- Joel Embiid's return helped power the 76ers to a Game 3 win, but an assist from a prosthetics expert ultimately made the biggest difference for Philadelphia. The Crossover examines the story behind Embiid's mask.
Justise Winslow’s size–14 sneaker was no match for the mask. The protective contraption, designed to shield Joel Embiid’s face, allowed the Sixers’ All-Star to return from an orbital bone fracture and make his NBA postseason debut Thursday night. Embiid finished Philadelphia’s Game 3 victory against Miami with 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He inflicted the majority of his damage after Winslow tried to stomp on the goggles that accompany Embiid’s new headgear. “Fortunately we had a mask in the bullpen," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "Little do they know is that I have about 50 of them,” Embiid said. “It's going to take much more than that to get me out of this series. I'm going to be a nightmare for them, too."
Destroying the device would be a hellish task as well. The Sixers are carrying multiple masks comprised of "procomp" material: A combination of polypropylene and embedded carbon fiber filaments. It’s a virtually indestructible mechanism designed by John Horne, a certified prosthetist at the University of Delaware STAR campus, specializing in research and clinical prosthetic and orthotic devices. Personal experience led him into the prosthetic field. At 15, Horne was diagnosed with bone cancer, which required amputating his leg below the knee to remove a tumor. Horne has previously crafted another procomp mask for college athletics, although it “obviously [did] not [receive] this much attention,” he texted The Crossover.
When a 7’2” all-world center returns to the court wearing a mask like Embiid's it’s an optimal moment to break out Vibranium jokes. Embiid’s mask required the additional goggling—Horne preferred to keep the technology behind the lens a “secret”—due to a previous facial injury he sustained during his lone season at Kansas. Without the enhanced protective measures, Embiid could have experienced a great risk of reinjury, and even potential loss of sight in his left eye. Horne and Delaware STAR had already manufactured a mask prior to Saturday’s Game 1. It took nearly two dozen iterations and retooling for the NBA to finally approve Embiid’s new look. “Everything’s licensed with the league,” said Rip Hamilton, who donned his trademark mask during the Pistons’ championship run in 2004.
After originally breaking his nose in 2002, Hamilton shattered his snout twice during the 2003-04 campaign. Contrary to legend, Hamilton strapped his mask for battle during the remainder of his career in order to prevent significant nasal reconstruction surgery. It was far from a superstitious ritual. As Hamilton blossomed into a three-time All-Star, sporting the mask for the final nine seasons of his illustrious career, he despised wearing a plastic creation on his face while playing a career-average 32.1 minutes per night. “It’s not a thing that you do get used to,” Hamilton said. “When you’re a kid and you go trick-or-treating and you gotta wear the plastic mask on your face, you only put it on when you’re at the front door of the home. You’re not wearing it as you’re running up and down the neighborhood.”
Embiid removed the mask, sliding it atop his head, during his 15 free throw attempts in Game 3. Hamilton advised its best to grow accustomed to playing with the disguise by learning to react to the sweat, fog and heat it brings during live game action. He never wore it around his Michigan home and shed it quickly during the first shooting drill of its inaugural practice. “You tend to think, ‘Oh, maybe I should shoot it higher. Maybe I should shoot it to the left a little bit, or to the right a little bit,’” Hamilton said. “I wanted to keep the same exact mindset going into every other game that I used to go into, and once the game comes, I’d just throw it on so I wouldn’t have to think about it as much.”
The mask will frustrate Embiid as it did Hamilton for a decade. The Sixers superstar impatiently slammed it to the hardwood on multiple occasions Thursday night. Yet he still drained 3-of-4 attempts from deep and was able to get the win. “No matter how much it bothers me," Embiid said, "I still gotta be a basketball player."