Unsung Knick History – The Italian Job That Luckily Never Came About
This is the tenth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
In the history of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Sixth Man of the Year Award, the award given out to the best player in the league who did not start for his team, only two New York Knicks have ever been given the honor. Those two Knicks are John Starks and Anthony Mason (in the 1996-97 season and the 1994-95 season, respectively). Besides having that award in common, Starks and Mason also have in common long, circuitous paths to NBA stardom, with stopovers in places rarely frequented by players who would later play in NBA All-Star Games (heck, Mason even started an All-Star Game!).
I detailed Starks’ journey in a piece here, but Mason’s journey was even stranger, and amazingly enough, when he finally got his big break, it came while his agent was trying to get him a spot in the Italian Leagues!
Let’s take a look at how Anthony Mason became a Knick…
Unlike John Starks, Anthony Mason actually was drafted in the NBA, although in a round that no longer exists. Mason was selected in the third round of the 1988 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers (53rd overall pick). Amusingly enough (well, at least it amused me), Portland received the pick from the Golden State Warriors a year earlier in exchange for the rights to Kermit Washington, who was trying one last comeback after being out of the league for six years. Doesn’t it almost seem appropriate that Mason was drafted with a pick acquired in a deal for one of the most infamous enforcers in NBA history?
In any event, Portland was not a good fit for Mason. With Jerome Kersey and Mark Bryant ahead of him in the rotation, Mason was seen just as a “break in case of emergency” project. The team kept him stashed on the injured list the entire 1988-89 season. That tends not to be good for one’s career. Luckily for Mason, two things happened in the 1989 offseason. One, Portland acquired Buck Williams and Clifford Robinson, giving them so much frontcourt depth that Mason was even more superfluous and two, Mason’s high school basketball coach/father figure, Kenny Fiedler, managed to utilize a friendship he had with New Jersey Nets coach Willis Reed to get Reed to convince the Trailblazers to release Mason from his contract so that the Nets could sign him.
In September of 1989, that’s exactly what happened. But in Mason’s “one step forward, two steps back” life of the time, his arrival with the Nets happened at the same time that Reed was promoted from Nets coach to the Nets’ General Manager & Vice President of Basketball Operations. Bill Fitch was hired to replace Reed, and, well, if there is a coach in the NBA whose style meshed with Mason less than Bill Fitch’s, I can’t think of him offhand. So Mason struggled for playing time, averaging 5 minutes per game over 21 games before he was cut by the Nets. He latched on to the Denver Nuggets for two 10-day contracts at the end of 1989, but Denver was unwilling to commit to a full season (which you must do if you want a player past their second 10-day contract), so Mason was cast adrift.
Oddly enough, he found himself playing in Turkey!! Naturally enough, in the early 1990s, not a lot of NBA players were playing in Turkey (it wasn’t a viable enough league for the 1990 equivalent of Allen Iverson to ever consider, like Iverson did recently when he signed with a Turkish team) and Mason was miserable. In fact, his mother actually left her job in Manhattan to travel to Turkey to stay with her son for the last few weeks of his time there (his departure from Turkey was hastened with an altercation with his coach).
Once back from Turkey, Mason’s agent, Don Cronson, next found him work in Venezuela. Here, Mason enjoyed himself a good deal more, especially since he lived near a beach and Venezuela…well, let’s say the women of Venezuela are a good deal more forthcoming than the women of Turkey, particularly if you live near a beach. But while he was enjoying the scenery, Mason was also adding facets to his game. As you might imagine, basketball in Turkey and in Venezuela differed drastically from basketball in the NBA, and the drastic changes in style of play forced Mason to adapt his style of play, to the point where he was becoming exceptionally versatile, physical enough to play European style (where you had to hit a guy to keep him from shooting) but having enough finesse to play South American style (where you can’t hit anyone).
Mason next had a very brief stint in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), playing for the Tulsa Fast Breakers, but by April of 1991 he was playing in, of all the leagues in the world, the United States Basketball League (USBL)!!!
The USBL was created in 1985 as a unique league for players to showcase their skills after the end of the collegiate season (in April) and before rookie camps opened (in June). In the inaugural season, they had four players play for them who would go on to NBA fame – Manute Bol, Spud Webb, Hot Rod Williams and Michael Adams. But by 1991, the novelty had mostly worn off and it was not a league many folks paid attention to (although future NBA players continued to come out of the USBL, including Darrell Armstrong).
Mason was playing for the Long Island Surf in the spring of 1991 and he was putting up some pretty big numbers. By this time in his career, the NBA was the furthest thought from his mind. Cronson was trying to get Mason a job in the Italian League. While Turkey was not where your typical American player would want to end up, the Italian League was a whole different story. Not only was it quite competitive and prestigious, but it paid really well. An American star player could make up to $400,000 playing in Italy in 1991. So that was what Mason was shooting for as he continued to showcase himself in the USBL, averaging 27 points a game (Knickerblogger head honcho, Mike Kurylo, asked me if Mason would have overlapped with current Knick coach Mike D’Antoni in Italy, and sure enough, D’Antoni had just finished his playing career in Italy in 1990 and had become head coach for Olimpia Milano, the team he had led to five Italian League championships and two Euroleague championships, so imagine Mason playing for D’Antoni in 1991!!).
However, while Mason had his sights set on Italy, the Knicks had their sights on Mason. The Knicks had a scout at the time, Fuzzy Levane (Levane might be a good topic for a future column – he was a character!), who was 71 years old and mostly stuck to patrolling the minor Eastern leagues, including the CBA and the USBL. Levane actually lived in Long Island and after taking in a Surf game, he was struck by Mason’s talent. Levane brought Knick General Manager Ernie Grunfeld out to see Mason and soon, Mason was invited to Knick training camp and was signed as a free agent in July 1991. You all remember the rest (including that aforementioned Sixth Man of the Year award).
Imagine what would have happened had Cronson gotten Mason a deal sooner?
Thanks to Mark Jacobson’s great 1994 profile on Anthony Mason in New York Magazine for much of the information behind this piece.
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!