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Bald LeBron Is Better Than No-Headband LeBron, Who Is Better Than Headband LeBron

Same goes for Replacement-Tooth Isaiah Thomas. Which other NBA players have unbeatable alter egos?

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The Ringer is in the middle of Good Bad Movies Week, a celebration of movies that are good but also bad. One of the films being celebrated is Over the Top, a 1987 drama and action movie (dramaction?) starring Sylvester Stallone as Lincoln Hawk, a keeps-to-himself truck driver who tries to earn back the love and respect of the son he abandoned as an infant by winning an arm-wrestling tournament.

One of the running themes of Over the Top is that Hawk, much smaller than the most elite competitors on the arm-wrestling circuit, is able to activate some secret reserve of power and strength when he flips his hat backward. Before the start of the final match of the movie (against a guy more than 100 pounds heavier than him), Hawk explains the hat thing. He says, "What I do is I just try to take my hat and I turn it around. And it’s like a switch that goes on. And when the switch goes on, I feel like another person. I feel … I don’t know, I feel like, uh … [taps the 18-wheeler behind him] … like a truck. Like a machine."

It’s an interesting idea, really: that there’s this better, more capable version of you, waiting to be accessed through some specific routine or procedure. It’s a thing we see occasionally in basketball too. The first time I remember thinking about it was during the 2013 Finals between the Heat and the Spurs.

My beloved Spurs were somehow up 3–2 in the series, holding a five-point lead with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 6. Mario Chalmers shot and missed the rim entirely (this, I believe, is called "Chalmersing") and LeBron, that incredible devil, jumped and grabbed the air ball and dunked it all in one motion. As he did, Tim Duncan accidentally knocked LeBron’s headband off, and after that it was the fucking LeBron show. Headbandless, he hit four of his next five shots, blocked a Duncan layup, registered three rebounds and two assists, and also hit the 3 with 20 seconds left that set up Ray Allen’s unbelievable 3 that tied the game.

Two things to point out here:

  1. Ty Lawson, then the NBA’s preeminent headband enthusiast, had the best response of all when he tweeted, "F**k it!!!!! I’m never wearing my headband again either!!!!!!"
  2. A thing that gets lost in the wildness of that game (and also that series) is that Tony Parker nearly hijacked Game 6 (and also that series) for the Spurs. They were down three with 1:30 left and he hit an impossible stepback 3 over LeBron to tie it, then put Chalmers in the torture chamber in the lane on the next Spurs possession to give them a two-point lead with 58 seconds to go. And, just as a reminder, that was the same series where he stole Game 1 away from the Heat by hitting that goofy shot clock buzzer-beater over LeBron after falling down. I miss Tony so much.

So the secret power activation thing is fun to think about, particularly since LeBron recently posted a video of himself with a bald head. If he was that devastating after he ditched his headband, imagine how devastating he’s going to be now that he’s ditched his hair. And what happens if he just keeps on removing stuff from his head? Like, what if Bald LeBron wins a title this coming season, and then the offseason after that he shaves off his eyebrows, and then the offseason after that he gets all of the teeth pulled from his mouth? Could we get a championship three-peat? Is that in play? How far will he take it? Will he remove his nose? His ears? "Now I can’t hear the haters," he’ll probably say in a video via Uninterrupted.

What are the others?

There’s definitely Untucked Jersey Kyrie Irving, currently the most well known of the player variants and my favorite, too, mostly because the jersey looks a lot like a superhero’s cape when it’s flapping around behind him as he zooms to the rim. (I love a good Kyrie Irving layup so, so, so much. It’s probably become the kind of shot I like the most over the past two years. It’s like a graphic novel: There’s a plot to it, and conflicts, rising action, and a climax. We should talk more about this soon.)

There’s Gang Sign John Wall. There’s Dangling Mouthpiece Steph Curry.

