To describe the late Anthony Mason as a “former NBA player” does not begin to capture the ways in which he left his imprint on the game, the collective hoops consciousness, or our individual imaginations. On December 22, 1995, I returned home from a year as a student in South America in a state of crazy culture shock. I was leaving an area in the heart of its summer where fruit was so ripe it would fall to pieces in your palm and returned home to New York City: cold, wet, dirty, 1995 New York City, where it officially got dark at 4:30 p.m., but where the shadows worked around the clock. No hipsters. No Taylor Swift. Just New York City.
To ease the transition, a friend of the family scored me two prime tickets to watch the Knicks play a new expansion team named after a Spielberg movie, the Toronto Raptors.
I hadn’t been able to pay attention to hoops while gone in those pre-internet days and was stunned to learn Knicks coach Pat Riley had faxed in his resignation and hightailed it to Miami. Now, for reasons that remain incomprehensible, my team hired as their new coach the League’s mad scientist of run-and-gun, Don Nelson. The lunch pail, beat-your-ass, Ewing, Oakley, Starks, grind-it-out Knicks hired the guy who turned Manute Bol into a three-point shooting weapon. I asked my buddy Arya how in the hell would the architect of the Golden State Warriors’ Run-TMC put his “Nellie stamp” on this blue-collar collection of sharp elbows and head butts? Arya smiled and said four words: “Mase is running point.” My eyes widened to anime dimensions. Anthony Mason, Riley’s barrel chested off-the-bench power-forward enforcer, the guy who could make Charles Oakley look subtle, was running point. Yes, there had been moments when he could show a shockingly sweet handle and deft ability to lead a fast break, but this seemed like Nelson had been drinking LSD-laced Kool Aid.
But that is exactly what Nelson had set up. Mase was guarded that night by a Raptors rookie named Damon Stoudamire who was on the path to Rookie of the Year honors—not to mention 5-9 on tip-toes. That night, I saw my first ever power-point-forward, a position that LeBron has since turned into sculpted, fine art, but then was the shock of the new. I will never forget Stoudamire trying to navigate himself around Mase’s thighs to even try and swipe at the ball. Mase dominated, and that season, the former reserve who did not even make the League until he was 23 and had played across the globe, led the NBA in minutes while averaging 15 points, over 9 boards and 4.5 assists per game.
Like many a great artist, neither Don Nelson nor Anthony Mason were appreciated in their time, and others have reaped the benefits of their flouting of conventions. Yet while Nelson is barely a footnote in Knicks history, Mason still looms incredibly large, especially for a player who was in New York for only five seasons. The outpouring following his death was stunning, as teammates, media members and fans shared memories that acted on social media like it was a 96-hour wake. Yes, it’s cliché, but the root of the melancholy was seeing a person who played with so much heart dying way too young at age 48 from a massive heart attack. It was also the fact that Mason, more than any other Knick of the last quarter century, embodied New York City. He was tough as hell and brilliantly creative. He’d either dazzle you with a crossover followed by a look-away pass, or he’d knock you the hell out. Either ending was a distinct possibility every single time down the court. It drove Pat Riley crazy, it drove Don Nelson to ecstasy and it drove the fans of 1995 in pre-gentrification New York City to see themselves reflected in his persona.
After that game against the Raptors, I extended my hand and Mase reached over to give me a pound. He was larger than life, but never wanted to stand apart. For me, for the fans, for the city, he was the people’s superstar at that last moment in time when the stars of New York were still within arm’s length. Rest in peace.
Dave Zirin is a SLAM contributor and the Sports Editor of The Nation. Follow him on Twitter @EdgeofSports.