Portrait of the Artist Out of the turmoil of his youth, Oklahoma State's Desmond Mason has forged a powerful game on the court and a vibrant creative life off it

March 13, 2000
March 13, 2000

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March 13, 2000

Portrait of the Artist Out of the turmoil of his youth, Oklahoma State's Desmond Mason has forged a powerful game on the court and a vibrant creative life off it

By Grant Wahl Special reporting by Mike McKenzie

Chances are that Oklahoma State forward Desmond Mason is the
only athlete in America who goes on road trips looking like a
struggling Manhattan artist on his way to a Soho gallery. When
you're a studio art major and you've already sold five of your
pictures, you get used to lugging around a few works in
progress. During last year's Big 12 tournament in Kansas City,
Mo., Mason repaired to his hotel room, colored his palette and
fashioned an oil painting of a rottweiler. On a trip to Baylor
this season he put the finishing touches on an abstract
vertical-line watercolor. Most recently he has been fine-tuning
a miniature matte-board floor plan for his 3-D design class. As
Mason will proudly tell you, his traveling studio knows no
bounds--with one exception. "I can't take any of my sculpture on
the road," he says. "You know, blowtorches and all."

This is an article from the March 13, 2000 issue

If Gene Autry was the Singing Cowboy, then Mason is the
Renaissance Cowboy, a constant source of wonder and surprise.
It's not enough that one of his professors thinks Mason could
have a career in art, or that doctors said he would never walk
normally after being burned in a childhood accident, or that he
considers a convicted crack dealer--his father, Johnney--to be
the most positive influence in his life. Desmond is also the
most electrifying player you've probably never seen, a top
candidate to become the breakout star of this month's NCAA
tournament. Through Sunday he was averaging 18.1 points and 6.8
rebounds a game for No. 17-ranked Oklahoma State (23-5) while
busily turning Big 12 arenas into his own Masonic temples.

A 6'5" senior with a 38-inch vertical leap, Mason has finally
shed the rap of being a one-dimensional dunking savant, a
reputation he earned by shattering a backboard during the first
practice of his freshman year. In Stillwater, stories of Mason's
feats are as common as roadside possum carcasses; last year's
Cowboys highlight video included a five-minute homage to Mason's
greatest dunks, from his Amsterdam-worthy windmills to his
thundering tomahawks to one of those
bring-the-ball-between-the-legs reverse flushes. "He's had a
couple that Vince Carter would be in awe of," says Oklahoma
State point guard Doug Gottlieb, the nation's second-leading
assist man and Mason's most frequent provider. "Desmond does
things that humans aren't supposed to do. During warmups other
teams will stop what they're doing just to watch him."

For all of Mason's spring-loaded pyrotechnics, he was never
considered a complete player until he schooled Auburn star Chris
Porter in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament,
scoring 26 points while holding Porter to nine. A year later,
Mason has added a newfound confidence on the perimeter, where he
was shooting 42.9% from three-point range through Sunday, up
from 33.0% his first three years. In a 31-point assault against
Kansas last month, he sank all five of his three-point attempts
and missed only four of 14 shots--two of them, incredibly, on
botched slams. "When I was a freshman, all I did was dunk the
ball and try to block shots, but I had no knowledge of the
game," Mason says. "Now I've learned how to slow my game down,
how to read and come off screens. I take a lot of shots that I
never felt comfortable taking last year."

Nobody knows more about how far Desmond has come than his
father. Johnney was a witness to the terrifying scene that took
place in Waxahachie, Texas, on a blazing summer day in 1981.
Three-year-old Desmond was asleep in the front seat of Johnney's
parked car when a friend pulled up, radiator hissing. He popped
the hood and unscrewed the cap--without releasing the pressure.
Suddenly boiling radiator fluid sprayed crazily through
Johnney's car window, directly onto Desmond's chest, back and
legs. The toddler wailed. "He was smoking," Johnney says. "I
snatched him out through the car window, and the steam was so
hot coming off his clothes that I couldn't even hold on to him.
I pulled his jeans off, and when I did, all his skin came right
off with the pants."

