We'll mostly remember Anthony Mason for toughness, the way that we remember the Riley-era Knicks teams on which he made his reputation. Which, fine. He got in fights, on- and off-court; he deployed his elbows and extra-large ass with abandon and occasional malice; he glowered and wheedled and provoked, the way NBA players did in the '90s. Anthony Mason was tough.
I must confess, though, that—both as a 10- or 11-year-old kid first becoming aware of Anthony Mason during the Knicks' rise to a kind of doomed rivalry with Michael Jordan's Bulls, and now as a grown man—I never had much use for the particular brand of toughness we're usually talking about when we talk about those Knicks. The sneering puffed-chest goon shit, the implied I'll cut you for scoring on me of it. It's dumb and silly and not a little pathetic, even when you set aside the basic silliness of sports—"They're playing with a ball!"—and make allowances for the very real differences between basketball as playground pastime and basketball as profession.
In any case, this way of remembering those Knicks teams, and Mason, who died this past Saturday from congestive heart failure, makes too much of what ultimately wasn't so huge a difference between them and any other NBA team from those ugly early- to mid-'90s years. They didn't (or didn't just) intimidate and foul and fight their way to wins; they passed and made baskets and played defense, like anybody else, just with shittier looks on their faces. In the 1993-94 season that turned out to be the high-water mark of the Riley years, they committed the fourth-most personal fouls in the NBA—but they also shot a lot of threes (relative to their era and glacial pace), passed the ball more creatively than many nominally more finesse-oriented teams, and played good actual defense, which is not the same thing as just flattening every ball-handler who comes near the paint. They, like the Bulls and Rockets and everybody else, won because they were good at playing what was, recognizably, basketball.
Anthony Mason embodied this gap between the Riley-era Knicks' reputation and reality better than anyone. His game had a staccato, skittering quality to it; his feet never seemed to get more than two inches off the floor, even when he jumped. And his free-throw shooting technique, for most of his career, was a hilarious wreck: an elaborate, halting, multi-stage affair, like a ritual meant to lull the rim to sleep.
But however neatly that jerry-rigged and duct-taped mess might dovetail with the myth of Anthony Mason, Basketball Golem—for all that we're now remembering him as the avatar of a no-skill all-will notion of basketball as a headbutting contest between australopithecines—Mase was a wondrously and diversely skilled actual basketball player: a combo forward who could handle the ball, knock down jumpers, defend wings out on the perimeter, and bang with bigs around the hoop. Also, and most entertainingly, he was a sharp-eyed and creative distributor of the ball. He threw bounce passes with expert touch and impish imagination, a trait we're more comfortable associating with slick, Euro-inspired, analytics-optimized modern teams like the Spurs than with the prison-yard shiv-sport we like to remember those Knicks teams practicing. Knicks fans may hate this to their curdled, Bulls-hating marrow, but he had at least as much in common with Scottie Pippen as he did with anyone else in the league.
In the 1999-00 season, his third with the Charlotte Hornets and deep into the downslope of his career, 33-year-old Anthony Mason started, played 48 minutes, and guarded 23-year-old destroyer-of-worlds Vince Carter pretty much throughout a 110-101 overtime win over the Toronto Raptors. Which, I think we can all agree, is the work of a tough bastard.
He also ran point for the Hornets, initiated the offense, handled and distributed the ball, and finished with 31 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists. That, I think we can all agree, is not the work of a goon. He'd even cleaned up his free-throw form, by then. He hit all 15 of them.
If his zeal for putting an elbow in somebody's neck made Mason a fitting talisman—or at least co-talisman, along with Oakley—of those ferocious, outdated Knicks teams, in the bigger picture his game belongs more to the basketball that came after it than to the years that made him famous. It's more recognizable among 21st-century players like Lamar Odom, Draymond Green, Boris Diaw, and even LeBron James—all-court forwards whose diverse skills confound typical notions of positionality—than among the glowering, skill-free human elbow-towers Mase's herky-jerky dribbles and crafty passes confounded once upon a time. His basketball DNA can be found in all their games—and in all the imaginative ways people dream up to deploy these human skeleton keys—more vibrantly, meaningfully, and recognizably than it can be found in Kendrick Perkins's perma-scowl and goobery tough-guy bullshit.
So if it seems trite to say that Anthony Mason lives on, beyond his sad and untimely death, in the role he played in changing notions about basketball and positionality, it's true anyway. Even with all the rules changes that have mostly done away with the particular brand of basketball Riley's Knicks played and made tough-guy posturing and willingness to brawl as much a liability as an asset, Anthony Mason's basketball descendants are everywhere, and will never go out of style. The shame is that he won't get to watch them. Goodbye, Mase.
Photo via Getty