SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Long-time NBA fans will surely remember Anthony Mason from his days with the Knicks in the 1990s. Mason and Charles Oakley were two of the meanest, toughest big men in the game in those days.
“Mace” would be the first to tell you the players aren’t as tough as they were back in his day. But Mason will also remind you that he was intelligent, too, a largely self-taught player who carved out a nice, 13-year NBA career and even made an all-star team.
“I didn’t play basketball until my junior year in high school,” Mason said Saturday afternoon at MassMutual Center. “So I had to learn the cerebral part of the game. It’s easy to run up and down the floor. That’s what’s missing in the NBA right now, the cerebral part of the game.”
That’s what he passed on to his son, Antoine. He wanted the kid to be tough, but smart – to have the intelligence and honesty to accept his shortcomings and fortitude to work hard and rise above them.
“That’s the way I was raised,” the elder Mason said. “My mother told me, ‘I’m going to be tough on you, because the world is not going to give you anything.’ I raised him the same way.
“So the thing I try to impart to my son is be cerebral and you’re already ahead of the game. The game becomes a lot easier when you use your mind.”
It took time, of course. Antoine was a high school star in New Rochelle, but his dad felt it had come too easy for him. So Anthony told his son the hard truth. He said he was horrible, soft, dumb. He took Antoine onto the hardscrabble courts of New York City, so he could see how far away he was.
Antoine took to the tough love. He considers his father his best friend. He earned a scholarship to Niagara. But last summer, after Antoine’s freshman season, Anthony worked him even harder. They watched film and Mace showed his son how he rushed things, how he wasn’t playing in a natural rhythm.
This season, it all came together. Mason, a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard, led Niagara in scoring. On Saturday, he was clutch and resourceful, scoring a game-high 21 points to lead the Purple Eagles to a grinding, 74-62, victory over Siena in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament.
Mason played with the poise and verve of a veteran. He shot 5 of 8 from the floor. He made all 10 of his free throws. He had four steals and didn’t commit a turnover. Niagara, the top seed, was a little skittish and sloppy at times. But Mason was there to settle them during the rough stretches.
“I knew the first-game jitters were out there,” Antoine said. “But I felt confident. I was used to it from last year, because I had them, too. So I just wanted to set the tone and, hopefully, lead my team to a win.”
Mason scored eight of the first 16 points in Niagara’s otherwise ragged start. He missed some time with foul trouble as the Eagles staggered to a one-point halftime lead. But he asserted himself at the start of the second half, scoring seven straight points as Niagara surged to a 42-31 lead.
Niagara rarely does things the easy way, however. It allowed Siena to get back in the game. Mason made several key plays to keep the Purple Eagles in control. With Niagara leading, 63-58, he found freshman T.J. Cline for a layup.
Then, after a turnover, he shook his man with a couple of playground moves and nailed a fallaway jumper to make it a nine-point lead with 3:06 to play. Siena never got closer than six after that.
“Oh, yeah, I was just in a groove,” Mason said. “Once I get into a rhythm, I feel like no one can guard me.”
When you’ve taken the worst insults that Anthony Mason can offer, no situation is likely to faze you on the court. “Mace” taught Antoine at an early age to stand up to his failures, to come for advice after his bad games as well as his big successes.
“When I had a bad game, I would try to avoid him,” Antoine said with a laugh. “He just wanted me to man up to my mistakes. If I played poorly, I needed to pick it up the next game.”
This Niagara team exemplifies those tough qualities. They have their tough moments, but they hang in and make the big plays when it counts. Juan’ya Green, their point guard, had one of those games Saturday.
“I mean, they’ve got to be tough,” said Anthony Mason, who works in the insurance business nowadays. “Unfortunately, they play undersized a lot, so they have to play scrappy and tough. They get down and they come back.”
“Mace” grew up in Queens. He says he got his toughness from his mother, Mary. She is now 88, confined to a wheelchair, four years after being diagnosed with cancer. Coach Joe Mihalich lost his mother to cancer last fall at 88. It’s a familiar theme with Niagara.
“We called Joe. It’s tough,” Anthony Mason said. “My mother is a fighter, and she’s a Mason, so it’s not shocking to me.”
Antoine went to his dad’s games from the time he was a baby. Anthony and his wife have photos. Latifa, his mom, was at the game Saturday in her purple and white No. 14 Niagara jersey.
“I don’t mind when he’s tough on Antoine,” she said. “He needed it. I’m just as bad.”
The old man still shows him films of the old days. You crossed “Mace” and the Knicks at your peril in those days. If he says the NBA isn’t as tough or smart nowadays, who’s going to argue with him?
“He was physical, a lot more physical than we play now,” Antoine said. “But I still get the message. He has a lot of knowledge. He played 13 years in the NBA. It probably gets annoying, but I’m always trying to pick his brain.”