Almost everyone that loves basketball stops playing before there's a reason to feel anything more complicated about the game. There are, right now, septuagenarians boxing out crisply in clammy gyms and firing off chippy in-stream elbows in men's leagues around the world; there are kids playing all day on legs too new to get tired. They are all playing basketball because it is a thing they want to do, and they want to do it because basketball is good—fluid, bright-sided, inventive, all the other basketball rhapsody stuff—and playing it is fun.
There is another way to see it, though. There is another basketball that is harder and crueler, and that game is about something else. It has the same shape as the sunnier playground game, but it is played by different people for different reasons. This game is not recreation, and is not played for fun. It is both easy and tempting to write the attributes of the first game over the experience of watching the second, if only because those of us watching want the same thing from it—we project the happy, chaos-surfing feeling of playing our game onto the very different people playing the deceptively similar one in the NBA.
But these games are not the same, and NBA basketball is both more beautiful and ultimately more harsh. All the ways of expressing this scan as pure cliche—"This is not just a game for us," Kevin Durant tells GQ's Zach Baron. "This is life. Like, we live and die and breathe by basketball."—but the games themselves show their truth, which is a strange thing to behold. That strangeness is why the games are so great, but also why we don't necessarily get beautiful champions. The game's brighter and lighter aspects burn off up where the air gets thinner, and the teams that are left are sleek and mean and merciless. The Spurs drape this in pokerfaced khaki and it looks like something other than what it is; Kobe glowers at the world with unblinking crazy-eyes and shows us something much closer to the wild truth of it.
About the kindest thing that could be said about the New York Knicks teams of the early 1990s—which gritted and ground and elbowed their way to a uniquely ugly brilliance, and nearly to a NBA title in the 93-94 season—was that the basketball they played was honest. Every beautiful thing went into the furnace. What was left was an engine of pure will, raggedy and brutal and jagged-edged. Anthony Mason, who was recently very sick but happily making progress, was not the best player on that team, but he was its purest manifestation. This is more of a compliment than it seems to be.
The less complimentary part of that would be that comparing anyone or anything to Pat Riley's Knicks teams is to say that they remind you of getting elbowed in the throat, repeatedly, on a crowded city bus. These were the greatest Knicks teams in at least a generation, but they were great in the most unlovable sort of way. They were steely and stifling on defense, slow n' grunty on offense, and generally a typhoon of bad vibes in every way but the one that would have prevented them from winning games.
These bad vibes could seem, to discerning or biased palates, to reveal the purest badassery, while others would detect only notes of sour-mash bully-boy aggression and hair-trigger unpleasantness. This last bit is the greatest joke on Knicks fans, the NBA's most self-romanticizing sufferers—even when they finally got something like a great team, they couldn't even really enjoy watching the team play. So they took what was left, and loved how much everyone else hated these teams. This was adaptation or transference or simple convenience, or all of them, but it worked. When a team gives you lemons, you throw them at the people you'd like to hit with lemons. From a certain perspective, this is sweeter than lemonade. Anyway, lemonade is not what these Knicks were serving.
There was nothing sweet about these Knicks, not a blessed thing, and Anthony Mason was the tartest motherfucker of them all. Mason was three years, three leagues, and two NBA teams—not counting the Blazers, who drafted him in the third round out of Tennessee State in 1988—into his career by the time he landed with the Knicks. To say that he played hungry, or angry, is not sufficient. Mason played dense, and wide, he displaced opponents by force and by dint of sheer insistent bulk. There was a physical depth to Mason, a basic bodily width that's comparable to two normal-sized men standing back to back, that enabled him to do to groups of large men what bowling balls do to bowling pins.
Mason led the break with more command than anyone his size had a right to, and made nearly half of his three-point attempts as a college senior before tossing that part of his game overboard as a pro, but his considerable skills tended to be displaced, too, by the ferocity of his presentation and performance. Even as he played it, Mason's badass mythos overtook the reality of his game. For his offensive efficiency and versatility and crypto-stretch-four ability to put the ball on the floor, Mason was something like a prototype for the frontcourt players that would replace him in today's NBA. This doesn't seem right, though, because Mason is impossible to remember as anything but sui generis, as someone for whom the comparable players are Anthony Mason, Anthony Mason, and Anthony Mason. The distinction is attitudinal and visceral, more than it is statistical, and it is inarguable among those who remember Mason at his mirthless, merciless, all-crushing best.
The myth grows, in a way, because Mason also got into trouble a lot, in a way that is retrospectively outlandish in contrast to today's polite NBA. Mason inserted himself into an argument involving a woman—this is a constant in the list to come—and wound up hitting a cop in New Orleans and getting charged with inciting a riot. Another fight, in Times Square, involved 10(!) police officers and ended with three injured officers and Mason charged with second-degree assault. There was another brawl in Harlem. This is a lot, and it's all bad, but it's not everything.
There is also all that work that Mason did, his ice-grilled defiance and unstinting toughness, the self-belief that fired his refusal to have anything but the career that he believed he could and should have—these are all admirable things. They are not the only things, about Anthony Mason or any athlete, but that is always true of this sort of list. It's just a collection of things Anthony Mason has done, the same way that this is just a collection of his stats. None of it quite explains why his sudden sickness was so shocking, or why I have found myself—someone who never really liked Mason as a player, although I do remember his brief stint with the New Jersey Nets in more detail than I probably should—so concerned and hopeful about his return to health.
It is one thing for kids to look at a superhuman, even one of Mason's overachieving, mortal, and hustle-hard variety, and see either a full-stop Bad Guy or nothing but virtues and little levers of individuated inspiration. It's a sillier and more cynical thing for adults to do, and it's generally safe to assume that those doing so are selling something—either a one-size-fits-all hit of righteous outrage or some switched-off sentimentality. Anthony Mason does not fit into those categories neatly, or even really at all. This is why he still matters even to those of us that didn't care for the Knicks teams he defined or the way in which he did it.
As a basketball player, Mason turned pure and principled opposition into something that could be read almost as a worldview—he persisted and insisted, and did always and only what Anthony Mason would do. His game was pure will, and he rose and fell with and within that purpose. It was not always admirable or likable or graceful; it was not always even good. That was never the point. The game can be, for us, any number of beautiful and complicated and large-hearted things; for Anthony Mason, who played basketball for a living, the will was the thing. The rest of it, every other finer thing, was details. The rest of it was for us, and what was his was not for anyone else.