Mason was four or five years old when he attended his first NBA game, sometime during those two seasons when the New Orleans Hornets temporarily relocated to Oklahoma City during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Back then Mason was more into the food and halftime antics than he was the game, but there was something about basketball that stuck with him. Since then he’s played one season of soccer and took a couple of month’s worth of karate, but all along he’s said what he really wanted to do was play basketball.
When we moved into our old house we inherited a mounted-in-concrete basketball goal that faced the street. Because you had to stand out in the street to use the goal and because he was so little, Susan and I would take turns out in the street with Mason while he shot baskets. Long before he was physically capable of launching the ball high enough to send it through the hoop, he was out there trying. A crack in the street was designated as the free throw line; the opposite curb marked three-point range. Mason was as happy as a clam standing out in the street shooting baskets, sometimes hours on end.
A couple of years ago I did one of those things that as a parent you should never do. When Mason told me he was going to grow up and be a professional basketball player, I told him that was pretty unlikely. At that point he kind of stopped playing basketball. It took us a couple of weeks to put two and two together. When we did, I did one of those backtracking things (“What I meant to say was …”) and he began playing basketball again. So, parental lesson learned.
When we moved to our new house in 2011, one of the things Mason said he was sad about was losing his basketball goal. Last spring, my friend Howard gave us his old goal that needed a backboard, and my friend Andy gave us his backboard that needed a goal. A few screws and zip ties later and the two were united.
That brings us to last month, when we discovered that the YMCA near our home has youth league basketball. After much pleading from Mason, we signed him up for the 8-10 year old league. To be honest I didn’t think he would enjoy it much. I know Mason likes shooting baskets, but I was unsure how much he would enjoy attending practice, and dribbling, and playing defense, and running laps. Turns out, he loves it all. Every last bit of it. He loves being on the court.
After only two practices, Mason’s team — the OKC Celtics — played their first game. I was pretty nervous before the game, and I told Mason the truth: I didn’t care if his team won or lost, I just cared that he got to play and that he had a good time.
None of us knew this was going to happen, but Mason was chosen to perform the opening tip off for his team. I guess there’s something I’ve left out of this story up until this point — Mason’s tall. He’s the tallest kid in his class (“except for the kid that got held back,” he always says), he’s the tallest kid on his team, and except for the referees, he was the tallest kid on the court. (And, in full disclose, because of his birth date, he was probably also one of the oldest kids on the floor.) When the referee threw the ball up, Mason sailed way above his opponent, swatting the ball down toward his teammate. Game ON.
Although Mason’s team has only had two practices, I guess they learned what their positions are. I guess I shouldn’t call them positions at this point; it’s more like, “where to stand.” Mason’s spot to stand is underneath the goal. After the tip off, Mason ran to his spot. One of his teammates launched a bounce pass to him. Mason threw up a layup and it went in. The score was 2-0, and the crowd went wild.
As the Celtic’s opponents began to come back down court, they lost control of the ball. One of Mason’s teammates grabbed the ball. The kids ran to their spots. Someone passed it to Mason, and he threw the ball through the hoop. 4-0. One of Mason’s teammates scored, making it 6-0. On their next possession they went back to “Operation Mason” and he threw another ball through the hoop, making it 8-0 with Mason scoring six of the eight and shooting 100%.
Mason got pulled out during the second quarter, partially because the YMCA has a rule that every kid gets to play at least half the game (a rule we support 100%) and partially because due to Mason’s bright red face and a misunderstanding, they thought he was over-exerted. He wasn’t, and was dying to get back on the court. He eventually did, playing all of the third quarter and half of the fourth. Mason ended up scoring a couple more times, including the last bucket of the game. The final score was 20-5, I think. (In many youth leagues they stop keeping score if one team gets too far ahead of the other, which is what happened during this game.)
Mason’s a lot like me in the fact that he has more interests than time. He’s got school, he’s got reading, he’s got his video games and gadgets and now he’s got basketball. Maybe he’ll play high school ball or college ball or professional ball and maybe he won’t. It doesn’t matter to me at all. What matters to me the most is that Mason’s doing what he wants to do, and for right now, that’s basketball. Thunder up, Mason, and Happy Birthday son.