Former 13-year NBA veteran Anthony Mason is fighting for his life after suffering congestive heart failure and undergoing five heart procedures in recent days, according to Peter Vecsey. His oldest son, Mason Jr., told MSG Network’s Tina Cervasio on Saturday that his 48-year-old father is in stable condition.
Mason, best known as the barrel-chested bruiser from the rugged New York Knicks teams of the early 1990s, is a colorful character whose game was as unique as his myriad hairstyles. He is also a fighter.
Mason was not heavily recruited out of high school before attending Tennessee State University. He was cut by the Portland Trail Blazers months after they selected him in the third round of the 1988 draft. Then he spent three years as a basketball nomad, playing in Turkey, Venezuela, the CBA, and the USBL, along with brief stints with the New Jersey Nets and Denver Nuggets.
The Queens native finally found his niche in the N.B.A. with his hometown Knicks in the fall of 1991. New York’s new coach, Pat Riley, wanted to assemble a physical, defensive-minded roster, reminiscent of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons team that swept his Los Angeles Lakers in the 1989 Finals.
Mason’s tenacity and intimidating presence was exactly what Riley was looking for. At six-foot-seven, 260 pounds, Mason had the bulk of a bodybuilder and a scowl to match. He and fellow castaway, John Starks, competed with a sense of desperation that invigorated their teammates and the fan base, and they quickly became integral members of Riley’s rotation.
Over the next four seasons, “Mase and Oak” (Charles Oakley) bullied opponents on the boards and in the paint, freeing up New York’s star center, Patrick Ewing, to score. The formidable frontcourt led the Knicks to the N.B.A. Finals in 1994. Mase was named NBA Sixth Man of the Year the following season.
Mason’s role extended far beyond that of enforcer. He was remarkably agile for his size, and his ability to corral opposing guards combined with the strength to push big men off the block made him a valuable defender. During the 1994 playoffs, Mase checked athletic Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen in one series, before frustrating Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon in the Finals.
The burly forward possessed a surprisingly deft handle and excellent court vision. Knicks fans grew accustomed to the sight of Mase grabbing a defensive rebound and dribbling between his legs, while pushing the ball up the floor, before delivering a crisp chest pass into the shooting pocket of an open guard on the wing.
Riley’s successor, Don Nelson, was so impressed with Mason’s passing that the Hall of Fame coach ran the Knicks’ offense through him during the 1995-96 season. The versatile forward also played a league-high 42.2 minutes per game that season.
Mason used his solid frame to back down defenders on the block, where he was adept at finishing with either hand, though his range was limited to a few feet from the basket, beyond which the lefty resorted to an ugly push shot. His one-handed free throws were comical, and at times difficult to watch, though he somehow managed to complete 71 percent of them.
The pugnacious forward also had a playful side, and his funky hairstyles, which consisted of various messages shaved into his head, from “Mase” to the Knicks logo, to motivational phrases, drew media attention. Local newspapers and national magazines did feature stories on his barber, Freddie.
Mason was a bit of a rabble-rouser off the court. He was arrested for scuffling with a police officer during his tenure with the Knicks, and the defiant attitude that made him such a menace on the court grated on his coaches. In July, 1996, New York traded Mason and Brad Lohaus to the Charlotte Hornets for Larry Johnson.
Mason produced his finest statistical season in 1996-1997 for a Hornets team that won 54 games, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and Bill Walton as the only players in the past 40 years to average over 15 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game (16.2, 11.4 and 5.7), via basketball-reference.com.
Once again, Mase led the league in minutes per game (43.1). He was named to the All-N.B.A. Third Team and finally received recognition for his stellar defense with an N.B.A. All-Defensive Second Team selection.
Mason was traded to the Miami Heat in 2000, where he was reunited with Riley. He scored 16.1 points and grabbed 9.6 rebounds per game in 2000-01, while often defending opposing centers with Alonzo Mourning out of the lineup. At age 34, he was named to his first and only All-Star Game. Mase concluded his career with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2003.
Despite the various uniforms, he will always be remembered as a Knick.
The Frazier, Reed and Bradley squads of the 1970s set the standard of excellence for New York basketball, though the Knicks teams of the 90s forged their own special bond with the city. After 15 years of incompetence, underachieving and a general malaise, which hangs like a fog over Madison Square Garden, Knicks fans long for the passion of Mason, Starks, Oakley and Ewing.
Anthony Mason is a product of New York City and competed with a tenacity and swagger that resonated with New Yorkers and gave credence to basketball’s moniker, “the city game.” Knicks fans hold Mase in their hearts, knowing that he will not stop fighting for his.