Sioux Falls Skyforce guard Anthony Mason, Jr. -- the son of the longtime NBA player -- looked like a shoo-in for an NBA training camp bid. Then his history got in the way.
Anthony Mason, Jr. was off to a torrid start in 2010-11, his first year in the NBA D-League, until a shoulder injury ended his season.
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Pain is where he lives now.
Pain is the teacher. The liberator. The place where Anthony Mason, Jr. grips for control.
When NBA training camps began on Friday, four players from Mason’s Sioux Falls Skyforce NBA Development League team got invitations to big league clubs. Mason wasn’t one of them. So he bid goodbye to Greg Stiemsma, Charles Garcia, Gabe Pruitt and Casey Mitchell and buried his head in work again, disappearing to the gym again so he can finally, for the first time since his body began breaking down annually, take ownership of the pain that’s put him here.
“[Without the injuries] not only would he have gotten a call-up by now, I think he’d be on a team,” said Skyforce coach Mo McHone.
Watch live on SportingNews.com
on Tuesday night (8 pm ET), when Mason's Sioux Falls Skyforce take on the Canton Charge.
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Which is why, hours after practice, he’s still in the gym, legs pumping and driving in isolation after everybody’s gone home. He’s never worked this hard, he said. But now he doesn’t have a choice.
In there, he can administer the pain himself, introducing it into his body like a vaccine so he can kill the effects – more mental than physical now – of the injuries that ruined the last three seasons of his career.
Because he knows that if it’s pain that got him here, it’s pain that’ll get him out.
“I believe that if I didn’t get injured, if I took care of my body more in college the way I am now, I would’ve gotten to the [NBA] level by now,” he said. “I definitely think I would have.”
“I’ll go over to his apartment, and he’s not there,” said teammate Dominique Coleman. “He’s like, ‘I’m at the gym. I’ll be back in a little bit.' That’s good, because it makes us want go up there too, like ‘Damn, he’s putting in work – why can’t I?’”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
Three years ago, Mason was a star guard at St. John’s. He was already New York basketball royalty, after his father – Anthony Mason, Sr. – played for 13 years in the NBA, one of them for the beloved 1994 Knicks team that reached the Finals for the first time since 1966.
He was the leading scorer for the Johnnies in his junior year of 2007-08. Heading into his senior year, Mason looked primed to lead St. John’s to its first NCAA Tournament since 2002. And when he was done, it wasn’t too tough to imagine the 6-foot-7 Mason playing at Madison Square Garden – St. John’s home court – in an NBA jersey the next season.
Then, three games into the season, he felt the rip.
The torn peroneal tendon in his right foot required surgery and a full year of rehab. But it happened early enough in the season to allow Mason to petition the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility. And after an offseason spent grinding his body back into game shape – a process chronicled by MTV’s True Life – he tore his hamstring in late October and missed the first month and a half of the season.
Mason finished the year way down in minutes and points, falling to seven points a game from 14 ppg in 2007-08. But he was still 6-foot-7 with more hops than a brewery. And he was still Anthony Mason’s son.
So he got an invite to Miami Heat camp, and nearly made the opening day roster, but found himself in Sioux Falls to start the season.
Then, through his first 14 games with the Skyforce, Mason was averaging 15 points and eight rebounds a game – while shooting better than 51 percent from the field – and after all the pain and all the fear that he’d never catch back up with his potential, it was only a matter of time until the scouts saw that he was not only ready for the NBA but durable enough for it…when he boxed out his defender on a rebound during a January game and ripped his shoulder out of socket.
He popped his arm back into place right away – he’d done that a bunch of times before, he said – and finished the game.
“I played like another eight minutes,” Mason said. “Once I popped it back in place I went out there. I just was going and I didn’t really have any feeling in the shoulder, so I thought I won’t make it any worse than it is.”
It wasn’t until almost a week later when he got the official diagnosis: torn labrum. Out for the year.
“It was probably my toughest injury to deal with,” said Mason, who went back to his native Memphis, Tenn. to stay with his mom while he healed. “But I’ve been injured before. And unless you’re gonna break me where you say I can’t play basketball anymore, there’s no way I’m gonna stop.”
Here’s where Mason changed. He’d rehabbed injuries before. But this time, he knew how close he was to realizing a dream he’d had basically forever.
So the minute he was finally cleared to start working out again, in August, he skipped town immediately.
“I just hopped in my truck and drove straight down to Florida, a 12-hour trip, to work out the next day,” he said.
