NBA misses the mark with mask request
Mary Green | Monday, March 3, 2014
“Those who have seen your face draw back in fear; I am the mask you wear.”
This lyric might be from “The Phantom of the Opera,” and this might be a column about sports, but for those who saw the black mask LeBron James wore Thursday in his game against the Knicks, the comparison is not too far off.
For some, the Heat superstar resembled Batman; for others, he looked a little like Hannibal Lecter.
But for the NBA, James just did not look fit for the hardwood.
Normally, I’m all for keeping the status quo in athletic attire. I scowl with every new uniform the Oregon football team dons each week because heaven forbid they wear the same one twice, and I cannot stand the corporate logos on soccer and WNBA jerseys. I will gladly take the tradition of the Packers and the Yankees over the modernity of this year’s NBA All-Star Game uniforms and whatever adidas rolled out for March Madness last year.
Despite all this, I liked James’s mask, and I wish he had been able to keep it.
As much as we all know the adage that “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” professional sports, and even high-profile college sports, are all about branding these days. Every athlete must have his own image for the sake of marketing, promotion, fan identification, etc. Everyone needs a “thing,” an image that is easily associated with an athlete and that athlete alone.
Some athletes find this with their hair. For Allen Iverson, it was the cornrows. For Julius Erving and Ben Wallace, the afro (and sometimes the cornrows for Wallace). For Troy Polamalu, the large mass of hair that sticks out from under his helmet every Sunday. And for Andre Agassi, it was the lack of hair that so contrasted with his mop-and-headband combination of ’90s.
Many players have their own shoes, gloves or sticks that help them bolster their popularity by creating a demand for that one piece of equipment that one player uses. And if you are Michael Jordan — well, you have an entire brand of your own.
But for a select group, what is on their face is what really makes them stand out.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore his trademark goggles, and the accuracy of his hook did not make anyone question how effective they were.
Mike Tyson has the tattoo that wraps around his left eye, and no one wonders how tough the boxer is, both in and out of the ring.
The branding potential of facial features is hard to top. If you need further proof, take a look at Nike’s recognizable line of “Cooperstown Hair-itage” shirts with the famous outlines of baseball players’ facial hair. From classic figures like Rollie Fingers and Ozzie Smith to today’s stars like Jason Heyward and Joe Mauer, the sportswear giant has taken advantage of the distinguishable features that fans associate with their favorite athletes.
So, this makes me wonder: why would the NBA not want to take advantage of a marketing opportunity like the one presented by James and his mask?
There was so much potential in this idea. For Christmas games, he could hang little ornaments or lights from it and decorate it for the season. After Easter, James could switch out the black mask for a white one, since the rules of fashion would finally allow him to wear white.
But before he did that, he would have to wear a colorful and probably glittery Mardi Gras mask on Fat Tuesday. To add even more fun, the Heat could face off with the Pelicans that day, and the home team could hand out masks for the giveaway.
What a shame — this was really a missed opportunity.
But perhaps all this potential was the reason why the NBA told James to wear a clear mask like every other player with a broken facial bone has to wear or nothing at all. Maybe taking the best and most visible player in the league and adding another element of marketability would create too potent a combination.
Either way, the NBA missed out on this one. And now, how am I supposed to get back all that money I just invested in the mask industry?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.