"At first the doctors said I might not be able to walk, much
less walk normally, and I would never be able to run," says
Desmond, who spent three months in the hospital, a year in
physical therapy and another year wearing a cast at night to
straighten his crooked left leg. (The skin graft was so tight
that his leg was stuck in a bent position.) Defying his doctors'
predictions, Desmond started playing basketball and football by
age seven, showing no ill effects from his burns, save for the
scars that snaked up his legs and caused him so much
embarrassment that he never took showers with his teammates or
wore shorts away from the gym until high school.

Though he and his two siblings lived with his mother, Willie,
after their parents separated in 1982, Desmond followed his
father everywhere, from Waxahachie's Penn Park (where Johnney
played basketball), to the rec center (where Johnney coached
Desmond's peewee team) to the Texas Raceway (where Johnney
drag-raced on Friday nights), and so it only seemed natural that
Desmond occasionally joined his dad on the 25-mile trip to south
Dallas, where Johnney bought his crack cocaine. He had started
dealing one day in 1985, making $380 in one hour on his first
$80 bag. "I quit for a couple of years," says Johnney, who ran a
small automotive repair shop, "but when Christmas rolled around
[in '89], I wanted some nice things for my family, so I decided
to deal again."

Eventually, Johnney says, he was making as much as $10,000 in a
five-day week. By the time he was 11, Desmond knew exactly what
was going on. "There were times when he poured all this stuff
out on a table in our house," Desmond says. "If you sold rocks,
you could get a crack fiend to pay you with stolen VCRs, TVs,
couches. We never had to buy anything like that because that's
how everybody got their stuff."

Johnney had three rules--no using, no selling to kids and ("You
might laugh," he says) no selling on Sundays--but any qualms he
had about the drug trade were eased by the steady income.
Steady, at least, until he was arrested in March 1991, convicted
on four counts of narcotics trafficking and sentenced to 12
years in prison. During Johnney's jail term, Desmond visited him
only once at the Ellis County Penitentiary in Waxahachie. "It
was nothing I ever wanted to see again," Desmond says.

At home, Desmond spent his time shooting baskets and dice in
Penn Park (he cashed in for $600 one lucky night) and cut
classes so often that he was ruled ineligible for the second
half of his freshman basketball season at Waxahachie High.
According to Mason, the only thing that kept him from selling
crack himself was the constant specter of violence. "It didn't
matter to me that my dad had gone to jail," he says. "It's just
that I was terrified of having to carry a gun."

Then, on New Year's Eve in 1992, Desmond's and Johnney's lives
took a serendipitous turn. Desmond remembers getting a call from
his mother, asking him to come over to his grandmother's house.
When he arrived, his relatives were crying so much that he
thought somebody had died. "But I glanced down the hall, and I
could see somebody moving," he says. "I walked back there, and
my dad was standing in the kitchen." After serving 14 months in
prison, Johnney had been paroled. "I didn't know what to say, I
didn't know what to do," Desmond says. Father and son broke down
on the kitchen floor.

For Johnney, who has remarried and works these days at a
fiberglass plant in Waxahachie, the reunion provided a second
chance that some wayward parents never receive, and he wasn't
about to fail again. "Getting caught and doing time was the best
thing that could have happened to me," he says. "In this life
you eventually have to take responsibility for your actions. For
the longest time I wanted to beat myself up for things I
couldn't change, but now I could change them. Desmond had been
running wild on the streets for more than a year with no real
supervision. When I got out, I sat down with him and said, 'You
can move in with me, but this is what I want.'"

