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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As a toddler, Makai Mason would spend hours throwing balled up socks into a laundry basket. In kindergarten, he’d disappear to endlessly shoot on a Nerf hoop in the family basement. Before he became a teenager, his father, Dan Mason, drilled him so diligently that he’d need to make 70% of his 3-point shots.
Dan Mason also brought his son to basketball courts in rough neighborhoods in Springfield, Mass., from their home in rural Greenfield. After an opponent pulled a knife on Dan Mason, he brought Makai back the next day. Makai was 10.
Makai Mason’s baby face, unflinching demeanor and resplendent array of jumpers and floaters turned him from an anonymous Ivy League star to one of the faces of the NCAA tournament on Thursday. Mason, a sophomore point guard, scored a career high 31 points in No. 12 Yale’s 79–75 upset of No. 5 Baylor, capturing the imagination of the country one step-back jumper at a time. If Mason’s big moment seems almost scripted, that’s because in many ways it really was. “This kid has been like a super-engineered kid in a way,” Dan Mason said. “This is a thing that’s been built since he was 3.”
Dan Mason’s mother died when he was 13 in a freak accident when she slipped and fell. Tragic moments like that indelibly shape someone’s life, and when Dan Mason and his wife, Jody Sieben, had Makai he decided to change his life to be around him more. (Makai’s name is Hawaiian, even though his parents aren’t. It means “winds to the sea.”) Dan Mason eventually left the restaurant business to spend more time with his family, going into real estate because of the more flexible schedule. Dan Mason grew up playing basketball and starred overseas playing for various teams in the Army. He shared that passion with his son, spending two or three hours working out with him every day. “I always wanted to be with my son and have a close relationship,” Dan Mason says. “You can collect a bunch of money, but the greatest commodity in life is time.”
So when Makai Mason found his father on the edge of the stands after Yale’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory on Thursday, the embrace transcended traditional bonds. It marked the culmination of years of skills training, workouts and studying the game that forged Makai Mason into a player with the nicknames “Cybog,” “The Machine” and “Golden Child.” They all speak to the manic dedication he’s developed over the years working with his father. “I owe my dad pretty much everything,” he says. “All the glory to my dad.”
Dan Mason made the daring and unorthodox decision to withhold his son from playing AAU after the summer of his freshman year. He’d just read the book Play Their Hearts Out, an expose of the underbelly of the grassroots basketball world. Soon enough, he started to see similar scenes play out in front of him. Dan Mason said that the moment his son left the AAU circuit, his rating on one recruiting Website dropped from an 89 to a 67. His recruitment also took a precipitous dip, as schools like Baylor, Notre Dame and Duke had shown early interest. “He had a big reputation when he was young,” says Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel, “and he kind of went off the path.”
Instead of emerging as a high-major recruit, Makai Mason starred at Hotchkiss School, a Connecticut prep school where Dan served as an assistant. His college decision came down to the Ivies or Davidson, as academics weighed heavily. When he chose Yale in the spring after his junior year, the Bulldogs coaches rejoiced. “We knew,” said associate head coach Matt Kingsley, “exactly what we were getting.”
What Makai Mason lacked in attention from the AAU circuit he gained in fundamentals and athleticism. His dad devoured Pete Maravich videos and books to hone his son’s skill set. He brags that Makai had a college-level skill set by the time he was 10 years old. Mason's vertical jump is 40 inches, as he can leap up and touch the top of the square above the rim. This summer’s workouts will be inspired by Steph Curry, as every drill is dedicated to a player. The Russell Westbrook drill is a rip through, three hard dribbles and an aggressive pull up jumper. The Bill Bradley drill requires making 13 straight shots from various places on the floor. The spinning step-back jumper that Mason drilled against Baylor came from the Kobe Bryant drill. “That was something we practiced over and over, like 10,000 times,” Dan Mason said. “It’s a fantastic move, but it’s been rehearsed a thousand times.”
Makai Mason admits that he and his dad have butted heads over the years, as he’s asked him to leave the gym a few times. But by the end of the night, they’d be sitting on the couch and watching a game and be back in the gym the next day. Dan and Jody, who works running a snack bar at Central Connecticut, moved near New Haven to be closer to their son. Dan still conducts Makai’s off-season workouts and his conditioning. “It sounds like a fairy tale,” Yale’s Anthony Dallier says of his teammate’s work ethic. “But it’s the real deal.”
Makai chuckles as he recalls some of the extents his dad would go through to toughen him. That included recruiting random players at the park to trap Makai to improve his ball skills under duress. Dan Mason would also mark off a 6-foot by 6-foot box on the floor with masking tape and aggressively cover his son in that space to force him to learn to get open in a tight area. “My dad has done a great job,” says Makai, “preparing me for pretty much any situation.”
That will be tested again on Saturday when Yale plays No. 4 Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs played the Blue Devils earlier in the year, with Mason finishing with 13 points and eight assists in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mason penetrated so freely past Duke’s guards that the Blue Devils eventually switched to a 1-3-1 zone, with the spindly 6'9" Brandon Ingram at the top, and pulled away for an 80–61 victory. Yale trailed by just two at halftime of that game, however, giving them confidence against Duke on a neutral floor.
If the Bulldogs can pull another upset and advance to the Sweet 16, Yale will need another unflappable performance from its Cyborg point guard. And it’s another chance for Mason to show the country what he’s been preparing a lifetime for. “There weren’t any sacrifices,” Dan Mason says. “It was an absolute joy. And the recognition has been an understanding of who he is beyond us. Being on that stage provided him a platform to show the world what he’s capable of. It’s been a coming out, so to speak.”