It takes a special kind of person to be able to dawn a mask in today’s day and age and get away with it. Commonly we’ll think of the Jim Carrey movie that most remember for a young Cameron Diaz, super heroes (and villains), and the Guy Fawkes mask from the 1600s (also mainly featured in V for Vendetta). More recently, we can find Kanye West performing with a mask at his shows. It's not often that out athlete super heroes are those who wear the masks. We can immediately think of hockey players, particularly goalies who have animations and symbols all over their helmets to represent themselves.
Then we have the players of the NBA who dawn the mask. Commonly used to protect the player after suffering from a broken nose or facial injury, the mask has become more frequently worn by players who would rather play than sit games to heal. Classically, we had players like Bill Laimbeer and Alonzo Mourning who wore the masks, but still the occurrence was rare.
Now, in the 2013-2014 season, we already have at least four players who have worn the face mask: Nando De Colo, Matt Bonner, Patrick Patterson, and Tristan Thompson. Despite these guys making it common, we cannot forget those who pioneered the face mask for them. With LeBron’s broken nose causing him problems again, he will be wearing a mask once again. Although it was early on in his career, many remember the first time LeBron James wore the face mask. Now all eyes will be on LeBron again to see what kind of mask he will unveil against the Knicks on Thursday night.
8 Bill Laimbeer, Career Earnings: $7,388,000
Laimbeer was the cornerstone of the Bad Boy Pistons, as he was the element of their defense who would hit the offensive player after the whistle was blown. He was the guy that Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars would lead guards into, in order to get crushed by a brick wall.
This man was infamously known as a hard body and as a two-time NBA Champion, Laimbeer did not disappoint the city of Detroit. Although he only played thirteen years, Laimbeer put a lasting effect on the NBA and any opponents who were so unfortunate to run into him.
7 Matt Bonner, Career Earnings: $27,180,657
With Matt Bonner, we see a guy who has worn New Balance basketball shoes for his whole career. Known for his awkward jump shot release, Bonner has been a cherished player within the Canadian basketball community for his time with the Toronto Raptors early in his career.
The Red Rocket has proven himself as a productive system player with the Spurs. He no longer has to drive or dribble, but now he plants himself at the three point line, and either swings the ball or makes the pass. That’s why it was even more surprising when Matt Bonner caught Thomas Robinson’s head and broke his nose. Now, we have a new Bonner, a masked Bonner, who continues to please the crowds across the NBA.
6 Manu Ginobili, Career Earnings: $101,225,615
Ginobili has one of the most memorable and historic careers with one of the greatest dynasties in sports. As a San Antonio Spur from 2002 until now, Manu came onto the team and was an immediate winner. The 3-time NBA Champion has a full slate of achievements to go with his name, primarily being a 2-time All-Star, Sixth Man of the Year in 2008, and an Olympic gold medal winner with the Argentinean national team in 2004.
Now although his face mask is not the traditional mask we think of, it really shows how effective NBA trainers and medical staff can be in the middle of a game. It also shows how much of a warrior Ginobli is, because after breaking his nose mid game, he found a way to get back in with some tape on his nose. This is the guy who swatted a bat in the AT&T Center and continued to play through a possession when his shoe exploded on him. This is more than an honorable mention, this is recognition of a warrior on the hardwood.
5 Andrei Kirilenko, Career Earnings: $104,409,763
Kirilenko, best known for his stellar defensive play, wore one of the creepiest face masks ever to grace the hardwood. He has more than a strong resume already, being a former All-Star, NBA All-Rookie Team selection, and by winning multiple All-Defensive selections, Kirilenko cemented himself in as one of the best defenders in the NBA in the mid 2000s.
After a leave of absence from the NBA, when Kirilenko signed with CSKA Moscow for the entire 2011-2012 season, he came back to the Minnesota Timberwolves with just as much defensive presence as always. He is now a vital piece of the Brooklyn Nets’ defense, and does it without his face mask this time around.
4 Kyrie Irving, Career Earnings: $16,281,600
Kyrie Irving cracks the top four of the list because of how young he actually is. With all the potential in the world, this former Rookie of the Year dawned the mask and still made the game look easy.
The former Rookie of the Year and current All-Star Game MVP continues to play the game with an ease and elegance that is rarely seen. Although known outside of the NBA community for his popular Internet commercial series ‘Uncle Drew’, Irving continues to show us that even though he may have a Zorro mask on, he can still ball with the rest of them.
3 Richard Hamilton, Career Earnings: $109,166,043
Still earning a salary with the Chicago Bulls, Rip Hamilton might be the player who made the face mask acceptable in the NBA. Wearing it months after he recovered from his broken nose, Rip never took the face mask off. Commonly, players remove their masks or glasses at the foul line, but not Rip. That mask went everywhere with him, and he still wore it years after the broken nose occurred.
He said that it was a preemptive measure in case he got hit again, but who knows why he wanted to keep wearing it. Maybe because he won a Championship wearing the mask, or maybe because he was a 3-time All-Star wearing the mask. It’s hard to doubt how good Rip was in the prime of his career, as possibly the best mid-range jump shooter of the time with the ability to work off screens like Reggie Miller.
2 LeBron James, Career Earnings: $129,155,913
The man of the hour, well maybe the man of the last few years, LeBron has cemented himself as the best player in the league for the past few years and there’s no doubt about it. Before repeating as a World Champion, LeBron was often criticized for his ability to close out games and to lead a team. Since then, there has been only a hush and awe about LeBron’s game and it’s easy to see why.
It’s clear that LeBron, if really needed, can play all 5 positions on the floor. But can LeBron play all 5 positions while wearing a face mask? LeBron in a face mask is commonly remembered during his early years in Cleveland after getting destroyed by Dikembe Mutombo. LeBron then came back with a vengeance and unfortunately for Damon Jones, he was his primary victim. All eyes are on LeBron James again to see how he will react to wearing a face mask once again.
1 Kobe Bryant, Career Earnings: $279,738,062
Kobe Bryant is a player who needs no introduction, no explanation of what he’s done on the court, and no description of his impact on the NBA’s international community. He’s simply one of the best players of all time, with a drive that rivals none. When Kobe wore a face mask in the past, he did it easily and effortlessly.
Kobe is one of the few players who have worn both the clear mask and the black mask, before the NBA stopped letting players wear the black. Even so, these masks did nothing to stop Kobe’s amazing scoring abilities and his extreme efforts to be the best. Although he didn’t spend most of his career wearing the mask like Rip Hamilton, his time wearing the masks was just as legendary as his time without.