Anthony Mason, the rugged forward whose toughness and relentlessness fueled his journey from afterthought to NBA All-Star, died early Saturday after suffering a massive heart attack and being diagnosed with congestive heart failure earlier this month. He was 48.
Eddie Mata, who interviewed Mason as part of his "Where Are They Now In Sports" video series, reported that Mason passed away at 2:36 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday. Peter Botte of the New York Daily News and ESPN New York's Ian Begley subsequently confirmed the 13-year NBA veteran's passing.
Longtime New York basketball writer Peter Vecsey first reported via Twitter on Feb. 11 that Mason was "fighting [for his] life" after undergoing multiple surgeries, including one procedure that lasted nine hours. Vecsey reported that Mason had reached 350 pounds, had been dealing with heart problems for the past year, and was at a New York-area hospital undergoing tests when the heart attack occurred, prompting him to be rushed into surgery.
After multiple procedures and several touch-and-go days, Mason's condition stabilized. He was reportedly "getting better" in recent days, unable to speak but responding to family members by "blinking and shaking his head and things like that," according to his son, Antoine Mason.
Mason is survived by his sons, Anthony Jr., who played college ball at St. John's before embarking on professional stints with the D-League's Sioux Falls Skyforce and clubs in France and Italy; and Antoine, who finished second in the NCAA in scoring last year at Niagara and has since transferred to Auburn. Mason is also survived by Anthony Jr.'s mother, Monica Bryant, and Antoine's mother, Latifa Whitlock.
Mason averaged 10.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game during a 13-year NBA career spent with six teams that was marked by ferocious play on the court and explosions off it, and fierce battles with opponents, teammates and coaches alike. He was a big man with guard skills; a freight train filling the lane with hellacious handles and footwork running the break; an undersized four adept at playing in the post and on the perimeter; a brutalizing defender who also boasted a feathery touch with both hands.
He was the sort of player and personality who resisted simple characterization, as Pat Riley, who coached Mason during his heyday with the New York Knicks in the 1990s and during his lone season with the Miami Heat, told Mark Jacobson in a November 1994 New York Magazine feature:
"Anthony's what I'd call an oxymoron," says Pat Riley. "He defies expectations [...] As a player you look at Mase's size and court demeanor and think he's a blue-collar banger, and he is, but he's also very nimble, can outrun people, and has superior ball-handling skills. He's deft, almost cute. There's a bundle of contradictions about him. He's versatile, unique in that way."
Then Riley stops in mid-hagiography, forms his bituminous-eyed John Carradine half-smile, and adds, "Maybe too unique for his own good."
Mason's hard-charging, take-no-prisoners approach made him an intense competitor and fan favorite on the court, especially in New York. But it also sometimes led him into trouble off the court, including a 1996 accusation of fighting with police in Times Square over a parking ticket and a 2000 arrest on third-degree assault charges for his alleged role in a Harlem bar fight. The most serious allegation came in 1998, when Mason and a friend were charged with statutory rape for having consensual sex with two underage girls in Queens. Mason entered into a plea agreement on the lesser charge of endangering the welfare of a child, for which he was sentenced to 200 hours of community service.
"There is a Jekyll and Hyde there, and I don't know where it comes from," Ken Fiedler, Mason's former coach at Queens' Springfield Gardens High School, told Mike Wise, then of the New York Times, in November 1996. "People see more of the dark side of Anthony than the shining light side. The guy I see isn't like the one you read about in the papers."
Born in Miami but raised in Queens, Mason first drew NBA attention as a 6-foot-7, 225-pounder who played all five positions for coach Larry Reid at Tennessee State. Despite averaging 28 points, 10.4 rebounds, three assists and two steals per game during his senior season en route to a first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference selection, Mason slid to the third round of the 1988 NBA draft, where the Portland Trail Blazers nabbed him with the 53rd overall pick.
With the likes of Caldwell Jones, Jerome Kersey and Mark Bryant entrenched up front in Portland, there wasn't much room for Mason to crack the Blazers' rotation, so he spent his first pro overseas, playing for Turkish club Efes Pilsen.
"Turkey was strange," he told Jacobson. "People would follow me down the street. Then I'd go into the hotel, go to sleep, get up the next morning, go out, and there'd be the same person still staring at me."
Mason came back to the States and the East Coast for a shot with the New Jersey Nets, then coached by former Knicks great Willis Reed, who was close with Fiedler. But after Reed was bumped to the front office and Bill Fitch took over on the sideline, Mason struggled to crack the Nets' rotation, logging just 108 minutes over 21 appearances in Jersey before being cut.
From there, Mason spent time with Marinos de Oriente in Caracas, Venezuela; had a couple of 10-day cups of coffee with the Denver Nuggets that amounted to all of 21 total minutes; joined the Tulsa Fast Breakers of the CBA (where he earned the nickname "Beast"); and suited up for the Long Island Surf of the USBL, where he was pouring in buckets with his sights set on a lucrative contract to play in Italy.
Instead, Ernie Grunfeld, then the Knicks' vice president of player personnel, invited Mason to New York's 1991 training camp. His strength, quickness and tenacity impressed Riley, the new head coach, and earned him the chance to back up Charles Oakley and Xavier McDaniel.
