The 2018-19 NBA season will be remembered as the year of the comeback. Of headbands.
It began on opening night, when a black bandana-clad Kyrie Irving freelanced as an estranged Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. It continued when the Philadelphia 76ers underwent the most comprehensive makeover of any team, leading to the formation of a headband club that head coach Brett Brown credited with helping his backcourt bond. It seems the entire league is enamored with an outmoded 2-inch strip of fabric originally designed to keep sweat out of the eyes. Just as shooting sleeves, compression leggings and knee-high socks once captured the zeitgeist, the headband — in both its traditional and “Karate Kid” form — is again the latest fad.
During the regular season and these playoffs, the rebirth of the headband has been on display nearly every night. And since stats on Headband Usage Rate (HUR) are not regularly available on NBA.com or even Second Spectrum, we decided to document the rise of the headband ourselves, counting them by watching video from every single game.1
About 16 percent of the 530 players who saw at least one minute of action sported either a traditional or ninja-style headband — from 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas to 7-foot Joel Embiid, and all sizes in between. Sixteen players this season even had their official photos taken in one. This isn’t a trend reserved for bench mobs, either: According to our count, 73 of the 394 players who started at least one regular-season game wore a headband in that start, nearly twice as many as last season.
“When you wear a headband,” Jimmy Butler said, “you’ve got to do something extra special.” Indeed, the unassuming textile has appeared in some of this season’s most memorable games. James Harden put one on and dropped 54 points. Klay Thompson set an NBA record for 3-pointers made. After getting elbowed in the head, Joe Ingles effectively made a headband out of gauze and drilled a game-winning shot, which excited the entire roster.
As was the case when Wilt Chamberlain spearheaded the headband movement during the late 1960s, there’s been an impact on the league’s bottom line. Global sales of Nike headbands are up 50 percent over last season, an NBA spokesperson told me. That’s in no small part because the new wrinkle has been co-signed by some of the league’s most marketable standouts. All three finalists for the most improved player award consistently wore headbands. Eight of this season’s All-Stars wore one at least once, including the bearded MVP candidate.2
The decorative cloth hasn’t always been so warmly embraced. Less than two decades ago, Chicago Bulls head coach Tim Floyd described headband-wearers as “soft,” and at least four teams prohibited its use.3 Even as the league began to move past its antiquated ways, it maintained that the voluntary accessory must be worn a certain way. When Rajon Rondo attempted to wear one upside-down, commissioner David Stern stepped in and banned the practice.4
Though headband use has certainly rebounded, its popularly doesn’t seem to have reached the craze of the mid-2000s. ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst, who has covered the NBA since 2003, pointed to Allen Iverson as the premier trailblazer, an opinion shared by LeBron James. But headbands did seem to disappear for a while: Even LeBron, probably the most prominent headband-wearer of all time, largely stopped the practice when he left Miami.
But this season, the headband returned in a big way at the Staples Center — and even James took part. The Los Angeles Lakers saw a league-leading nine different starters wear a headband — three times as many as those who wore one in the previous season.
So how does this year’s playoffs stack up to the last decade?
Thirteen starters in the opening round of the 2019 playoffs were headband apostles. That’s the most of any opening round since 2009, which is even more impressive when you consider that LeBron and Carmelo Anthony, two of the most recognizable headbanders of all time, weren’t part of the field.5
Over the past four postseasons, there were a combined four starters who wore headbands in the conference finals. This season had two, in Portland’s Maurice Harkless and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam.6
When we get to the NBA Finals, the headband has largely not been a factor since the turn of the century — excluding LeBron.7 Of the 210 players to start a game in the finals since 2000, just 25, or 0.7 per team, wore a headband. We’ll get at least one this season: First-year headband enthusiast and FiveThirtyEight favorite Siakam helped bring the Toronto Raptors to the finals. And Siakam could have headband-wearing company on the sport’s biggest stage when the games start on Thursday: If DeMarcus Cousins returns for the Warriors, he’ll likely bring his headband with him. The last time the finals featured a headband starter on each team was before the turn of the century.
Over the course of the season, we’ve witnessed a stunning comeback of a once-lost accessory. The headband’s rebirth is a proxy for personal expression — and there’s no league more zeroed-in on marketability than the NBA.
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