Anthony Mason had his reasons for playing angry, for chasing after rebounds like his fellow frustrated New Yorkers chased after buses and cabs. He did not play for the joy of the game half as much as he played to stick it to the doubters and haters, to show them that he never should have been forced to take his game to Turkey, Venezuela and the minor leagues of American basketball.
That's why Knicks fans adored him. He was the underdog out of Springfield Gardens in Queens who played for the Tennessee State Tigers, not for the Kentucky Wildcats or Duke Blue Devils, and who embodied a barrel-chested physicality on the court that mirrored the everyday grind of city life for the upper-deckers inside Madison Square Garden.
Mason sat in those seats as a kid, and he joined those fans as a suspended Knick dressed in a New York Rangers jersey, looking down on Pat Riley, the coach who had temporarily banned him from the building. Mason and Riley fought more often than hockey goons -- minus the actual punches and blood, of course -- and yet deep down, the coach and the forward saw in each other as a kindred spirit, an opponent who refused to back down.
"Anthony willed himself into the NBA, and very few players can do that," Don Cronson, Mason's longtime agent and friend, told ESPN.com hours after Mason's death Saturday at age 48. "Any NBA team could've had him for a nickel, and he turned out to be the perfect Pat Riley player. I think Pat saw a lot of himself in Anthony, and, really, they were the same guy. That's why they butted heads as often as they did. They were both blue-collar guys and fighters. Anthony told me, 'Pat Riley was the one who gave me my chance. He's the one who saw something in me when nobody else did.'"
Actually, Knicks scout Fuzzy Levane first sold Riley and the front-office guys, Dave Checketts and Ernie Grunfeld, on the idea of signing Mason for their summer league team in 1991, right after Riley was hired. Ed Krinsky was running the Long Island Surf of the United States Basketball League when he told Levane he had a guy who'd played a bit for the Nets and Nuggets who could make the Knicks' roster if given a shot.
Riley watched from the summer league stands as Mason grabbed a rebound, dribbled the length of the floor and dunked on a bigger man. The coach had long accepted the fact that he wouldn't be bringing Lakers Showtime east to the Garden. The Knicks of Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley would honor Riley's own blue-collar roots in Schenectady, New York, and Mason was a perfect fit for that approach.
"Mase was so mechanical in his play, and he was never supposed to make it in the league for a host of reasons," Checketts recalled Saturday morning by phone. "But over time, we saw him as the kind of player we needed to change the whole reputation of the Knicks after we hired Pat. We wanted to stop people, and Mase had those big hands, long arms and massive shoulders and an inferiority complex that fueled him to embrace the big moments when he was challenged."
Riley challenged him more than anyone. He sent Mason to the showers after one confrontation in the middle of a game and suspended him once in 1994 and again in 1995 for conduct unbecoming a pro. The '94 suspension came at the close of the regular season and inspired Riley to seriously consider leaving an enraged Mason off his playoff roster.
As the deadline to turn in that roster to the league office closed down on them, Riley, Checketts and Grunfeld held a conference call to determine Mason's fate.
"Ernie thought it was crazy we were even considering that," Checketts said, "but on that call I said, 'Pat, this is completely up to you, and we've got to make the decision now.' The phone fell silent for a full minute, and I wasn't sure he was still on the line. And then finally Pat said, 'Put him on.'"
Mason contributed off the bench to help the Knicks reach Game 7 of a Finals they lost to Houston, then won the league's Sixth Man of the Year award -- despite the second suspension -- the following season. After Riley bolted for Miami, his replacement, Don Nelson, decided the offense needed to revolve around Mason, of all people, instead of Ewing.
"Anthony was thrilled about that," Krinsky, his old Long Island Surf GM, said Saturday by phone. "He wanted the ball in his hands because he felt he had playmaking ability. He felt that Nelson's philosophy was what was needed, and that the Knicks were spending too much time getting the ball inside and not challenging the other team's guards and forwards."
Mason finally had a little security and leverage on his side; he'd just signed a six-year, $24 million deal in September. Cronson wanted him to hold out for more, and Grunfeld would later admit he was willing to go to $27 million, but the overlooked and unwanted prospect inside Mason was terrified the Knicks might pull their first bid off the table.
A starter for the first time, Mason averaged 14.6 points and 9.3 rebounds and shot 56 percent from the floor. But Nelson was fired in the middle of the season in favor of Jeff Van Gundy, and a front office worn down by the fact Mason led the league in rebellious eye-rolls decided to trade him to Charlotte for Larry Johnson that July.
"And Mase was devastated," Checketts said. "His message to us, through Cronson, was that he was going to make us regret that deal like we never regretted anything else, and that things were never going to be the same here without him."
Riley later reacquired him in Miami (of course he did), and Mason rewarded Riley by making his first All-Star team (of course he did). But his basketball story did not have the happiest of endings. Mason had numerous run-ins with the police throughout his career, including an arrest in 1998 and a charge of engaging in sex with two underage girls. (He would plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a child and get sentenced to 200 hours of community service.)
"My last meeting with Anthony was about two years ago," Krinsky said, "and he wanted to get into coaching. But he was persona non grata in the NBA, and it was a shame because he was a misunderstood guy who was hurt during his career by the hangers-on."
Cronson said Mason was known by friends to be a loving son to his mother, Mary, and a dedicated father to his two sons, Anthony Jr. and Antoine, who would go on to play major college basketball.
While with the Knicks, Mason awarded scholarships to underprivileged kids to attend his summer camp and spent part of one of his suspensions at the bedside of a terminally ill child whose last wish was to meet his favorite player.
Anthony Mason was the favorite Knick for a lot of people for reasons that will be remembered long after his death. Mason was from the big city, and he played a game that matched up with the best descriptions of his fellow New Yorkers.
Tough. Defiant. Straight from the heart.