This past Saturday, the sports community learned of the tragic passing of 48-year-old former power forward Anthony Mason. There has been plenty of praise given to the Knicks’ big-bodied, fierce-hearted competitor over the last few days, and rightfully so. He played thirteen years in the NBA, was an NBA All-Star, an All-NBA selection, and an NBA All-Defensive team selection. He won the NBA’s Sixth Man award, and led the Knicks to an Eastern Conference title. But more than any of these accomplishments, the thing that defined Mason was his toughness and his tenacity, and with his legacy we should remember not only the accolades, but perhaps more importantly, the fire. For New York sports, Anthony Mason was more than just a tough-as-nails power forward; he was the epitome of a city and its people.
As a kid who grew up in Jersey, went to high school in Jersey City, and was a New York sports fan from the time I could walk (Yankees, Giants, Knicks, Rangers), Anthony Mason was the type of player I idolized. All of the great New York teams of the 1990s had players like him. The ’94 Knicks themselves provided compliments to the big-bruiser with fellow inside defensive force, Charles Oakley, as well as the physically smaller but equally emotionally-charged two-guard, John Starks. They embodied toughness.
Likewise, the Giants of that era were not far removed from the toughest line backing corps ever, in the form of Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, and Carl Banks. Nor were they far removed from a truly iconic tight end in Mark Bavaro, who is best remembered for dragging hordes of defenders downfield with him. And those legends of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s would give way to similarly tough players including Michael Strahan, Jesse Armstead, Jason Sehorn, and company.
On the ice, the Rangers, too, were fear-inducing. Brian Leetch, Mark Messier, and Adam Graves were all-stars who were unafraid to take the body and lead by example. Mike Richter in net was, at his best, nearly impossible to beat, and never guilty of beating himself. And role-players like Alexei Kovalev and Jeff Beukeboom (who I will unflinchingly contend has the greatest last name for an enforcer of all time) made it clear that those stars were not to receive cheap shots. Across the river, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Martin Brodeur would launch a decade of hockey excellence in East Rutherford during the mid-90s to early 2000s with similar toughness.
And of course on the field, the greatest baseball team of all time, the 1998 New York Yankees, was defined by toughness as much as star power. They won the World Series four times in five years, but the way they played the game gave Yankee fans an equal sense of pride. In an era when individual offensive production seemed to captivate nearly everyone else, a group of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, and Joe Torre, among many others, cared about only two things on the diamond: winning, and each other. Everybody on the outside remembers the World Series wins, but for those who were from there, the team’s reaction to Armando Benitez drilling Tino Martinez in the back out of frustration after Bernie Williams took him yard defined those teams just as well as the championships.
Even the other New York teams of that era that are less remembered– the NL champion Mets, the post-New York Sack Exchange Jets, the up-and-coming New Jersey Nets, the four-time conference champion Bills (kids today don’t realize there was a time when they were also considered a “New York team”), and the post-dynasty Islanders– also embodied that same toughness. This was the climate of New York sports during the ‘90s; this was the climate of the glory days. These were our heroes and our idols. Our role models. They never backed down, and they always had each other’s back. Anthony Mason was just as much a part of what made all of those teams special to the New York faithful as any other individual player. He was part of a team, a city, an era, and a movement. You rarely saw anyone try to walk on a New York team of the ‘90s, and when you did, it was laughable.
They gave magic to Giants Stadium, to Yankee Stadium, to Brendan Byrne/ Continental Airlines Arena, to Nassau Coliseum, to Shea Stadium, and in the case of Mason, to the Garden. These places were not merely venues of athletic competition. They were arenas where we saw life play out before our eyes. Those who inhabited them, especially Mason, taught us the lessons of teamwork, loyalty, tenacity, and commitment. As much as they may have fed off the city, so too did the city feed off them.
Mason’s play energized us. He was responsible not only for inducing individuals to use physicality on school-yard courts around the area, but also for giving them cause to call upon raw will in every facet of life. Every adjective that comes to mind with the ’94 Knicks (as well as the the other teams of the ‘90s), so too comes to mind with him as an individual. He was a true underdog story—one that we could relate to. The man who had been cut by teams, forced to play abroad, finally got a chance in a summer-league team, and eventually elevated, for a period of time, to the top of his field, showed us that anybody could make it.
And all the while, he constantly reminded us to protect what we hold close and to never be afraid to leave it all on the line. He wore his heart on his sleeve, or more appropriately in his case, on his head, with one of his vintage sayings shaved onto it. He was one of the titans in our mythology, and he takes partial credit for why many of us believe that we too have the capacity to make it someday. As great as all the teams and many of the players in New York were during his era, it would be incomplete to look back and not bring up his name. He helped to define not only our teams, but also ourselves.
Thank you, Big Mase.