TULSA, Okla. — Bill Self knows how to push Frank Mason’s buttons.
Truthfully, the Kansas basketball coach seems to take some enjoyment from doing it, too.
One such instance came in advance of the then-No. 1 Jayhawks’ regular-season finale March 4 at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys had turned their season around after a disastrous 0-6 start to Big 12 play, thanks in no small part to dynamic sophomore point guard Jawun Evans, an All-Big 12 first-teamer.
Mason entered that late-season contest winless in his career at Gallagher-Iba Arena, and, well, Self decided now was as good a time as any for some button pushing.
Self, junior Devonte’ Graham later recalled, challenged his own point guard at practice, at one point barking out that Mason couldn’t guard Evans, his OSU counterpart. What followed next, according to Graham, would appear to be a very un-Mason-like response.
“Man, I can guard anybody,” Mason responded. “I’ll go to the NBA and I’ll guard LeBron (James) right now.”
That answer may be jarring to those who only know the stoic senior from his humble postgame interview sessions and reserved public persona. However, to those around him most — including Graham, the Self-described backcourt Robin to Mason’s Batman — it was just another example of the rock-solid confidence and undying competitiveness that has made him a locker room leader and arguably the best player in college basketball.
“A lot of people are scared of him or think he’s mean or cocky, and that’s the last thing he is,” Graham said. “I think that might be the biggest misconception, because he’s a nice guy.”
These days, the only folks who should be scared of Mason are the players tasked with lining up across from him. Evans and the Cowboys learned that firsthand.
Mason came tantalizingly close to notching the first triple-double by a guard in KU history that night, posting a 27-point, nine-assist, eight-rebound performance in the Jayhawks’ 90-85 victory. It was a storybook ending to a regular season that began with a 30-point outburst in the season opener in Honolulu, a walk-off jumper to defeat top-ranked Duke at the “Mecca of Basketball,” an all-time hustle play and head-first dive into press row against Kansas State at hostile Bramlage Coliseum, and a litany of other efforts that made Mason a program icon.
To truly appreciate this senior season, to really understand Mason’s transformation from under-recruited blip on the college basketball radar to front-runner in the race for national player of the year, one must begin inside the Las Vegas gym where KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend discovered the shy Petersburg, Va., native nearly five years ago.
“God intervened for me to be in the gym that day to see him,” Townsend said. “It ended up being good for him — and great for us.”
* * * * *
Townsend knew what his eyes told him, but the longtime Self aide sought a second opinion.
It was the summer of 2012, and Townsend was in town for the Vegas Fab 48, an annual AAU showcase tournament of the nation’s top prospects. Mason, though, did not fit that bill at the time. Already signed with Towson of the Colonial Athletic Association, Mason was a three-star recruit ranked 131st in the nation by Rivals.com. Further, Townsend’s focus was set on another guard in Jordan McLaughlin, a four-star prospect ranked No. 49 in his class.
But what happened in Vegas that week, for once, didn’t stay there. Townsend was mesmerized by the Mason, the 5-foot-11 sparkplug in braids whose “Team Loaded” squad shined against its McLaughlin-led opponent.
“Frank just really kind of gave it to ’em,” Townsend said. “And when I watched that I just kind of thought, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable.’ ”
So much so, in fact, that Townsend felt compelled to call Mason’s coach, Ty White, to inquire deeper, asking if “that little kid” always plays like that.
“Every day, Coach,” White responded. “He don’t know no better.”
Townsend was intrigued, so he went out and saw Mason twice more that week. Stashed away in a back gym, the KU assistant was the only scout in attendance — “I saw him and just kind of fell in love with him,” Townsend said.
Convinced of Mason’s abilities, Townsend asked about his situation. He was told the guard was already signed with Towson, but that avenue looked unlikely at the time as Mason narrowly failed a government class in his final year at Peterburg High School. Academically ineligible, his dream of playing Division I basketball appeared dashed.
The Jayhawks, though, didn’t give up. Right after the Vegas tournament ended, Townsend got Mason’s phone number and gave him a ring, letting him know the team was interested.
Mason’s reaction, like many throughout his life, was a muted one.
“I don’t think he knew the difference between Kansas and Kansas State,” Townsend said, “which let me know he hadn’t really been out of the hood much in life.”
Townsend walked Mason through the program’s history, and the deeper he got in the conversation, the more he could tell the guard’s interest was piquing.
But Townsend had his concerns.
“My first impressions were, hey, this kid is a little rough around the edges. Let me think,” Townsend said. “Would this be a good environment? Would he be able to adapt to it? And he ended up coming here and falling in love with it.”
