During Sunday night’s All-Star Game, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant suffered a broken nose and a concussion thanks to hard foul from Miami’s Dwyane Wade. Bryant, though, was back on the court on Wednesday, his injured schnozz covered by a plastic face mask. In 2005, Brendan Koerner celebrated the inventor of the protective basketball mask, a little-known orthotist named Gerald McHale who helped players like Chris Webber and a high-school-aged Bryant play through facial injuries. The original piece is reprinted below.
You don’t have to be Wilt Chamberlain to get into the Basketball Hall of Fame. If you don’t have a sweet turnaround jumper from 18 feet, the best route to the Hall is fatherhood. Daniel Biasone, aka the “father of the 24-second clock,” made the cut. So did Ferenc Hepp, the “father of basketball in Hungary,” and Chuck Taylor, the father of Converse All Stars. But there is one very deserving father whom the hall has thus far neglected to enshrine: Gerald McHale, the man who invented the clear plastic facemask.
McHale’s enormous contribution to the game has never been clearer than this week. Consider this: If it weren’t for his ingenuity, basketball fans might have missed a month’s worth of LeBron James highlights. When Dikembe Mutombo smashed James’ cheekbone last week, the Cleveland Cavaliers star fell to the ground and writhed in pain before being helped off the court. A few days later, James dropped 26 points on the Charlotte Bobcats. If it weren’t for his plastic mask, LeBron never would’ve made it off the bench.
Back in the NBA’s pre-mask era, ballers with busted noses or orbital bones had two unappealing options: Sit out and heal, or strap on a Michael Myers-looking opaque face shield closely related to that worn by hockey goalies. (Current Los Angeles Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich is often cited as the first NBAer to wear a mask, upon his return from Kermit Washington’s punch in 1977.) These old-fashioned masks were strictly one-size-fits-all with adjustable straps that alternated between too loose and pore-crushingly tight. Guarding your face meant forfeiting peripheral vision and risking a new sort of physical harm—unsympathetic players were known to prod and jab loose-fitting facial armor.