Seven years later it's hard to tell which was more remarkable:
that Johnney had the nerve to enforce a strict new set of rules
after returning from jail or that Desmond ultimately accepted,
and now appreciates, his father's discipline. Johnney's law was
simple: Get at least a B+ average or you're grounded--no dates,
no movies, no phone--and do everything that I ask. "It took just
a couple of times for me to act up and for him to jump on my
butt," Desmond says. "After a while I figured out that if you do
what you're supposed to do, you've got plenty of time to do what
you want to do."

By the time he left for Oklahoma State, Mason had performed his
most breathtaking 180, becoming a top student and blossoming
into a hotly recruited basketball player. During his freshman
year in Stillwater, he was named to the Big 12's All-Academic
Team, but even then Johnney kept pushing. Tales of his
stubbornness are legion. Take the time during Desmond's
sophomore year of high school when he brought home a B-average
report card. The homecoming dance was the same night, and
Desmond had everything ready: new clothes, a clean car, a
gorgeous date. No matter. Johnney pulled the plug. When Desmond
left for college, Johnney gave him a new ultimatum. Drop below a
3.0 grade-point average, and I'll take your car. Sure enough,
after Desmond slipped to a 2.8 during his sophomore year,
Johnney hitched a trailer to his Suburban, drove to Stillwater
and carted Desmond's 1972 Nova back to Waxahachie. "I told all
of my friends my ride was getting fixed," says Desmond, who rode
a bicycle around campus that semester.

These days the old Nova is back, which means that Mason's art
projects are progressing as smoothly as his basketball. In his
apartment recently, he gave an impromptu showing of several
works, from his rottweiler portrait to an oil painting of a
kitchen chair to a true-to-life charcoal drawing of Al Pacino in
Carlito's Way. "Art is an escape for me," says Mason, who first
got serious about art in classes that he took in high school.
"Basketball can frustrate you, social life can frustrate you,
but my drawings never disappoint me. If they do, I can erase and
start over." Besides donating several pieces to the university
for scholarship fund-raisers, Mason has sold five of his
charcoals, mostly drawings of himself from game action. (And,
yes, he got permission from the NCAA.)

Critical reviews of his work have been positive. Last year one
of Mason's art professors, Mark Sisson, liked Mason's charcoal
drawing of a watch so much that he photographed it--something he
rarely does--to show future students how to pay close attention
to detail. "Desmond was able to create a beautiful drawing of
the circular surface with all those numerals, which isn't an
easy thing to do," Sisson says. "I'd be curious about how much
he could develop as an artist if he weren't a basketball star.
I've been after him to get his teaching degree because I think
he'd make an excellent art teacher."

For now, Mason has more pressing obligations, which last
Saturday included Senior Day, the most endearing rite of the
college basketball season. As Desmond and Johnney hugged for
nearly a minute at center court, the scene called to mind the
inscription Desmond had written on a gift to his father not long
ago, a book called Making Peace with Your Past: "Daddy, I wonder
where I would be if you hadn't rode my back. I wouldn't be worth
crap. You know, I never told you how proud I was of you. This
book is special to me because I always hear you say how much you
regret your mistakes. When I picked it up, I flipped through the
pages and found a section that said, 'Don't live on regret. Live
on goals and ambitions.'"

What followed was blessedly simple, almost redundant. "Love,

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL BRUSH WITH GREATNESS Mason, a studio art major, has displayed enough talent to impress his professors and sell five of his works.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO HIGH RISE Mason has always had superior jumping ability but now displays more subtle talents, too. TWO B/W PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO (2) STILL LIFE IN STILLWATER Charcoals that Desmond did of Al Pacino and a wristwatch show his creativity and attention to detail.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER POPS KNOWS BEST Johnney credits prison for straightening him out, and he, in turn, made sure that Desmond didn't go astray.
"Desmond does things that humans aren't supposed to," says
Gottlieb. "During warmups other teams stop what they're doing to
watch him."
"Art is an escape for me," says Desmond. "Basketball can
frustrate you, but my drawings never disappoint me. If they do,
I can just start over."