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Joel Embiid, LeBron James and the Best Masks in NBA History

Joel Embiid, LeBron James and the best masks in NBA history originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

It’s the return of the mask.

Joel Embiid missed the first two games of the Sixers’ second-round series against the Heat after suffering a concussion and right orbital fracture in a closeout win over the Raptors. With the series moving to Philadelphia and the Sixers facing a 2-0 series deficit, the MVP finalist is back on the floor sporting some familiar facewear:

The NBA’s history of players taking the court with masks dates back to the 1950s. Compared to what Embiid is wearing, it’s been quite the evolution.

Here’s a trip back down memory lane with 10 of the most famous masked men in basketball:

Wilt Chamberlain

Chamberlain was one of the earliest stars to resort to a mask. The legendary center needed the headwear – which doesn’t look terrible, all things considered – after enduring a broken nose and some lost teeth.

Curtis Perry

Perry is the entry from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” era of NBA masks. Following a facial fracture, the Suns big man took the floor with a mask that would have made more sense for an NHL goalie. 

Bill Laimbeer

Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons with the first clear plastic face mask used in #NBA competition, developed by orthotist Jerry McHale. Once this style showed up in 1991, I knew it only as “The Laimbeer Mask” for the next few years.

— NBA Cobwebs (@NBACobwebs) February 20, 2020

One of the league’s most notorious villains sported a mask in 1990. Laimbeer was the first player to use a clear face mask in NBA history.

A.C. Green

The early stages of the clear mask still needed some remodeling. The NBA’s Iron Man had good reason for wearing the haunting mask, though – he lost two teeth after taking an elbow from J.R. Reid in 1996.

Richard Hamilton

16 years ago today, Rip Hamilton donned his trademark mask after breaking his nose for the second time.

Rip decided to rock it for the rest of his career.

— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) March 10, 2020

No basketball player is more synonymous with a mask than Rip Hamilton. The former Piston wore a mask for the final 10 seasons of his NBA career after breaking his nose during the 2003-04 season.

Tracy McGrady

Houston’s Tracy McGrady decided to wear a protective mask on January 27, 2006 against Minnesota after taking an elbow to the face from Jake Voskuhl in a 102-78 Rockets win over the Charlotte Bobcats two days earlier.

— NBA Cobwebs (@NBACobwebs) February 28, 2020

T-Mac became T-Mask after taking an elbow to the nose while with the Rockets in 2006. While McGrady didn’t need the mask for long, it remains one of the claims to fame for Jake Voskuhl, whose elbow caused McGrady to wear a mask in the first place.

Kobe Bryant

Speaking of nicknames, the “Masked Mamba” debuted in 2012 after Dwyane Wade gave Bryant a nasal fracture during that year’s All-Star Game. Bryant averaged 31.1 points across an 11-game stretch while wearing clear and black masks.

Kyrie Irving

Irving scored a career-high 41 points while sporting a black mask against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 15, 2012. He also wore one in 2017 with the Celtics, though he clearly was not as fond of the clear version.

LeBron James

James had to wear a mask during his second NBA season with the Cavs and brought out a black one with the Heat in 2014 after breaking his nose. He had a clear mask on for a game against the Bobcats and proceeded to put up a career-high 61 points.

Russell Westbrook

Westbrook needed a mask after fracturing a cheek bone during the 2014-15 season. The injury came from Thunder teammate Andre Roberson’s knee. Like James and Irving, Westbrook also posted a career-high scoring total in a mask, dropping 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in his first game back from the injury against the Sixers.

Joel Embiid

Embiid has a history of wearing masks against the Heat in the postseason. He made his playoff debut in 2018 while wearing a black mask in South Beach and brought it back out for Game 3 in the 2022 second round.

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