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Steve Aschbruner

Kurt Rambis' iconic eyeware was a staple of the "Showtime" Lakers of the 1980s.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

From Mikan to Rambis, few players make spectacles of selves

Posted Nov 27 2009 11:33AM

Players seldom make passes to guys who wear glasses. But not for lack of trying.

It's the lack of eyeglasses, historically, that has made such a move -- and a variation of the old Dorothy Parker-penned, pre-politically correct couplet ("Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses'') -- difficult in the NBA. Given the activity level, the amount of sweating that goes on and the altitude at which flailing elbows, extended forearms and the bridges of guys' noses most frequently collide, wearing a pair of glasses in a pro basketball game is like catering Taco Bell to the green room of "The Biggest Loser.'' Just asking for trouble.

This is as relevant at the moment as it is rare, because Friday night in Minnesota is scheduled as Kurt Rambis Night. The Timberwolve's first-year head coach is a much spiffier, Lasik-enhanced version of the former Lakers power forward who made nerdy black eyeglasses cool for a while in the 1980s and '90s. More than his longish surfer hair or the 'stache on his upper lip, it was the glasses Rambis wore that typified his blue-collar, unfashionable game as a rebounder and defender in "Showtime,'' the league's most stylish attack from its most fashionable franchise.


Iconic in their own right, Rambis' spectacles -- some remember them as horn-rimmed, though they actually were known as sports frames -- inspired the "Rambis Youth,'' young fans who would show up in the stands wearing dark rims to cheer on their cult hero. It was a retro look that, contrary to most fads in southern California, was borne completely out of necessity.

"When I was growing up, because I played football, basketball, baseball. I kept getting hit in the face and [my glasses] kept breaking,'' Rambis said this summer, the day Minnesota hired him. "My dad finally went to a store and found some unbreakable glasses, slapped them on my face, and if I wanted to play I had to wear them. So I had no choice and that's what I grew up with. It wasn't a first option, believe me.''

About a decade ago, already retired after 14 seasons with L.A. and three other teams, Rambis -- who had worn much sleeker glasses off the court -- opted for the laser surgery. But he was playing along Friday with his new team's promotion in which fans who bring a pair of new or used eyeglasses for the Disabled American Veterans charity would receive a pair of tickets to an upcoming Wolves game. Also, the first 5,000 fans at Target Center were to get replica "Rambis glasses,'' which at least is a better look than the paper bags that soon might be donned by fans of the 1-14 team.

Those curious in the national audience will have to settle for highlights only, because the lopsided-on-paper clash with Phoenix got dumped from ESPN's TV schedule in favor of Milwaukee-Oklahoma City. Still, with 5,000 spectacled spectators and Suns forward Amar'e Stoudemire sporting state-of-the-art goggles this season to protect his surgically repaired right retina, eyewear figures to be a big theme.

And worthy of another four-eyed look, in terms of NBA traditions (in honor of the topic, I haven't popped in my contacts yet).

Among the major sports, basketball is more in line with football and hockey in terms of sight correction; most players who needed some opted for contact lenses or, more recently, surgery. Notable exceptions: Running backs Chuck Muncie and Eric Dickerson, NFL running backs who wore sport frames, and longtime NHL defenseman Al Arbour, who played with eyeglasses and without a helmet back in the proverbial day.

George Mikan was a trail blazer in many ways ... not least of which was making eyeglasses cool.
NBAE via Getty Images

Baseball? Specs have been no biggie, from vintage players such as Chick Hafey and Dom DiMaggio to guys like Reggie Jackson, Kent Tekulve, Eric Gagne, Kevin Gregg and "Major League'' closer Ricky (Wild Thing) Vaughn. Long-ago, hard-throwing Yankees reliever Ryne Duren was known for his thick glasses and used it to his advantage; when summoned from the bullpen, he'd squint in toward home plate, then unleash a wicked fastball high onto the screen to unnerve opposing batters.

Missing one's target in basketball is of no advantage, so there's no intimidation element to NBA eyewear. What was intimidating was the play of the game's most famous bespectacled one, George Mikan. The 6-foot-10 Minneapolis Lakers center in the round glasses was the NBA's first superstar and played his way to the Hall of Fame and seven championships in eight years across three pro leagues from 1947 to 1954. With his size and his deadly ambidextrous hook shots, Mikan was Superman in those black-and-white years without shedding the Clark Kent look.

A famous photo from December 1949 shows the marquee at New York's old Madison Square Garden with the tout: "GEO MIKAN V/S KNICKS.'' Such as Mikan's literal and figurative stature in the game that people paid to see him, never mind those Lakers teammates. But there was an eyeglasses angle to that tale, too.

"'I had a habit of when I dressed before a game to place my eyeglasses on a locker shelf for safety,'' Mikan told the New York Times in 2001. "I'm very near-sighted and can hardly see without my glasses. So after I put on my uniform and then put on my glasses, I turned around. All of my teammates were still in street clothes.

"I said, `What's going on?' Slater Martin, our great guard, said: 'George, didn't you see the marquee? It says you're playing the Knicks -- go on out and play 'em.' Slater was the instigator of them giving me the rib. Well, I gave them a few choice words, and we all broke out laughing.''

In the official NBA Guide, as you page year-by-year through the championship team photos, you can from Mikan's crew in 1953-54 to the Lakers in 1981-82 without seeing a player in glasses. That's Rambis seated between Jim Brewer and Jamaal Wilkes. On Wilkes' left, there's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, notably sans his famous goggles.

If you do count goggles -- after assorted eye pokes, Abdul-Jabbar finally resorted to them with Milwaukee in 1974 after suffering a scratched cornea in his left eye -- then eyewear in the NBA, whether corrective or protective, has an impressive resume. Counting Mikan, Rambis, Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy (goggles) and former Bulls and Lakers forward Horace Grant (goggles/safety glasses), that's a pretty high ratio of titles won to spectacles worn.

The statue of Mikan in the lobby of Minneapolis' Target Center naturally sports a pair in bronze, although odds were great Friday evening that someone would stick a set of Rambis replicas on him, too.

.Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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