For 48 years, two months and two weeks, Anthony George Douglass Mason lived the New York City life that I dreamed of living: He played for the Knicks, appeared in a Woody Allen movie, is a lyric to a Beastie Boys song and owned an Italian restaurant in Harlem.
Mason and I both came to the Knicks in 1991—him as a power forward, me as a season ticket holder. Early into his five years with his hometown team, he was given the nickname “The Locksmith.” Utilizing his larger-than-average brawn and uniquely clever brain, with a heavy sprinkling of street smarts from his borough of Queens, he helped his teammates get into their lockers if they misplaced their keys or forgot their combinations. “The Locksmith” t-shirts with Anthony’s face were briefly sold at Madison Square Garden.
Basketball, more so than most sports, is about people and personality. The players are big and the relationship with the fans is intimate. Spectators literally sit on the field of play, the uniform is a mere tank top and shorts and the players can hear and often respond to what is said to them. The game is a fast, in situ flow of bruises and beauty. In a sport archived through images, Anthony Mason leaves behind a grand visual resume.
Curated in my Mason montage is Charles Barkley jumping over the scorer’s table on MLK day 1993 to chase down referee Jim Clark claiming he was fouled by Mase. Mason responded in his post-game remarks: “If he was fouled by me, he would not have been able to jump over the scorer’s table.”
Another picture of Mase is from the Spring of ’94 as he walked through Madison Square Garden high fiving his New York brethren, including myself during the Rangers second round series close out game against the Capitals. His crisp white Rangers sweater was more noticeable than Messier that night.
Then there is the night club scene in Woody Allen’s film Celebrity, featuring a young supermodel with the sniffles played by Charlize Theron. Appearing on the screen is Mason to offer her Echinacea as he tells her “it helps in fighting colds and infections.”
Like a locksmith, his game was both force and finesse. If you were not aware of this, he literally spelled it out for you on the side of his head, carving out words and images with each new haircut. In addition to his wonderfully colorful style, Mason could play. He had an incredible handle and amazing court vision, providing playground passes and a consistent and compact lefty mini hook from just about anywhere eight feet from the rim. In fact, he was the only player I knew of who could dribble up the court without the fear of turning the ball over and then head down to the other end and drop back in the paint to contain Hakeem Olajuwon.
One can debate who the more skilled Knicks players to wear the uniform have been, but there is no question that, on the court, no one worked harder than Anthony Mason. And no one worked more—he holds the Knick’s record for minutes played in a season at 3,457 (averaging 44 mpg while playing all 82 in 1996). As such, I, we—NYC—embraced him because we could relate to him. New York is a city that values truth, strength and even some vulnerability. Anthony Mason was real and we recognized his real. This is why he resonates deep in mine and the collective hearts of the Knicks fan base.
When I graduated from NYU, I clownishly wrote down the name Anthony Mason on the card for the announcer to read as I walked across the stage at Carnegie Hall. He wasn’t me, and I didn’t want to be him, but he was us—a tough and determined New Yorker and I hoped to infuse some of that as I nervously embarked on what is currently an 18-year career as a public high school English teacher in New York.
July 14, 1996 was the day Mason was traded for Larry Johnson. Over the next few years I held on to my Knicks tickets but made sure to wear Mason’s Charlotte No. 14, then his Heat No. 14 and finally a Milwaukee No. 17 jersey when he returned to the Garden with those teams.
I have a good memory for most things, and particularly Anthony Mason and the Knicks. But this past December 14, I texted SLAM Editor-in-Chief Ben Osborne to say “Happy 50th Anthony Mason.” Ben quickly corrected me that Mase was only 48. I have a good memory but also have dyslexia and sometimes mess up numbers. Ben understood my sentiment and generously promised that when Anthony turned 50 in two years, he would provide me the space in the magazine to write a piece about a man who widened the aperture of the game of basketball and inspired me to celebrate truth. With Anthony Mason’s passing, I now plan to honor his legacy at that time and during these days of sadness; this gives me something to look forward to.
Knicks photos via Getty Images; jerseys photo via Rachel Matthews