhaps that’s also what Brown got to receive the thumbs-up from the league.
Wrapping Things Up: Why are Black Face Masks Banned in the NBA?
Protective masks are a must for basketball players who suffer from a form of facial injury. In the history of the NBA, many players have made it a part of their accessory. Rip Hamilton, Bill Laimbeer, and A.C. Green are some of them.
But while Hamilton and the others wore transparent masks, others, such as Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James, sported black masks. Bryant and Irving ditched it for performance reasons, but the NBA reached out to James and specifically told him to quit it.
So, why are black face masks banned in the NBA? As in LeBron’s case, it’s actually not about the color but the material. The league generally wanted clear protective masks to see the players’ eyes, so they asked James to switch. After LeBron, Joel Embiid and Jaylen Brown got the green light to wear black masks. It appears the approval has everything to do with the specific material the mask is built with.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.