Rip Hamilton doesn't make it a habit of laughing at injured kids. That would be mean. But sometimes they go to curious lengths to play basketball the way he does.
"This was funny, because he had an actual hockey mask - the 'Jason' hockey mask," Rip said, chuckling at the thought of a boy outfitted for trick-or-treating on a basketball court. "They were saying when he was playing, people would make fun of him because he had a goalie mask on."
Hamilton said he hears stories like this "all the time." It comes with the distinction of being the only NBA player to wear a protective facemask in every game - and being the athlete responsible for its rocketing popularity.
The Pistons' All-Star guard began wearing the clear plastic mask that would become his trademark during the 2003-04 season. His nose had been broken twice that season (it happened once before in 2002) and Hamilton was advised to wear the mask the rest of his career or risk significant nasal reconstructive surgery. Wearing the mask on a nightly basis, Hamilton led the Pistons in scoring as they marched to the NBA title.
Since that celebrated debut, Hamilton's mask has become the most recognized sports orthosis in the world. Through intermediaries, Hamilton helps those searching for a similar device by referring them to his mask maker: Jeremy Murray, a certified orthotist and registered occupational therapist at the Michigan Hand & Sports Rehab Center in Warren, Mich.
Murray took over in 2004 for renowned orthotist Jerry McHale, who revolutionized the facial orthotics field in 1990 with a clear protective mask for Pistons center Bill Laimbeer. Initially, McHale was the Pistons' provider of hand and wrist braces for Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars in the 1980s.
Who Wears the Mask?
Rip Hamilton might be the most popular athlete to wear an orthotic mask, but as a professional, he's actually in the minority, says Jeremy Murray, the certified orthotist who makes Hamilton's masks. In fact, more than half of them are for high school athletes in a variety of sports. "Ninety percent are soccer and basketball, but also squash, volleyball and field hockey," he said.
Another 20-25 percent are for college athletes. "There's a lot of universities that send stuff out here," said Murray, who made the full-facial mask that protected Michigan State forward Matt Trannon after he broke his jaw during the 2005-06 season.
In 2007, Murray also made the most recognizable mask in college basketball. University of North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough had his nose broken in a heated rivalry game with Duke. His first mask fit awkwardly and limited his peripheral vision. Cosmetically, it also drew plenty of scorn from opposing fans, who delighted in heckling the All-America forward during the ACC Tournament. Hansbrough's father tracked Murray down before the NCAA Tournament. Hansbrough wore Murray's mask for two games during the tournament's opening weekend, after which time his nose had healed.
Although the pros are the most visible athletes to wear masks, they account for only 5-10 percent of Murray's clientele. Nevertheless, it is a far more common sight in today's NBA than it was after Bill Laimbeer first fashioned it. "You're seeing more masks around the league and college basketball than ever before. I feel like I made it alright to wear it," said Hamilton, who has had teammates (Carlos Arroyo and Antonio McDyess) and foes (Bruce Bowen and LeBron James) also wear a facemask for limited stints.
"That was so successful that I think it really became an acceptable treatment," Murray said of Laimbeer's mask. "Prior to that, if you broke your nose, you could run, you could shoot, you could jump - you could do all the things you were doing before - but you couldn't get hit so you'd still be kept out for several months. Obviously in the NBA that's not (acceptable), or even high school and college."
Laimbeer's clear facemask didn't catch on with other athletes, however. The mask was considered a device exclusively for physical players. Essentially, it was only for bruisers like Laimbeer, who were more prone to elbows to the face.
Hamilton's style of play, however, features constant motion, smooth shooting and superior athleticism. Every night Hamilton wears away the "warrior mentality" - as Murray calls it - that stigmatized the mask. Three years ago, Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour said in an interview he received phone calls for a mask once or twice a month. It has since doubled. "Just the number of phone calls - I'll get one a week for sure, probably two a week," said Abdenour, who refers all inquiries to Murray. I'm amazed how many people will just pick up the phone and say, 'Hey can you help me out?'"
The calls have come from sports enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds. On the day Murray was interviewed for this story, he had just made a mask so a 12-year-old boy in El Salvador born with a facial deformity could play soccer. Previously, a man in his 50s who played pick-up basketball flew in from Hawaii so Murray could make sure his mask fit properly.
Murray makes one or two "Rip masks" per week during the winter sports season, somewhere between 75 and 100 masks annually. Only one-fifth of them are for local Michigan athletes. The rest are sent across the globe without Murray ever meeting the person who will wear it, save for the plaster impression of his or her face he received in the mail. You need an exceptionally popular spokesperson to develop such a diverse audience, and Murray realizes he has one.
"I would think so, absolutely. Rip wears his mask, wears it all the time, and he's an all-star, a good ambassador to the game. He's a nice guy, running basketball camps and such. I've had at least three or four kids who've sent me an email that says, 'Because Rip wears his mask, I wear mine,'" Murray said. "I think if it wasn't for such a high-profile player, there's a lot of kids who wouldn't see it that way."
Those stories also get back to Hamilton, who takes pride in raising kids' self-esteem. After all, he's brought a "freakish" look into the mainstream sports culture - and even supplied a ready-made nickname to every kid who fashions it. "I had this one parent who was like, 'Thank you,' because her kid would never wear a mask because he felt left out, being the only one like that out on the floor," he said. "Seeing me wear it, he felt good about it. All the kids around him were calling him 'Rip' and he felt good about himself."
Hamilton feels pretty good about it, too. The mask's proliferation has helped hundreds of children and athletes play the sports they love. In the process, the NBA's Masked Man has become an irreplaceable cult hero.
"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."
Just like the doctor ordered.
For more information, including how to order an orthosis, visit www.customfacemasks.com.
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