The man behind LeBron James’ mask

LeBron James walked into Jim Fenton’s Kendall office, sat on a chair, and Fenton proceeded to smack the Heat star in the face as hard as he could with the palm of his hand. Fenton was not arrested, or jumped by bodyguards.

In fact, James appreciated Fenton’s strike, shook his hand afterward, and left with a smile.

Fenton is an orthotist and prosthetist, and the man behind the mask that James wore recently to protect the broken nose he suffered while going up for a dunk against Oklahoma City in late February. James took a heavy blow to the face, sat out the next game against Chicago, and thanks to Fenton, was back on the floor against the Knicks a few days later wearing a much-publicized black mask.

“Once the mask is ready and strapped on, I tell the patient, ‘I am going to hit you until I get a negative response,’ ” Fenton said. “I start by tapping lightly with my fingertips, go harder and harder, and if they still feel nothing, I get the heel of my hand and pop them really hard. I don’t take pleasure in hitting NBA players in the face, but it’s the only way I can test the mask.”

Fenton had a feeling, when he heard James broke his nose, that he’d probably be getting a phone call from Heat trainer Jay Sabol.

The first call from the Heat came from former trainer Ron Culp in 1991 when Bimbo Coles broke his nose. Over the past 23 years, in a small nondescript medical office just west of Baptist Hospital, Fenton has constructed prosthetic masks for 25 to 30 pro athletes, including Heat players Kevin Edwards, Alonzo Mourning, Mark Strickland, Juwan Howard, Shawn Marion, Joel Anthony and, most recently, James and center Justin Hamilton.

He also made chest protectors for Michael Beasley and Ronny Turiaf, and a protective belt for Dan Majerle, who underwent hernia surgery.

“It’s huge for us to have Jim Fenton in town,” Sabol said. “Whatever we need, Jim drops everything and he will work around the clock and get our players what they need. He is very meticulous and the masks come out perfect. LeBron’s mask is the most famous, but Jim has made many for us over the years, and he takes such great care.

“When a guy goes into a game with a mask over a broken nose or fractured face, [Fenton] watches like a worried mother. He wants to make sure they are as safe as possible.”

Marlins second baseman Derek Dietrich’s nose was broken during spring training last month when a ground ball took a bad hop and struck him squarely in the face. The Marlins trainer called the Heat and asked who they use for masks.

Within a day, Fenton had fitted Dietrich with a mask. He wore it only when he was on the field and when he was on the base paths — not when he was hitting because the raised plastic over the nose slightly obstructed his vision. He said he wore it for about 10 days.

“It's a pretty thick piece of material, and everyone wanted to hit me in the face,” Dietrich said. “And I was like, ‘Go ahead. Go ahead.’ You don’t feel it. Even the gentleman who made it, he showed me right away — this was the day after breaking it — he hit me and he said, ‘You don't feel anything,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ He did a great job. He made it pretty much overnight, and he was teasing me, he made it faster for me than he did LeBron’s.”

Dietrich said the mask was surprisingly comfortable.

“It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “Once we got the eyes widened enough so that my peripheral vision wasn’t affected, it was fine. It was just trying to fit it on with the helmet once I was on the bases, because it was kind of tough. But with the hat, going up a hat size, it fit right on. Of course, anytime you add something like that on your face, you’re going to notice it. But the way it was made and designed, it definitely protects with as minimal amount of effect and weight or anything.”

Fenton, 73, has been tinkering with orthotics and prosthetics since high school. His father, Harry, made his first leg brace with scrap aluminum in the 1920s for his sister, who had polio. The Fentons lived in St. Petersburg, and in 1952, Harry Fenton moved his orthotics business to Miami. Young Jim spent his evenings and weekends helping out.

“My dad introduced me to the working end of a broom in 1947,” Fenton said. “He paid me a quarter a week, and that quarter was predestined to be taken to the post office to buy a stamp to be placed in a Series E bond savings book. Those Series E bonds are what financed my way to UCLA. That and some newspaper delivery money I made along the way, delivering the Miami News and the Herald.”

Fenton graduated from Miami High in 1958, and went to UCLA to study orthotics and prosthetics. He joined his father in the family business after graduation. Now his son, also named James, practices the same trade in Port St. Lucie and Stuart.

Most of Fenton’s work is focused on braces and prosthetic limbs, but the athlete masks have been an interesting offshoot. He said plastic masks were first introduced in the 1980s, and they were used mostly for people who had suffered facial burns. They began to pop up on athletes shortly thereafter. Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer was known for his, and that tradition carried on with Richard “Rip” Hamilton, who wore a mask for much of his Pistons career.

When Fenton created his first masks for Coles and Edwards, he made the mold using Alginate, an oatmeal-like seaweed-based product dentists use to make gum impressions. “We’d mix it real thick and put it all over their face, stick a tube in their mouth so they could breathe, stuff their nostrils with cotton so we didn’t asphyxiate them with this stuff, cover their eyes, eyebrows and hairline with Vaseline,” he said. “It was kind of barbaric, but nobody died from it.”

Now, he uses hand casting with plaster, which allows for more precise contouring. His goal is to reduce pressure over nontolerant areas such as the fracture, and increase pressure on tolerant areas. He puts a stocking over the client’s head, and lays wet strips of plaster over his face for about 45 minutes until he has an impression of the face.

That mold is used to make a mask with PETG, short for Polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic resin used to make food and liquid containers. Fenton then cuts out eyeholes to allow for peripheral vision, and trims the chin area so it doesn’t constrict the mouth.

A typical mask for a customer off the street runs $1,200 to $2,000, but Fenton said the Heat and Marlins pay “much more” because he works overtime to deliver them in less than 24 hours and because they have such specialized requests.

When James showed up with personal trainer Mike Mancias at Fenton’s office, they asked whether he could make three masks — one black, one white and one clear. He wanted different looks and suggested carbon fiber for the black one because he thought it would look sleek. Fenton told them a carbon fiber mask would take too long to make, so he made a clear one, and they covered it in carbon fiber vinyl wrap, like the kind used to wrap automobiles for a matte finish.

“I had to chuckle when I watched the game on TNT and the announcer was saying, with authority, that LeBron was wearing a carbon fiber mask,” Fenton said. “It was just clear plastic with carbon fiber-looking tape over it.”

The NBA nixed the dark mask — saying opponents had to be able to see James’ eyes and face — so he peeled the tape off and wore it clear for a game against the Orlando Magic.

“That mask got more publicity than just about anything LeBron has done this season,” Fenton said, laughing.

Protecting James’ nose was especially important because he is vulnerable when he plays around the basket.

“He’s taking the ball in the paint, you’ve got five guys surrounding him most of the time, and there’s a lot of contact,” Dietrich said. “For me, think about how many ground balls I've taken in my life and I’ve never had that happen but that one time. So the chances are slim for me. But you still want to be careful and protect anytime you have a fracture. And I wanted to get back on the field as quickly as possible.”

Fenton said most of the athletes he has dealt with “are exceptionally polite and gracious, but, in all honesty, they would prefer not to ever see me again.”

His latest custom request came from singer-producer Pharrell Williams. He ordered a pink mask for an upcoming project called “Pink Slime.” How did he hear about Fenton? “He called the Heat,” Fenton said, smiling.

Miami Herald staff writer Clark Spencer contributed to this report.

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