Sports Nut

The Phantom of the Hardwood

Where did the plastic basketball face mask come from?

Phantom of the NBA?
Kobe Bryant wearing a guard to protect his broken nose on Wednesday

Harry How/Getty Images.

During Sunday night’s All-Star Game, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant suffered a broken nose and a concussion thanks to hard foul from Miami’s Dwyane Wade. Bryant, though, was back on the court on Wednesday, his injured schnozz covered by a plastic face mask. In 2005, Brendan Koerner celebrated the inventor of the protective basketball mask, a little-known orthotist named Gerald McHale who helped players like Chris Webber and a high-school-aged Bryant play through facial injuries. The original piece is reprinted below.

You don’t have to be Wilt Chamberlain to get into the Basketball Hall of Fame. If you don’t have a sweet turnaround jumper from 18 feet, the best route to the Hall is fatherhood. Daniel Biasone, aka the “father of the 24-second clock,” made the cut. So did Ferenc Hepp, the “father of basketball in Hungary,” and Chuck Taylor, the father of Converse All Stars. But there is one very deserving father whom the hall has thus far neglected to enshrine: Gerald McHale, the man who invented the clear plastic facemask.

LeBron James

McHale’s enormous contribution to the game has never been clearer than this week. Consider this: If it weren’t for his  ingenuity, basketball fans might have missed a month’s worth of LeBron James highlights. When Dikembe Mutombo smashed James’ cheekbone last week, the Cleveland Cavaliers star fell to the ground and writhed in pain before being helped off the court. A few days later, James dropped 26 points on the Charlotte Bobcats. If it weren’t for his plastic mask, LeBron never would’ve made it off the bench.

Back in the NBA’s pre-mask era, ballers with busted noses or orbital bones had two unappealing options: Sit out and heal, or strap on a Michael Myers-looking opaque face shield closely related to that worn by hockey goalies. (Current Los Angeles Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich is often cited as the first NBAer to wear a mask, upon his return from Kermit Washington’s punch in 1977.) These old-fashioned masks were strictly one-size-fits-all with adjustable straps that alternated between too loose and pore-crushingly tight. Guarding your face meant forfeiting peripheral vision and risking a new sort of physical harm—unsympathetic players were known to prod and jab loose-fitting facial armor.

When Olden Polynice’s shoulder eviscerated Bill Laimbeer’s cheekbone in the 1990 preseason, the prognosis for the Detroit Pistons big man looked grim. The team called on McHale (no relation to Celtics great Kevin), who’d previously helped a few Pistons rehab their hand injuries. His solution—to adapt a molded mask used to treat hypertrophic burn scars—was revolutionary in its simplicity. The Detroit-based orthotist took a cast of Laimbeer’s face to ensure that the clear plastic fit snugly over the contours of his eyes and nose—and to guarantee that NBA-sized digits couldn’t fit between mask and skin. The mask melted away Laimbeer’s post-injury qualms about pounding the boards, and he started every regular-season game but one. He played so well, in fact, that opponents groused that he wasn’t even injured—that the Phantom of the Hardwood just wore the mask to intimidate opponents.

After supplying Laimbeer with his ingenious invention, McHale spread his plastic marvel nationwide. The 150 basketball face plates that McHale his made include models designed for the University of Michigan’s Chris Webber, the University of Alabama’s Antonio McDyess, and Lower Merion High School’s Kobe Bryant. He’s also shipped several to foreign players, including one grateful pro in the hoops hotbed of Saudi Arabia. But in the last 14 years, he’s made only one other NBA mask: the legendary shield worn by Rip Hamilton in last year’s NBA Finals.

McHale’s a modest sort who probably won’t like the fact that I’m stumping for his enshrinement. Since he never patented the mask, other orthotics specialists are free to make their own versions; James, for example, was fitted at a Cleveland hospital. But without McHale’s eureka moment in 1990, the NBA would be a poorer place—LeBron-less for a few weeks, at least, and temporarily without the services of such mask-wearing alumni as Hamilton, Charles Oakley, Lucious Harris, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Alonzo Mourning, to name just a few.

The smoosh effect might be the biggest part of the mask’s charm. In a league where players carefully cultivate their outward appearances with splendid tattoos and signature hairstyles, there’s something delightful about seeing faces obscured by a hardened version of Saran Wrap. For comedy purposes alone, Gerald McHale belongs in the Hall of Fame. Sure, Ferenc Hepp brought basketball to the land of the Magyars, but did he ever make you laugh?