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There’s a story behind the tattooed, upper left arm of Roger Mason Jr., a story about a praying boy and a fading father and a faith that was born in the shadow of death.
It’s a story that marked Mason at age 11, inspired him as a teenager and carried him through college, two basketball tours overseas and six seasons in the NBA, the last two with the Spurs.
Three years ago, a Washington, D.C. tattoo artist sketched a massive angel on Mason’s arm and underscored the image with a chapter from the Old Testament, Psalm 46.
The passage carries special meaning for Mason. In 1991, he repeated them over and over at the bedside of Roger Mason Sr., who lay dying from kidney failure.
The first two verses: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea. ..."
Young Roger found comfort in those words. He found strength. Inspiration, too. The verses stayed with him when he became fatherless, and in the midst of profound grief, sparked something new. "When he passed," the son says, "my faith became much more real to me."
Roger Mason Sr. was a prominent ophthalmologist in Washington, D.C. with a passion for hoops. He played for charity on Howard University Hospital’s basketball team, and taught his son how to dribble and shoot.
Today, junior plays in honor of his father and uses his celebrity to fight the disease that claimed a life. The tattoo on the arm, the insistence on the use of "junior" at the end of his name – all are tributes to the man who introduced him to the game at age 8 and sponsored his youth league basketball teams.
In the off-season, the son raises money for the National Kidney Foundation. His first effort in 2008 – a celebrity bowling event – brought in $45,000 and increased awareness of kidney disease, which afflicts 26 million Americans.
Then there’s the Roger Mason Jr. Foundation, a non-profit he established to raise money for charitable causes. "Mom tells me my father would be really proud," Mason says.
Marsha Mason Wonsley would know. She took on two jobs to support four children when her husband died, and her eldest, young Roger, became a standout student, athlete and pianist who wanted to become a doctor.
The father left a mark on his son that went far deeper than a tattoo. Senior taught junior a game and forged a bond. "We used to go down to the rec center every Saturday," Mason recalls. "He’d play with all these older men who thought they were really good, and then he’d let me get in on those games."
Young Roger often accompanied his father to the Capital Center to watch the Washington Bullets play. That’s one set of memories Mason treasures. There are others. The father gave his son a love for fishing, a love for reading and more.
Then came a disease that broke a son’s heart. As the family struggled to move on, Mason remembers catching the bus to play in his own AAU basketball games. He remembers a stepfather entering his life, and he remembers not wanting to embrace the man, Washington Redskins running back Otis Wonsley
"I was a little immature about the situation," Mason says.
In time, Marsha’s new husband won him over. Otis took young Roger to training camp, to Redskins games and introduced him to players. When Otis left the NFL, he became a college football coach. "I was able to lift weights and shoot in the college gym as a high school player," Mason says.
A desire to practice medicine gave way to another dream. Mason became a star player at the University of Virginia and a sports writer asked, "Aren’t you a ‘junior?’"
"Then why don’t you use it?"
Mason soon met with the public address announcer. "And from that time on at Virginia," Marsha says, "they started calling him ‘Roger Mason Jr.’ I felt very proud of him."
Mother and son are close --"I'm a momma's boy," he says proudly -- and he likes to brag about his siblings. The brother who's a Wall Street banker. The missionary sister who's in divinity school. The sister who left Wall Street to join the business team of the construction company he owns in the D.C. area.
When young Roger knelt beside his father's bed, he couldn't have known this is how his prayers would be answered -- with the kids all successful adults, living out their dreams.
In the bright lights of the NBA, No. 8 loves to pull up and shoot. The only thing better is when the shot falls through and the public address announcer calls his name. Roger Mason ... JUNIOR!