by Peter Richmond
When Anthony Mason played for the New York Knicks he was fun to watch. He was tough in the paint and very physical. His emotions sparked the team. Raised in Queens, his home-town status made him kind of a hero. When he died Friday, at 48, of a heart attack, local writers waxed eloquently.
A columnist for the Daily News quoted a former Knick executive as saying, “He was a nasty character on the court who was capable of being an extraordinary gentleman away from it.â€ť The columnist finished his piece thusly: “There have been other New York basketball stories. His was still a great one. Kid from the corner and off the streetcorners of Queens. Mase: Dead at 48. That was some heart that finally gave out.”
The New York Post columnist wrote, “Even after he was finally exiled to Charlotte, and for the rest of his career, the Garden would always cheer him. He was, after all, not only of New York but from New York. He wasnâ€™t perfect, there were off-court incidents, there were things he said later on he shouldnâ€™t have said. Never seemed to matter.”
A New York Times’ columnist wrote, “Mason was behaviorally indulgent (he also had issues away from Garden, some with the law), so few could resist rendering occasional judgment. But time had its soothing effects.”
Yes, it did. Time has apparently soothed February 7, 1998, right out of written history. On that night, according to the arrest warrant, Mason was charged with the statutory rape and sexual abuse of a 15-year-old in a limousine after a charity basketball game in Queens. The girl had told their older sister of the incident.
After Mason surrendered to police, they questioned him for five hours, and then arrested him. The Assistant District attorney said at the time that Mason knew the girl’s age. He was released on $20,000 bond. Depositions claimed that he had kissed and fondled the 15-year-old in the limo.
Four months later, Mason pled to a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a minor; had he been convicted in court, he’d have faced prison time, due to a prior weapons charge. (An assault of a policeman in Times Square in a separate incident was also settled).
When a man dies, it is human nature to not dwell on his flaws. When a basketball player dies, it’s sportswriting’s nature to not mention them specifically at all. When they involve taking advantage of a teenaged girl, this is inexcusable.
Whether whatever happened in the limousine was consensual or not is not relevant. What is relevant is that Mason was a child molester, according to the law, which was enacted to protect young girls who don’t have the ability to reason.
This is the neuroscience: The rewards center of an adolescent’s brain — the part that wants things — develops earlier than the prefrontal cortex, which serves to tell the rewards center, “Hold on. There will be consequences to taking what you want.”
The 15-year-old girl’s brain was not working the way Mason’s was. She was vulnerable in every sense of the word.
In an age when sexual assaults, domestic abuse and other ugly sides to professional athletics are finally being scrutinized, the death of Anthony Mason prompted not a single writer to examine our relationship to our heroes, or to question why we continue to wax nostalgically about a man who too egregious advantage of a girl. That is not a journalistic misdemeanor. That is a felony.
I taught 15-year-old girls for three years, and now teach 17- and 18-year-old girls. The idea of a large, muscular, famous 31-year-old man ever laying a hand on any one of them is something I will not allow myself to conjure. But if I ever came across such a man who had taken sexual advantage of any of the girls I have ever taught, I would not be responsible for my actions.
And if I ever had to write about him after his death, I would mourn his passing by asking, “We’re waxing fondly and rapturously about a man who pled guilty to criminally fondling a girl. What does that say about us?”
I don’t think I’d want to hear the answer.