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Former Hornet Mason never lacked heart

The best season of Anthony Mason’s 13-year career was his first with the Charlotte Hornets. In 1996-97, Mason averaged a career high 16.2 points, second on the team to Glen Rice’s 26.8, and a career and team high 11.4 rebounds.

Even though the Hornets featured point guard Muggsy Bogues, Mason wanted the offense run through him. On occasion, he insisted on it. By occasion, I mean every week. Mason sounds selfish. If so, he is the most unselfish selfish player in team history. He averaged a career high 5.7 assists, trailing only Bogues. Numbers can’t attest to his overwhelming defense or the physical nature of his game.

Mason, whose run in Charlotte lasted two more seasons, was in a New York area hospital with heart issues this week when he suffered what’s described as a massive heart attack.

He is only 48 years old. Alas, he has added about 100 pounds to his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame since he stopped playing basketball.

“I want to reach out to Mase,” George Shinn, who owned the Hornets, says Thursday morning. Shinn planned to call an old friend whom he thinks has contact information for Mason.

I’m reluctant to label Mason a character because the term implies flighty. Mason was too imposing to be flighty. Never a follower, he’s a man with the confidence to go his own way. If he saw a path he wanted to take, he took it, even if he had to clear out whatever or whomever (say a 7-foot center) was in the way.

In 1998-99, the NBA got caught up in a six-month lockout that would reduce the schedule from 82 games to 50. During the lockout the league told owners to avoid contact with players. If a player somehow slipped through on a private line, the owner was to hang up immediately.

Shinn’s phone rang.

“Boss, how you doing?” Mason asked.

Shinn liked Mason, but attempted to abide by league rules. “You know we’re not supposed to talk,” Shinn told him.

“I know,” said Mason. “But who cares? I just wanted to see how you’re doing. And how soon until you get us back to work?”

Mason was fun to be around because adventures were lured into his orbit. As part of a Hornets’ effort, Mason rode in an old white truck full of produce. Restaurants or stores gave up the produce before it went bad, and the truck picked it up and delivered it to selected inner city neighborhoods. Mason rode shotgun in the front seat, the only seat, and I sat in the middle.

We were at a light on Tryon Street in downtown Charlotte and he looked down at the driver in the car next to him. The driver looked up at the big man in the old white truck full of green stuff. Before the light changed, Mason had her telephone number.

The afternoon was stifling hot. At our first stop, Mason said he was going to walk to a convenience store and asked me if I wanted anything. Just something to drink, I said. He came back with two large cans of beer.

As the produce was set up to be distributed, a kid pointed to the truck and said, “A Charlotte Hornet is in there.” Another kid looked at him incredulously and asked, “Why would a Hornet be in this neighborhood?”

Mason was at ease with the neighborhood and the kids and their parents, and if he didn’t want to be there, nobody would have known.

Smiling and friendly, he looked like a point guard as he passed out the produce, big hands moving swiftly and certain.

On that day, the offense finally ran through him.

Good luck, Anthony.

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