LeBron James And The Mask Effect

LeBron James puts on his mask.
Photo: Getty Images

Masks: They’ve been around forever! Perhaps even literally since anthropologists haven’t been able to pinpoint the origin of face coverings (yet). The world’s oldest known surviving mask is made of stone, dates to 7000 B.C., and currently lives at Musee Biblique in France, but there’s no telling whether people were shielding their mugs well before that or not.

Masks come in all shapes and sizes, from lacquered, half-face, Phantom of the Opera joints to flashy but flimsy full-dome luchador numbers. Much of the time they’re purely aesthetic—a visual aid to some form of entertainment (see: Jabbawockeez) or meant to conceal identity (Anonymous’ Guy Fawkes)—but they’re functional accessories, too. A mask is a muzzle for Hannibal Lecter, a kind of painkiller for Bane, and far less terrifyingly (well, to some), a facial shield for Lebron James, who has been wearing a mask during games since breaking his nose last month.

LeBron James’ black and clear masks.
Photo: Getty Images

Initially, the Miami Heat forward wore a custom black carbon-fiber mask to protect his sniffer, which incited a slew of meme comparisons from Zorro to Batman to R. Kelly. It didn’t last long, though, because the NBA quickly put the kibosh on the black Hamburglar mask, requesting he wear a clear one instead. Something about his opponents being able to see his face.

Despite his injury (which, judging from that one Brady Bunch episode, is pretty painful) and being urged into a mask he didn’t originally choose, LeBron turned out one of the best games of his NBA tenure Monday night (March 3), racking up 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats—a career high for James and a franchise record for the Heat. In fact, it would seem that James was actually performing better post-injury. That is, until the Heat’s Wednesday (March 5) game against the Houston Rockets, wherein Dwight Howard may have re-broken his nose.

LeBron James takes off his mask.
GIF: Giphy/SBNation

James is reportedly supposed to continue wearing the mask for another full week. Instead, he removed it in the first quarter of the Heat’s game against the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night (March 6). I think there’s a saturation point for how long someone can stand to stay in a mask, and if it isn’t something you’ve elected to wear, it’s likely that comes very quickly. Much like when you get behind the wheel of a rental car with a smaller windshield than you’re used to, a mask can feel like it’s inhibiting you, narrowing your vision. Also, if you’re sweating a lot, as most professional athletes do, the decreased friction could make for a lot of uncomfortable, unwanted shifting.

Unfortunately, LeBron’s first no-mask game since the initial injury did not have the same outcome as that no-headband game last season, closing the game having scored just 19 points (6-18 FG, 0-3 3Pt, 7-9 FT). There are a number of things that this could be attributed to—that second blow to the face, being “extremely tired,” being less aggressive to avoid further injury, the Spurs’ defense—but one joke tweet from SB Nation has us considering another possible factor: the mask.

If you were born after the Clinton administration, you might not remember the 1994 film The Mask that produced the above still (or the Dark Horse comic series that inspired it, for that matter). For those of you unlucky to fall in that group, I’ll give you the super-quick CliffsNotes version (but DO promise me you’ll find a way to rent/buy/torrent the movie ASAP). Jim Carrey plays a meek, dowdy bank clerk named Stanley Ipkiss. Ipkiss falls in love (or lust, IDK) with a gorgeous nightclub singer (then-unknown actress Cameron Diaz) who’s mixed up with some bad dudes plotting to rob the very bank at which he works.

Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz in “The Mask.”
Photo: New Line Cinema

Ipkiss finds a wooden mask, and instead of ignoring it (in my experience, the most common way to treat street garbage), he picks it up and puts it on his face (!!!!!) thus unlocking its mysterious transformative powers. He becomes a kind of superhero version of himself, cartoonishly unaffected by physical and emotional stress. He can manipulate his surroundings, shape-shift, pull off a bright yellow zoot suit, and most important, he can get the girl. In fact, it would seem there’s nothing The Mask (Stanley’s new green-faced alter ego) can’t do.

I don’t bring this up to argue that James’ protective mask is giving him superhuman powers. That would be insane. But The Mask does play out an interesting, albeit hyper-exaggerated, demonstration of the psychological effects of masks, the attitude-altering ability that half a centimeter (or less!) of material between your face and the world can have. And it brings to mind the other big masked man of the moment: Kanye West.

Kanye West wears Maison Martin Margiela masks on his Yeezus tour.
Photo: Splash News

Kanye first introduced his masked mug early last year with a few embellished and feathered performance masks and one red ski mask for wearing in the streets. It was a look he kept returning to throughout 2013 but truly became widely recognizable and discussed when he kicked off his Yeezus tour wearing a set of four Maison Martin Margiela masks for, like, 85% of his show. The concept of masked performers is certainly not a new one, e.g. Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Slipknot, Pussy Riot, and MF Doom, just to name a few. But because Ye spent so many years unmasked, only to cover up after his sixth solo studio album, it struck some people as odd. He had already been in the public eye for so long, why shrink away or conceal things now?

“It’s freeing,” West explained to Seth Meyers. “A place where you can express yourself to your audience, to everyone, without being judged, to whatever your name is supposed to represent, whatever it means and doesn’t mean. Just to feel like a new artist again, that’s the reason why I perform most of the show in a mask.” Eccentric though it may be, there is plenty of logic to Ye’s experimentation with masks. Sure, a mask doesn’t change that he’s still on stage in front of thousands of people, but it does, in a way, keep one aspect of his performance private. The mask, for Kanye, isn’t meant to conceal identity; it’s meant to conceal his reactions, provide separation from the audience, and by virtue of doing all those things, gives Kanye renewed confidence (yes, Kanye with MORE confidence) to perform at his wildest.

Page Q’s photoshop rendering of LeBron James in a Margiela mask.
Photo: Page Q

It’s not hard to imagine that LeBron’s mask would have a similar effect, whether he intended it to or not. It’s believed that the switch to a clear mask was because the original black made it difficult for opponents to read his face, and while a transparent mask may make that slightly easier, it doesn’t change the feel of wearing a mask, of shrouding your vision in a barrier, or how the perception of acting from behind a wall can affect performance. With or without the mask, LeBron is unimpeachably an athletic freak, but he did perform at career-high peak freakishness while sporting a mask, so maybe, just maybe, Kanye’s on to something and shielding his face also unleashed something extra in James’ game. Or maybe he’s just mad at Kevin Durant.

Like us on Facebook so we can be friends and follow us on Twitter @MTVstyle to talk.