Unless you’re gonna break me where you say I can’t play basketball anymore, there’s no way I’m gonna stop.
Anthony Mason, Jr.
For the next two months, he worked out three times a day at IMG Academies with head trainer Daniel Barto and only stopped when it came time to try out for Team USA in the Pan American Games in mid-October.
He didn’t make the final cut for Guadalajara, but he did find his way onto Sioux Falls’ opening day roster, thanks in large part to all the work he put in during the offseason, while the basketball world took a breath.
“I would say having the NBA lockout helped somebody like me because basketball was at a halt,” he said. “But while it was at a halt, it wasn’t at a halt for me because I’m trying to get back to be able to play with these guys I’m up against – guys who weren’t injured, who weren’t out a year.”
And if you watch him now, it’s hard to tell that anything was ever wrong physically, McHone said. He still has the quickness, the explosiveness and the ball skills that allow him to get “anywhere he wants to on the floor.”
But if you knew the player he’d been – and, more importantly, the player he could become – the hints start popping up, McHone said.
Sure, some of it’s because Mason’s first real game since the labrum tear was also the first game of Sioux Falls’ season. But at least part of it is the trauma that’s still whispering to him after another “freak” injury, McHone said.
“I don’t think he’s where he can be, but I think he’s definitely on his way,” McHone said. “I think that anytime you’ve been hurt, anytime you get hurt like he did last year, where it was kind of a freak injury, and you miss as much time as he did, it’s gonna take a while to round back into the conditioning and everything you need to be – also, to be honest, to not be afraid of the injury.
“You have to take away the mental aspect of it,” he continued. “And I don’t know that mental aspect of it has left completely, but I think he’s getting really close.”
Mason’s deferred to other scorers a little too much so far, McHone said. Instead of going up strong to the basket – arm outstretched and shoulder exposed – Mason’s looked time and time again for the extra pass.
It’s a great attribute for a teammate, the coach said. But not so much for a prospect.
“He’s kind of a different kind of player in that most guys in the D-League in this kind of situation, who are really selfish to a fault,” McHone said. “With him I’m trying to get him to be more selfish and show his ability more.”
So when the four Skyforce players departed for NBA camps, the Skyforce needed Mason to fill the 71.2-points per game void that the quartet left.
“For us to have any chance to win, he’s gonna have to put up huge numbers,” McHone said.
A night after McHone said that, Mason came out and scored a season-high 26 points in a loss to Iowa. He was back. More in the flow of the game than he’d been since the shoulder popped in January. And this time, he was driven by a whole new type of pain.
“You read the names and you see the people getting those chances in training camp, and you look at yourself,” he said. “I believe that I’m supposed to be there. But if I’m not, I can’t get mad or anything right now. It’s something I need to improve on, or just a different challenge.”
Mason said he’s still confident he’ll get a call-up at some point this season – that the year’s still young, and he hasn’t even had a chance yet to perform for scouts at the NBA Development League Showcase (on Jan. 9-12 in Reno, Nev.).
But to get a true and honest look, he’ll need to keep performing near or at the level he did on Saturday -- including Tuesday night, when Sioux Falls takes on Canton on SportingNews.com. Injuries are notorious scout-repellent, and McHone said it’s hard sometimes for healthy players to understand that their past can still haunt them – even in a place that’s taking just as much if not more of a toll on their bodies than the NBA.
“It’s one of the strangest things about being the minor leagues,” McHone said. “You have a guy that playing in the minor leagues, where the travel is harder. He might even play 48 minutes. So you’re playing more minutes, the travel is 10 times harder – everything is 10 times harder. He has no problems with his injury, but in their mind in the NBA he’s injury-prone so they don’t give him a chance.”
So Mason will work. And he’ll surround himself in pain – in the acid singe of a long workout and the anger at being overlooked – so that he can own it, understand it and finally rid himself of it.
And that’s a great thing, his coach says, because there’s so much more of Anthony Mason for the world to see. So much more of Anthony Mason for Anthony Mason to see.
“He’s a really good all-around player, and like all D-League guys his defense can pick up,” he said. “He’s such a good athlete, that if in his mind he decided he wanted to be the best defensive player on the floor there’s no question he could be, but he doesn’t see himself in that light.
“I think he’s got every bit as much talent if not more than guy like Bruce Bowen, who at one stage in his career said if ‘if I’m gonna make it, this is what I gotta do,’ and he changed over from a scorer to a defensive guy and ended up making a lot of money.”
More: NBA D-League Prospect Watch
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| Canton vs. Sioux Falls (8 p.m. Tuesday)