A version of this story appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated
I got the text from my son while riding the subway last Saturday. “I know you're slammed in editing, but you have to find the time to write about Mase.” As I tried to text back, the train started moving again, and I lost service. This was the two train, headed south down the Upper West Side, so I knew I was going to pull into Penn station, was going to be under Madison Square Garden for at least a few moments, before barreling on to my destination. That seems appropriate somehow.
Anthony Mason has gotten to his destination, at 48, years before he should have. And I know why my son thought his death, from heart failure, would hit me hard. For one thing, I’m 48 too. For another, Mase meant something to me. He embodied so many ideals I hold in high regard—like channeling inner strength to chase an impossible dream, working with focus, fury, and confidence to deny the naysayers and making those around you better in the process.
But Mase was more than that. He was a symbol, along with his friend and teammate John Starks, of New York’s toughness in the 1990s, of its scrappiness and heart. When the two of them walked onto the basketball court with Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and the rest, they were not going to walk off until they had given their entire bodies to the cause. I sat up close those years, as a young, basketball obsessed ticket holder, so I not only saw, but felt the sweat equity those young men put into playing the game.
New York Knicks fans are a funny group. We don’t actually own the team the way Packers fans own theirs, but most of the time, we act like we do. And when we get together and grouse about the current roster, we often compare it to the teams we’re most proud of. The ’70 team, of course, and ’73. But right after that, it’s always Bernard. Then Starks and Mason. Mason and Starks. We still care about them. A lot. Because unlike the miserable bunch of self entitled jerks prancing around in the orange and blue now, those guys, and Oak, Patrick and Derek, cared about us, sacrificed for us, tried, with everything they had, to win for us.
At the beginning of this season, I decided to boycott the Knicks. I haven’t watched the games. I stopped reading the articles. I tried, really hard, not to become involved. And I promised myself I wouldn’t write one word about them. Because they’re not worth it.
But Anthony Mason is.
So thanks, Mase, for all of it. You are gone way too soon. But none of us who watched you play, who wondered aloud how such a hard man could have such a soft touch, will ever forget what we saw you do. For us. Rest in peace, big.
Brian Koppelman is a filmmaker who hosts the podcast, ‘The Moment,’ on Grantland.