Then there’s Post-Technical-Foul DeMarcus Cousins. A Twitter account called @NBAAYY makes basketball charts, including one that showed the difference between Regular DeMarcus and Post-Technical-Foul DeMarcus back in 2015. At the time the chart was posted, DeMarcus actually averaged more points, rebounds, assists, and steals per 36 minutes after he was called for a technical foul, which is pretty perfect.

A similar thing happened with National TV Rajon Rondo, a player variant mentioned regularly by my boss, Bill Simmons. The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective ran a study that proved Rondo really did play better during nationally televised games. (A bizarre team version of this is the Bulls winning 20 games in a row when playing on TNT, giving us the TNT Bulls.)

In April of last year, Isaiah Thomas started a game against the Warriors by going 0-for-7 from the field. He changed his shoes at halftime and then went from 9-of-13 in the second half, so there’s for sure New Shoes Isaiah. You could also argue that there’s New Tooth Isaiah, given that he went for 11-for-23 for 33 points in Game 1 against the Wizards in these past playoffs, then, after getting a replacement tooth for the one he had knocked out in Game 1, went 18-of-33 for 53 points in Game 2, though I’m not sure how open he’d be to the idea of getting one of his teeth knocked out that often.

Older ones are fun to think about too. My six favorite: Mustache Larry Bird, Afro Ben Wallace, Band-Aid Dwyane Wade, Spray-on-Hair Carlos Boozer, Jersey-Biting Kobe, Tongue-Out Jordan. (If you want to count number changes, then a fun one is the time someone stole Jordan’s jersey before a road game in Orlando in 1990 and he had to wear number 12 as a replacement. He scored 49 points that game, which means that Number 12 Jordan has a higher points per game average than Number 45 Jordan and Number 23 Jordan.)

There are just so many. The NBA is the best. But the best example of secret basketball variants doesn’t come from the NBA.

(Shea Serrano)
(Shea Serrano)

That’s a group of basketball players I coached two years ago. The picture was taken before our second-to-last game of the season. Now, be sure when I tell you this: This group was a great deal of fun to coach. They were sweet, fun, funny, respectful kids, and I would happily coach them all again given the opportunity. That said, also be sure when I tell you this: They were not that great at basketball. Of the entire group, only Big Al (the second one from the right in the yellow shoes) had ever played on an actual team before. All of the rest were first-time team players, and I’m almost certain that the one standing up adjusting his headband had never even seen a basketball before.

Still, I’d like to say again that they were sweet, fun, funny, respectful kids, and so that’s why I bought them all headbands. We were at practice one afternoon and one of them (I think it was Frankie Buckets) (Frankie Buckets is the one laughing at the camera) (he fucking made me laugh every day) (he made one jumper the whole season and he swore he was the new Steph Curry) said something about how they’d probably play better if they had headbands like NBA players. And since we were 0–7 at that time, I was really up for trying anything. I found the headbands online for $2.99 apiece a couple of days later, ordered them, then gave them to everyone the day of the game as a surprise.

Now, the goofy part of all of this is that, as excited as they were to get them and as neat as they thought it was that they were wearing them, everybody panicked as we pulled up to the opposing team’s gym (it was a road game). "Coach, I don’t wanna wear this headband anymore," someone shouted from the back of the bus. "Me neither," another person said. And before the bus had even stopped they had all taken the headbands off and stuffed them in the ball bag. They were embarrassed to wear them because they thought it was going to be weird that they looked like a team that was good at basketball but were actually a team that was bad at basketball, which is probably a too-complicated-for-12-year-olds idea, but kids are always more complicated than you’re anticipating so I guess it makes sense.

The less goofy part, though, is I think the headbands actually worked a little, in some residual-effects kind of way. In all of the games prior to that one, we’d lost by something like 40 points. We lost the Headband Game by only about 25, which was basically a win for us. "Guys," I said when we got back on the bus, "imagine if y’all would’ve kept the headbands on for the whole game. We might’ve only lost by 10, or maybe we might’ve even won the game." They laughed a tiny amount and then that was that. I never saw the headbands again.