Sportstorialist: LeBron James and the Meaning of the Mask

LeBron James doesn’t care. Or he didn’t seem to. Two weeks ago, he exited the Chesapeake Energy Arena — the Thunderdome — with a broken nose after Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka managed to plant a hand in James’s face. For most famous people with nowhere to hide, this would have been a disaster. James, of course, is LeBron. He turned “nowhere to hide” into “I’m going to hide my face.” And what James used, days later, to hide it was an adjustable black mask with stripes that seemed to produce moiré. It’s the sort of practical event that simmers on a site like Twitter. What’s this guy doing?

The mask was foremost a health and safety precaution — it’s made of carbon fiber and covers half his face. But it also felt like a moment of candor from a star who inspires equal parts awe and loathing: In donning a mask, he appeared to be removing one, too. He was re-embracing the bad-guy image he brought with him to Miami. And given his success with the Heat, that appears to be an image he’s comfortable with. He hasn’t gone out of his way to rewrite the enemy narrative. The mask simply redoubled it. Ingeniously, he seemed to be exploiting expectations.

But it wasn’t only that James wore the mask. Against the Knicks last Thursday, he also wore a black headband and his mustache-less beard. James turned protective sportswear into a textured look: black on black on black. (Be prepared for LeBron-obsessed teenage boys to make subway rides a lot more interesting this spring.) Comparisons to fictional baddies escaped the notice of few: Perhaps he did call to mind the Batman villain Bane, but only a lack of imagination and an understandable aversion to racial insensitivity stopped some people short of calling him the “the dark knight.” But the Dark Knight is a hero, and perhaps ascribing heroism to James is praise too far.

Setting ambivalence aside, you see LeBron wearing the mask and you don’t think about criminals or crime fighters (or you don’t think only about them). You might think about the hydraulic gyrations and circus-act style of krump or the mask-only dress code for the women in the orgy scene of Eyes Wide Shut. But mostly, the ribbed black mask evokes a pop star who continues to wear masks to perform songs with such lyrics as “You remind me of my Jeep / I wanna ride it.”

R-Kelly-Tri

Yes, the black mask stage-whispered, “R. Kelly.” For a time, Kelly donned the Zorro, which, when worn with black attire, suggested a sex bandit, which, given the testimony of women who’ve pressed charges against him, is putting it more than lightly. Last December, Kelly performed on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show in a black Phantom of the Opera–style mask while playing a violin that happened to be a woman slung onto his lap.

Kelly is brazen. He doesn’t care. And so he has made for himself a fascinating but ultimately exasperating sub-career of playing the coolest pervert. James has adopted a similar strategy for his over-the-top brilliance. In his case, the mask is less about sexual perversion and more about game-time subversion. It can’t be easy to block a man you know is injured and has turned the injury into an opportunity to look like Darth Vader (or even Big Van Vader).

Anyway, it all appears to be over. The league asked that James refrain from wearing the black mask in favor of something friendlier, less menacing, and more regulation. (Kobe Bryant went between two masks during the 2011-12 season, and years ago James wore a transparent mask to protect a cheek injury with the Cavaliers.) Officially, the new mask is clear. But no one’s looking at that mask and saying, “Oh, LeBron’s wearing the clear mask tonight.” You see it and notice that, under the lights, the new mask has a matte, clinical dullness. The medical tape on his nose is visible. I don’t know if that’s any less menacing (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seemed rightly flummoxed), but it’s certainly less fun — the mask of comic style turned into something ordinary and off-tragic.

James wore the new mask last night in Miami against the Bobcats and scored a career-high 61 points, including 25 in the third quarter. Black mask, ugly clear-ish mask: It doesn’t matter. James really doesn’t care.

Filed Under: NBA, Lebron James, Miami Heat, Basketball, Sportstorialist, Fashion

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris