The Art of ... Playing in the Mask

December 3, 2012
Tristan Thompson Tyler Zeller

If something works consistently over the course of years for one player, usually there are others that’ll follow that move in lock-step. Except in the case of Rip Hamilton.

After breaking his nose twice during the 2003-04 season, Hamilton – then with the Pistons – was fitted with a protective clear plastic mask. He had suffered one broken nose before that and was advised to wear the mask for the rest of the season. That year, Hamilton led the Pistons in scoring and helped Detroit with the NBA Championship.

Calling it his “Superman cape,” Hamilton wears the mask to this day.

This season, two young Cavaliers have been forced to wear the mask.

Tyler Zeller had the best game of his rookie season interrupted in Los Angeles when D’Andre Jordan cracked him with an elbow, causing a concussion and keeping Zeller out of the lineup almost two weeks. The day after Zeller returned to the lineup, Tristan Thompson suffered a nasal fracture in a November 18 contest in Philly.

It’s fair to say that neither young big man will consider the protective gear their “Superman cape.” In fact, both guys speak of shedding the mask the minute they’re able to, like a teenager dying to get his braces removed.

In fact, the topic seems almost as uncomfortable as the mask itself. But both players know that getting your grill cracked is an inevitability for men who make their living among the tall trees.

There is no art to playing with a mask. Guys just develop a tolerance and count the days until it can come off.

But we decided to ask Cleveland’s masked men about it anyway …

Is it as uncomfortable playing in the mask as it looks?
Tyler Zeller: It gets knocked out of place all the time. Then you just have to hit it, put it back and it pops back into place – just because your nose kind of keeps it there.

Tristan Thompson: It gets fogged up and the sweat will drip down my nose and get in my nostrils. I hate it!

Are you starting to get used it?
Zeller: No, I’m still hating it. But I’m trying to make the best of it. I’m still going to get rid of it when I can. But it allows me to play, so you just have to get used to it; try to do what you can with it.

But they did a great job of making it. So my vision isn’t impaired too much. Dribbling could be a problem, but I don’t dribble too much, so it’s cool.

Thompson: It’s feeling alright, but I’m waiting to get it off, man! I’m really anal about stuff. I don’t even like a headband or anything. I just want to play. I just want to be free and play.

Is it something you can put out of your mind when you’re on the floor?
Zeller: Not really. Just because of the plastic. You can’t really see and just the fact that it’s there, you’re always thinking about it. Then it gets hit and it moves around.

Thompson: I try not to think about it. (laughs) But it’s on my face – and sometimes it’s hard to breathe.

You’ve actually worn the mask in college before. Are there any tips for playing in it?
Zeller: The key is you have to make sure you wear it every time you shoot. Every time your work out. Because it does change your perception a little bit.

So it’s fair to say that you won’t pull a Rip Hamilton and go with the mask full-time when you’re healed?
Zeller: No, definitely not!

Thompson: NO!