R.I.P. Anthony Mason, Soul of the '90s

No one basketball player defined the '90s better than Anthony Mason, a bulldog who led the brutish and flawed Knicks almost all the way to the finish line.

Kevin Larkin/AP

If you root for a sports team over a considerable period of time, you’re going to find that there are players who encapsulate what it means to be alive at a particular moment and place in history. It’s not at all the same as the relatively uncomplicated hero-worship of youth, where the unreal, almost superhuman feats of a LeBron James, for example, are somehow not beyond the size and scope of our dreams. It’s not about talent or greatness it’s a sense of style, or a state of being that synchs with our, yes, flawed and subjective memories.

For me, that was Anthony Mason, an often unstoppable and irascible force of will that defined the brutish and flawed Knicks of the 90s. Mason passed away late last night at the age of 48 after battling congestive heart failure, and I can’t help but find myself tumbling back into a time when I was was just out of school, failing and flailing, angry at foes and tormentors both internal and external, and grinding away trying to build a career.

Watching Mason’s hellion-like defense was the perfect release to all those frustrations. He would scare the absolute bejesus out of forwards of all shapes and sizes, saving a particular fury for the Bulls’ Scottie Pippen. Versus taller, more talented bigs like Hakeem Olajuwon, it was like trying to dislodge a fire hydrant, if said hydrant also had no compunction about reworking someone’s fillings with a not-at-all-errant elbow should anyone have the temerity to displease it.

Nothing seemed to come easy for Mason. But what was so thrilling was here was living, breathing, grunting, sweating proof that if you possessed his force of will, you could overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. You could scratch and claw your way into the rotation of a contender, even if it meant grueling trips to far-flung, remote basketball outposts in Istanbul, Turkey; Caracas, Venezuela or obscure minor league squads in Tulsa and even the Long Island Surf along the way.

He was a howling, screaming, chest-pounding underdog that actually made it, snagging the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1995, and finally achieving All Star status at the ripe old age of 34.

And once you arrived, you could be bold and brash. You could stand up to a slick and slick-backed, Machiavellian uber-authority figure like Pat Riley. If that meant suspensions, public spats and the occasional hatchet job in the local tabloids, so be it.

I wasn’t old enough or even close to being wise enough to see Mason’s self-destructive streak as just that. It was—in my own fumbling, misguided mind—how a real New Yorker would respond, devoid of fear or worry or fretting introspection: you carve your response to all your critics on the side of your own head.

That the product on the court was ugly is undeniable. It was a glowering, sweaty scrum masquerading as basketball, but that too seemed to be a New York response to Michael Jordan’s poetry. Mean streets transcribed into the hardwood, literally. You want to score in the paint against Mason and the equally fear-inspiring duo of Ewing and Charles Oakley? Fine, but you’re going to be on the receiving end of a few scars for your trouble.

“We imposed our will,” Mason said in a 2014 WFAN interview. “We were going to make it hard on you. We were going to be up in your face the whole game and we wanted you to know that. People dreaded coming into the Garden, and that’s the thing you want to get back to.”

The 90s Knicks were straight shot to all of the City’s self-aggrandizing, Sinatra and Jay-z anthems about underdogs making it in concrete jungles. This was a rougher, crueler, weirder and meaner town, and a kid from Queens that once served as LL Cool J’s backyard enforcer was at the heart of it all, showing up in Woody Allen movies and Diamond D videos alike.

There’s a darker side to all of this as well, the unbridled aggression and brute force also resulted in repeated trouble and literal fights with the police. There’s the statutory rape charge that he pled down, and the millions in back taxes that he at one time owed the state of Wisconsin. I’m not diminishing or apologizing for any of this. It’s part of Mason’s story and life, and no amount of sepia-toned romanticizing and nostalgia that can erase the police blotter.

Were he playing now, and had these acts of violence occurred, I’m sure my reaction would have been quite different. But yeah, I can admit that at the time, in my blinkered state, I dismissed it, scoffed at the haters or unconsciously ignored it. There are many virtues to fandom, but this kind of willful ignorance certainly isn’t one of them.

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When the news broke a few weeks ago that he was in serious health trouble, there was a part of me—probably a good chunk of my twenty year old self—that held out hope against hope that that bowling ball-like, near-unstoppable athlete could beat the odds. That’s a fan’s delusion or possibly a child’s. Hopefully, it’s understandable.

I never met Anthony Mason. I’m not sure what I would have said if I did, other than to thank him for all of it—the work and the struggle, the overcoming of unimaginable odds, the messages he carved into the side of his head, the scowling defiance, the wars with Jordan, Miller and all the old Knick foes, and my memories of being young, dumb, scared and lost in the New York City, full of bravado, full of hope and often full of shit.

Thank you for everything. Rest in peace.