Before long, Mason was cutting into their playing time, earning praise for his bruising play and love of "razor buzz graffiti" in his hair, and entrenching himself as an integral cog off the bench for a Knicks team that pushed the eventual NBA champion Chicago Bulls to seven games in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
That strong first season in Manhattan earned Mason a two-year contract extension, more minutes, more fame and more opportunities to showcase a penchant for both post work and playmaking. There weren't always as many opportunities as Mason would've liked, though, as he bristled at times at a lack of touches in an offense revolving around star Patrick Ewing and at platooning with Charles Smith, whom Riley called the Knicks' best offensive small forward.
Tensions between Mason and Riley led the coach to suspend Mason for the final two games of the regular season. Mason would return in the playoffs, though, contributing his customary mix of supplemental scoring, board-crashing and tough defense — including hard, physical work against Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon — as the Knicks made it all the way to Game 7 of the NBA Finals before falling short.
Mason earned NBA Sixth Man of the Year honors the following season, averaging 9.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists in a career-high 32.4 minutes per game, even as his issues with Riley persisted, bringing another suspension and some more big moments before a brutal seven-game defeat at the hands of the rival Indiana Pacers in Round 2 of the playoffs.
Riley exited, replaced by Don Nelson, who slotted Mason into the starting lineup and did look to run things more often through the bruiser as a point forward of sorts, before giving way to assistant Jeff Van Gundy midway through the season. Mason responded, averaging career-bests across the board — 14.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists and a league-high 42.2 minutes per game — but the Knicks again bowed out to the Bulls, this time in five games, and on Bastille Day 1996, Mason was packaged with Brad Lohaus and shipped to the Charlotte Hornets for Larry Johnson.
Mason brought a "good meanness" to a talented and versatile Hornets starting lineup, fitting in brilliantly alongside the high-octane scoring of Glen Rice, the heady pivot play of Vlade Divac, the sharpshooting of Dell Curry and the facilitating of Muggsy Bogues. He averaged 16.2 points, 11.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game, again leading the league at 43.1 minutes per contest, to help spark Dave Cowens' club to a 54-28 campaign after which he earned recognition on the All-NBA Third Team and the All-Defensive Second Team. He scuffled when matched up with his former mates from New York in the first round of the playoffs, though, shooting just 42.1 percent from the field and logging as many turnovers as assists as the Knicks swept Charlotte, three games to none.
He spent three more years in Charlotte, making the second round of the playoffs during the 1997-'98 season before missing the entire lockout-shortened '98-'99 campaign with a ruptured biceps tendon in his right arm. He returned with relish the following season, once again leading the Hornets in minutes and rebounds while finishing second in assists behind David Wesley, yet ahead of a brash rookie from UCLA named Baron Davis. But after another early playoff exit at the hands of Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers, he found himself included in a mammoth nine-player trade that sent him to the Heat, coached by old pal Riley.
"I think I've matured and I know he's matured," Riley told Wise in February 2001. "We're older, mellower. I think Mase has found out that a career with a lot of noise can sometimes be a distraction, that you can have a great career and it doesn't have to be so damn noisy."
Mason tuned out the noise after finding his role exponentially increased by the sad revelation that All-Star centerpiece Alonzo Mourning had a kidney disorder that would sideline him for the entire season. He spent nearly half his floor time at the center spot, giving up a handful of inches on any given night, but still managed to turn in arguably the best overall season of his career en route to his first All-Star berth, making him the second-oldest first-time All-Star (34 years, two months) in league history, behind only Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton (34 years, three months).
And yet, despite playing a pivotal role in Miami's surprising 50-win season and playoff appearance, the Heat elected not to bring the aging Mason back after his contract expired that summer, putting him back on the market in free agency. He signed a four-year, $18 million deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, an ascendant team that boasted an intriguing mix of young talent (Ray Allen, Tim Thomas, Michael Redd) and experience (Sam Cassell, Glenn Robinson, Ervin Johnson) helmed by offensive guru George Karl that had just pushed Iverson's Sixers to the seventh game of the Eastern finals. The Bucks looked at Mason as that one last piece they needed to put them over the top.
That didn't pan out, as Mason reportedly came to camp out of shape, his production dropped off, he and Karl locked horns, and the Bucks fell to .500 in Mason's first year, missing the playoffs entirely in a massive disappointment. After another season of diminishing production and an early playoff exit at the hands of the Nets, the Bucks bought out the final two years of Mason's contract. He retired thereafter.
After Mason's playing career ended, he often stayed around the Knicks, even serving as an unofficial big-man coach for Eddy Curry during his time with the team in 2007, according to Fred Kerber of the New York Post. He had settled outside the city in New Rochelle, and was reportedly working in marketing for a New York-based insurance company last year. But Mason still "remained close to a handful of employees in the [Knicks] organization and was hoping to land a full-time job with the club," according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.
As his sons grew older and began pursuing their own basketball careers, Mason remained an ever-present figure in their development, inspiring them through the example of how dogged work and indomitable will (along with plenty of natural talent) enabled him to carve out a lengthy career at the highest level of his chosen profession.
"I want my kids to be successful in life, period," he told Tom Pedulla of the Times last year. "You don’t put pressure on your kids to do what you did. Of course, I want them to achieve their dreams."
- - - - - - -