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Anthony Mason: The unreal made real

R.I.P., Anthony George Douglas Mason.

Simon Bruty/Getty Images

The most exciting NBA non-fight I ever saw took place January 26, 1993. Anthony Mason dunked on Manute Bol. Something had been brewing between them during the game, and after the dunk, Bol'd had enough of Mase, so he took a swing at him. Bol missed. He's lucky he did. Not because Bol was a pushover - the man killed a lion while growing up in Sudan. But taking on a lion was nothing compared to taking on Anthony Mason.

Bol and Mason are both dead now. Both demanded your attention while on the court. You couldn't look away because you'd never seen anything like them before. With Bol, it was obvious as soon as he rose from the bench to check-in to a game. It looked like a guy on stilts had stood up. With Mase, there was some of that, too.

In some ways, he looked like a superhero straight outta that time, with his He-Man torso. Yet he wasn't some bulky musclebound big man. He was fast. Graceful. He ran the floor like a two-guard. He was the most gifted ambidextrous Knick I've ever seen. His ball-handling was elite - that's no posthumous hyperbole. One reason New York-Chicago I flourished into a rivalry was that, in Mason, the Knicks had a secret weapon to break the then-stifling Chicago press. Patrick Ewing was a tough guy with stunning range on his jumper. Charles Oakley was a meteor that crash-landed onto our planet and become a basketball player. There was a touch of the mythological to Mase's mass. He was a being of two natures: the body of a power forward and the handle of a guard. Just like Bol, I'd never seen anyone like him. Haven't since.

Rare is the player who can legitimately guard all five positions. Rarer still is he who can lock all five down. That was Mason. He guarded Scottie Pippen, Vince Carter, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Johnson. You never wondered if he could handle it. He was a universal antibiotic: apply wherever needed and let him run his course.
It seemed he could do anything. Before joining the Knicks, Mase spent time with Efes Pilsen in Turkey, leading that league in three-point shooting. He credited his superior footwork to his time overseas, where hand-checking wasn't allowed. His free-throw form and his jump shot looked wrong, but that was part of his gift. Mase was a kitchen sink of a ballplayer: just throw everything together and watch him make it work. He was MacGyver, Game Genie, and a centaur, all in one. Half-man, half-lion. Fully fearless.

Mason and John Starks both emerged in the 1992 season, when the Knicks emerged an NBA power. The Knick frontcourt that year, pound for pound, was the toughest in NBA history. Ewing, Oakley, Xavier McDaniel, and Mase -they were like video game bosses: you might get past one, but you'd be bloody as hell afterward, and whichever one came next was even tougher. Starks was a guard, but he in that same vein. Starks and Mase were always linked, in my mind. Both came from (by NBA standards) nowhere. Both were underdogs. Both took nothing from no one, from day one. The Bulls were the powers that be, the 1%, the physically privileged. Pippen and Jordan looked like they'd been designed in a lab to dominate the NBA. Starks and Mase represented the self-made success story, the person who could only win by never accepting that they couldn't.

Game 6 of the '92 Knicks-Bulls series is still my favorite game ever. Three things stand out from that game: Ewing playing on one leg, doing his version of Willis Reed in the fourth quarter while outplaying Jordan and leading the Knicks to victory; Starks clotheslining Pippen at the very end of the third; and Mase, fouling Will Perdue hard in the face late in the game, then sticking his tongue out at him and smiling. Check the 1:38:10 mark of the video.

John Andariese called it a "bush league" foul. My father agreed. I didn't know what that meant. Even after it was explained to me, even though my head realized they were right, my heart knew they weren't understanding something that I did. They'd seen the Knicks win it all. Twice. They'd lived through the Golden Age. But this was the first time I'd seen the Knicks ever threaten to do anything. This was how revolutions ran, how regimes were toppled. Power never surrenders cordially. The Knicks weren't asking permission to hit the heights. They were storming the tower. If the Knicks were an armed forces, Mason was the Marines.

It didn't end the way anyone hoped. It rarely does. The team never won it all. Pat Riley gave way to Don Nelson, who tried to shift away from Ewing and Starks to an offense centered around Mason as a point forward and Hubert Davis as the #1 two-guard (spoiler: that didn't work). Mase was traded for Larry Johnson. He was charged with statutory rape, eventually pleading guilty to a lesser charge of endangering the welfare of a child. He played in Milwaukee and re-united with Riley in Miami, where he made the All-Star team.

One reason I watch basketball, even through seasons like this one, is because it's like an ecosystem. Watching basketball is a way of watching life. Certain species flourish briefly before going extinct. Certain species will always exist, their prominence contingent on how the world around them evolves. Every now and then, nature offers up a specimen that perhaps exists only because someone somewhere at some point dreamed it into being. It exists because reality is the final destination of everything we dream. For me and for many Knick fans, Anthony Mason made the world seem bigger. He made the impossible inevitable. Now he's gone. He was 48. That seems impossible.

Wherever you are, sweet dreams, Mase.