You don’t have to know them personally, but it hurts when the athletes you grew up watching pass away…and too soon at that. It almost makes you feel old and vulnerable, having a piece of nostalgia from your childhood ripped away like that.
New York Knicks fans were left with that very feeling Saturday, when they learned about the death of Anthony Mason. The 13-year NBA veteran — most known for his days with the Knicks from 1991–96 — died at the age of 48 after a battle with congestive heart failure.
Besides immense sadness expressed by the basketball community of coaches, players and fans who loved and respected Mason’s game, Frank Isola, longtime Knicks beat writer for the New York Daily News, perfectly captured the sentiment tweeting, “Imagine the toughness of a starting five of Ewing, Oakley, Mason, Starks and Harper. They didn't take recovery days...they gave them.” He added a shot of the aforementioned starters for the Knicks, stating, "We were either gonna win the game or win the fight."
It couldn’t have been said better. No shots to Carmelo Anthony now, but Mason and the Knicks of the 1990s represented a certain brand of toughness and grit that embodied New York City in an incomparable way. Despite never winning a title, the city rocked with them because they represented NYC thoroughly. No-nonsense and nothing sweet. Hustle hard and hit harder.
There was Patrick Ewing, the now-Hall of Fame center, warrior and heart and soul in the middle of it all, surrounded by his tough-as-nails enforcers — and sometimes goon squad — in forwards Charles Oakley and Mason with pit bulls for guards in Derek Harper and John Starks. Like Isola said, they were either gonna win the game or the fight. And whichever result they got, they often left a body count of victims behind in the process.
You couldn’t just drive the lane on the Knicks and go up uncontested in the paint back then in the early 1990s. Aside from the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons era, the Knicks laid lumber and dropped whoever was brave enough to come through the lane against them. If that kind of activity went down in today’s NBA game, there would be season-long suspensions and possibly lawsuits that followed. It was just different back then and those early 1990s Knicks were just one of those teams.
And there was a reason why Mason was an all-time Knicks fan favorite. He fought just as hard for his career as the Knicks scrapped, scratched and clawed for every possession. He fought just as hard for his career like a majority of New Yorkers fight every day for their livelihood. Mase was New York City.
A Springfield Gardens, Queens, product, Mason’s whole professional basketball career was about transforming a cycle of surviving into thriving.
After being selected in the third round of the 1988 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, the franchise cut the 6-foot-7 small forward and just like that Mase was on the run, playing overseas in Turkey, and balling with the then-CBA and USBL along with brief stints with the New Jersey Nets and Denver Nuggets.
It would take Mason three long years to find his footing, landing with his hometown New York Knicks in 1991. There, Mason was an instant hit with the fans, who loved him for etching messages like “In God’s Hands” and “Mase” into his hair as much as his gritty, lockdown defense and all-out hustle. At 6-foot-7, the undersized but wide-bodied small forward worked diligently to become one of the better rebounders in the NBA.
While defense was his passion, over the years his offensive game blossomed at the Garden too. Year after year, Mase became nicer and nicer handling the rock and adding an arsenal of post moves to his repertoire. He was named 1995 NBA Sixth Man of the Year and by the following 1995-96 season, his offensive game had grown so much that then-Knicks coach Don Nelson featured him as a point forward.
And as Mason got older, his game didn’t stop growing. During the 1996-97 season, then with the Charlotte Hornets, Mason averaged a career-high 16.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. He wasn’t done crafting and squeezing out his best potential yet, though. He became a first-time All-Star at the age of 34 with the Miami Heat in 2001.
Although he had brilliance at other stops in his NBA career, NYC was home.
"My heart is heavy after learning we lost Anthony Mason last night. We were teammates on the Knicks for five great seasons," Ewing said in a statement to the Associated Press over the weekend. "Mase came to play every night and was always ready to go to battle with me every time we stepped on the court together. I will remember him for his strength, determination and perseverance."
New York City will too. RIP Mase.
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