Let us start with some history.
On January 12, 1968, two games before the “Game of the Century” between UCLA and Houston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had his left cornea scratched in a ferocious rebounding battle with Cal’s Tom Henderson. Despite missing the next two games, Kareem played hurt against Houston and was held to just 15 points in a losing effort. What became evident later on was that the scratched cornea would be the first of such injuries that would lead to Kareem’s development of corneal erosion syndrome. Yet, after his eye became the target of scratching upon scratching, Kareem took advantage of the opportunity to bolster his Hall of Fame career with the image that would come to define it: the 7-1, lanky, all-time leading scorer, who wore goggles.
Only in basketball does injury provide the opportunity for memorable players to become truly unforgettable. When Kareem started the trend, goggles on the hardwood became a common form of injury prevention and post-injury protection, ranging from kids rocking them in junior league to the iconic faces of James Worthy, Kurt Rambis and Horace Grant. Goggles became cool. But before Amar’e Stoudemire graced the court with a pair of slick Oakley’s after suffering both a partially torn iris and a detached retina last season, there was a noticeable gap of years that goggles remained dormant in the League. It appeared the end of goggles was imminent.
For any player, a distinctive persona is hard to create. But in 2004 and 2005, David Stern made it even more difficult. With the “Malice in the Palace” in 2004, Stern made it near-impossible for the true bruiser to exist in the league. Laimbeer, Oakley and Artest spent years defining themselves as extra-basketball enforcers, but now we may never see a guy that can single-handedly clear a bench again. In 2005, Stern implemented the famous dress code, and gone were the off-the-court personas of Rodman and Iverson that generated public interest for the league and created entire subcultures across the world. The league has become, and will continue to become, tame and polished, and the opportunities for players to create lasting images will be increasingly limited.
This is why Kareem was so ahead of his time, and it is why players who wish to survive their playing years have learned to embrace injury. With the declining presence of goggles, Rip Hamilton has solidified his place in history as the recognizable man in the mask, and he knows it too: “I love it. It’s like my identity,” Rip said. “If someone doesn’t watch basketball, an old lady, they always know who wears the mask. It’s my identity and I’ll wear it the rest of my career.” The mask is an opportunity for no other reason than the proverbial old lady that Hamilton cites in the formation of his identity. Thousands of players have entered the minds of fans and exited just as quickly since 1990, but facial accessories make their mark on a fan’s conscience, if only for a little longer.
Grant and Rambis were good. They were truly valuable to championship teams. But they are not Hall of Famers. And though Rip may forever tread the same waters as them in a pool outside of the Hall, he will always be remembered as “that mask-wearing shooting guard with the sweet mid-range jumpshot,” just as his predecessors will likewise be remembered foremost for their goggles.
Hedo, after reluctantly agreeing to start wearing a mask after suffering an orbital-bone fracture below your right eye, you ditched the mask on Saturday against Washington and dropped 16-6-5. Still, you achieved these numbers at what cost?
According to the National Post, you fought the idea of wearing a mask so much before reluctantly agreeing and then ditching it again, that you were willing to sign a waiver clearing the Raptors of any responsibility if you sustained further injury: “They want me to be careful about it, but like I said, it’s not really helping me out. It’s still uncomfortable and I appreciate all the concern, but I’m a grown man and I make my own decisions and I decide not to wear. Just try to focus on my game, not on my face.”
But what if your face is inextricably tied to your legacy? What if the very memory of your Paul Pierce-like game depends on this mask? Sure, you say that the mask is uncomfortable, but not only do you risk further (serious) injury and place your commitment to the team under scrutiny after GM Bryan Colangelo implored that you wear it, but you are putting your very legacy in jeopardy. If you want the chance to be remembered far into basketball posterity, Hedo, listen to your friends and wear the mask: “Don’t be stupid.”