KU followed Mason’s academic rehabilitation at Massanutten Military Academy, a prep school in Woodstock, Va., and when the team missed out on McLaughlin and other highly regarded prospects, Mason made his official visit Oct. 4, 2012, and committed to KU four days later.
“After (he committed) I think he started to feel comfortable and felt like family,” Townsend said, “and the more we talked the more I knew I was going to love this kid.”
Townsend still followed Mason’s progression on the AAU circuit, attending a contest against North Carolina signee Nate Britt. As the assistant coach remembers it today, Mason got the best of the McDonald’s All-American.
“I knew then,” Townsend said, “we had the right kid.”
In selling Mason to Self, Townsend made a bold prediction: By the guard’s third season, he would be named a second-team All-Big 12 selection. Self was skeptical — how could a player so skilled have slipped through the recruiting cracks so long?
The answer, Townsend figured out, was quite simple.
“He wasn’t one of those kids that was out there on social media trying to put his highlight tapes and stuff out,” Townsend said. “As you know, his personality,that’s just not who he is. He’s just always wanted to let his play do the talking, and he’s wanted to line up against whoever people thought was the best and go at ’em.”
That point was certainly illustrated against Evans and the Cowboys. But even today, when Townsend or someone else gives Mason credit for something on his ever-growing list of accolades, the guard replies with that familiar confidence.
“Coach,” Mason responds, “they don’t even see what I can really do yet.”
Townsend’s bold prediction, as it turned out, was not bold enough.
Mason was a second-team All-Big 12 selection his sophomore season, one year before the assistant coach’s target. He made the team again as a junior, and on the heels of a sensational senior campaign, Mason was named the Big 12 player of the year one day after the Jayhawks’ victory in Stillwater.
The first player in the conference’s 20-year history to average more than 20 points and five assists in the regular season, Mason has become more to Townsend than a diamond found deep in the rough.
“It’s a weird feeling,” Townsend said. “It’s almost like watching one of your own kids do something that you’re really proud of, and that’s how I feel about Frank.”
* * * * *
Some 1,200 miles away from the location of the biggest shot of his collegiate career, Mason wasted no time getting back on the grind.
The shot, of course, was Mason’s pull-up jumper with 1.2 seconds left in KU’s second game of this season against Duke at Madison Square Garden in New York. The bucket broke a tie and gave the Jayhawks a 77-75 victory over the then-No. 1 Blue Devils in front of a crowd of 19,812.
The site of Mason’s return to the hardwood immediately after the Jayhawks arrived home from their cross-country flight? The practice gym at Allen Fieldhouse in front of no onlookers.
“The world’s most famous arena,” this was not.
At one point, Brian Hanni, the play-by-play voice of the Jayhawks, had to ask Mason to stop shooting because he and Self needed to tape an interview in the facility. Mason, Hanni said, just wanted to keep on shooting.
“I thought, how do really good players become great players, and how do great players become legends?” Hanni said. “Even the day after the greatest moment of his collegiate career to that point, he wasn’t basking in the glow and checking his Twitter notifications or calling back all the girls that I’m sure thought that he was the greatest thing ever. He was in there trying to get better, and raise that bar even higher.”
Hanni, who travels with the team, said any misconceptions about Mason have been clarified of late.
“I think if there was something that was misunderstood, I think we’ve seen enough of him this year to get it,” Hanni said. “Yeah, he is all business most of the time, but he can have fun too, and he’ll let you in with a small glimpse here or there on what he’s really like behind closed doors with teammates. All the guys love him.”
Those glimpses have become far more common in Mason’s farewell season.
There was the toothy grin and flex he flashed after a remarkable and-one layup into hard contact in an 89-74 victory over Stanford, a play he recently labeled his favorite of the season. His speech after KU clinched a 13th straight Big 12 regular-season title with an 87-68 home victory over TCU on Feb. 22 also comes to mind — no one told or expected Mason to deliver the message of gratitude to the Allen Fieldhouse faithful.
Perhaps the most telling moment occurred during a postgame interview after the Jayhawks’ 79-73 victory at Kentucky on Jan. 28, when teammate Josh Jackson was asked what KU would have done had senior forward Landen Lucas fouled out guarding 6-10 counterpart Bam Adebayo.
“I would’ve guarded him,” he quipped.
Lucas said that kind of humor may seem weird to the outside public, but it is right in line with the Mason he has come to know over the last four years.
“He laughs a lot more than people think and he has way more personality than I think people from the outside can see,” Lucas said. “For us, it’s not that weird.”
In addition to the more playful element Mason has shown this season, he has also given everyone at least a small glimpse into a more emotional side. That was never more clear than following the senior night victory over Oklahoma on Feb. 27, which represented his final game at Allen Fieldhouse.
