Anthony Mason, Sad Case of An Athlete Dying Young

Anthony Mason

I was never Anthony Mason’s greatest fan and perhaps that’s the best compliment I can pay him given that I was a homegrown Chicago Bulls fan and certifiable Michael Jordan fanatic back in the day when Mase was wrecking all that havoc on my crew as one of the primary anchors in Pat Riley’s evil band of pirates out to dethrone the champs.

Far more often than not, Mason seemed to make all the little plays at the most critical of times, the winning plays, if you will, that always seemed to keep his New York Knicks in the game, exhausting and extending MJ and the Bulls in ways few other were than capable of.

Always, Jordan and the Bulls prevailed to the tune of six NBA titles, but Mason more than made his mark in a rivalry that remains legendary. Just 48 years old, Anthony Mason died early Saturday morning, only weeks after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure and suffering several heart attacks.

“First I want to thank all those who offered prayers and well-wishes for my Father, our family really appreciates it,” his son, Anthony Mason Jr., said on Saturday. “Overnight, New York City and the world lost a legend, a friend, a brother … but more than anything our father, Anthony Mason. Big Mase put up an incredible fight, dealing with a severe heart issue.”

Knowing Anthony Mason as I remember him, I couldn’t ’t imagine him doing anything less than that. In all, Mason played 13 NBA seasons for six different teams but he was clearly most revered for his time in New York City, where he came to embody the metropolis’ tough and gritty nature.

Over those five seasons, the 6-foot-7, 250-pound bruiser teamed with Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley to compose one of the league’s most physically imposing frontlines in modern times. The Knicks advanced to the NBA Finals in 1994 and Mason was named NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award winner during the 1994-95 season.

“My heart is heavy after learning that we lost Anthony Mason last night,” Ewing said in a statement. “We were teammates on the Knicks for five great seasons. 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. May he rest in peace.”

Just as menacing as Mason was on the hardwood, longtime agent Don Cronson remembered him as being just as compassionate away from it.

“Anthony was a multifaceted individual,” Cronson told ESPN. “There were many aspects to his personality, and some that people weren’t aware of. In the best sense of the term he was a momma’s boy. From the day I met him he was always thinking of his mom and taking care of her. As rough and tough as he was, Anthony was also a doting father, and I saw that many times.”

Mason grew up playing high school ball in Springfield Gardens in Queens where he was often overlooked by the big-time college programs and settled on playing collegiate ball at Tennessee State University. By then, the chip on his shoulders was as big as the biceps that draped his muscular build. He was selected in the third-round of the 1988  NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers who waived him almost just as unceremoniously, sending him on an odyssey that saw him play in the USBL, CBA and abroad.

After Pat Riley was hired and began the formidable task of transforming the Knicks into a physical juggernaut, Mason made the team following a summer league invite in 1991.

“Mase was so mechanical in his play, and he was never supposed to make it in the league for a host of reasons,” said former team exec David Checketts. “But over time, we saw him as the kind of player we needed to change the whole reputation of the Knicks. We wanted to stop people, and Mase had those big hands, long arms and massive shoulders, and an inferiority complex that fueled him to embrace the big moments when he was challenged.”

But no one challenged Anthony Mason to be the best he could be the way he challenged himself. And that’s just the way he should always be most remembered.

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Glenn Minnis
Glenn Minnis is an XN Sports NBA contributor. He has written for the Chicago Tribune, ESPN, BET and AOL. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.