Though they know a Mason more out of his shell than most, many of his teammates did not expect the senior to shed a tear in his postgame address. In reality, Mason didn’t even make it to the speech before the waterworks began. Moments after draining a pull-up jumper with 57 seconds left — eerily similar to the walk-off shot against Duke — a teary-eyed Mason checked out of the lineup to a thunderous ovation.
Mason recovered from the episode well before making his farewell comments to the packed house.
“I’m really sad that I don’t have the chance to play here anymore, but I will definitely be back in town a lot,” Mason said. “Love you guys.”
“Last, but not least,” he said, “if I had the chance to play four more years here, I swear I would.”
It was a powerful and revealing moment near the end of the speech that shed light on the impact the Lawrence community has had on him, both as a player and as a man.
“When he first came here, coming from Petersburg and all that stuff, I think he didn’t really trust people or stuff like that, from his background,” Graham said. “He’s just become a more open person.”
“I think what’s changed in him is that he saw when he came to Lawrence, Kansas, that there would be people around him that cared as much as they do about him,” Townsend said. “And a lot of it is about basketball, but I think they care about him as a person, and it kind of changed his heart. In no way am I saying he’s soft, but he went from this real hardened-heart kid to this kid that, man, I watch him and he will stand out there and sign every autograph, take a picture with every little kid and go out of his way to help other people.
“I think when he got here he was more leery of, hey, who should I trust? What does this person want from me? He’s become a kid that’s got an unbelievable heart.”
KU fans have seen enough on the court to know that Frank Mason, the player, has an unbelievable heart. One more moment from his senior night speech, though, showed he had it as a father, too.
Mason’s final game at Allen Fieldhouse was also the first for his 5-year-old son, Amari, who watched his father’s farewell from the stands. When Frank publicly thanked Amari, the younger Mason pulled down his hat to hide his face.
“He’s shy,” Mason said, “just like me.”
Mason went on to say his son has helped him become a better man, and that he wanted him to have a better life than he had growing up.
“I did all this for him,” Mason later said of his son. “He’s helped me learn so much throughout the years, just being responsible and being a man and father and helping me become a better teammate. I think it’s just great to have him in my life. I didn’t really have a dad in my life at his age, and that’s why it really means so much to me.”
Townsend has noticed fatherhood change Frank, too. He said every time Mason goes home, he comes back and tells him he really misses his son. At one point, when Amari battled an illness, it clearly wore on Frank, Townsend said.
“He tries to hold his emotions in, but he would come in and talk about it,” Townsend said, “so you knew he was hurting.”
That kind of love, Townsend said, was something he thinks Mason never felt before he first stepped on campus four-plus years ago.
“I think this place has helped Frank become a better man, a better father,” Townsend said. “I think he’s kind of realized stuff that’s important that maybe he didn’t think was important when he first got here coming out of high school.”
* * * * *
Frank Mason’s collegiate career could end at any moment.
Such is the case in the wild world of the NCAA Tournament, where the top-seeded Jayhawks (29-4) play No. 9 seed Michigan State (20-14) at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.
Still, that doesn’t stop Self from partaking in more playful button pushing.
Self has identified one slight weakness in Mason’s world-beating season: rebounding. While the point guard is obviously not the Jayhawks’ primary rebounder, Self contends he is “not near as good a rebounder” as he was as a junior. Part of that may be fatigue — Mason’s 36.1 minutes per game is on pace to shatter the previous record for a KU player under Self — but with the team’s season on the line, it has become a point of emphasis.
“You used to be tough. You used to actually play to your size,” Self tells Mason. “Now you play like a 5-5 guy.”
Lucas considers it playful teasing — “We all know he’s capable of doing it himself,” he said — but the message seems to have resonated in the team’s NCAA Tournament opener. Mason had five boards to go along with 22 points and eight assists in the 100-62 rout of No. 16 seed UC Davis on Friday night.
“Frank’s the type to quickly turn around,” Lucas said, “and do what he needs to do.”
Mason’s future as a professional — and opportunity to guard LeBron James, for that matter — is at best an uncertainty.
Despite the emergence of similarly-sized guards Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Thomas and Yogi Ferrell, Mason’s size has kept him off every NBA Draft projection outlet.
Townsend isn’t sure what Mason’s future holds. In the present, though, he’s more than willing to go to bat for his diamond in the rough.
“I don’t care about his size, but that’s all anybody has told me for two years why they weren’t sure about him,” Townsend said. “But I’d take him over all these guys we line up against every day.
“What you can’t measure is the heart of a winner and a champion, and that’s what he has.”