By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Roger Mason Jr. wasn't thinking about being part of All-Star Weekend when he was working on his game for hours a day at Run 'N Shoot in District Heights. He wasn't thinking NBA players would start to call him "Big-Shot Rog" when he was diligently working on his conditioning at The Sports Club/LA on 22nd Street NW. He wasn't thinking, when he was trying to impress Washington Wizards coaches during pickup games on the practice court at Verizon Center, that one day a team loaded with NBA champions and Olympians would look to him to take the final shots to beat the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
I'd see Mason at the Sports Club in the months following his 17 games with the Chicago Bulls in 2002-03, or after his 23 games with Toronto in 2003-04, and he'd say all he wanted was a phone call, just a chance to show somebody he could be an asset. "If anybody would just give me a shot," Mason said during a conversation the other night, recalling his thinking back then, "I'd show them . . . I'd take it from there."
Mason returned home to Washington last night very much the local boy who made good. Very, very good, in fact. Mason returned as a heavy contributor to the San Antonio Spurs. He returned as one of the NBA's best three-point shooters, as a player dependable enough that Coach Gregg Popovich, a man wearing four championship rings, is completely confident calling on Mason to take the big shot with the game on the line. Yes, the Wizards, the team he rooted for growing up, gave Mason his initial chance and he made the best of it last season when he played 80 games, averaging 21 minutes, essentially subbing for Gilbert Arenas and Antonio Daniels.
It's one of those inspiring stories, in which a kid who is told he's not quite good enough perseveres and ultimately, through sheer work and intelligence, forces his way into the lineup, then more playing time, then his team's favor. He once took a flight home at the conclusion of a season in Israel and the very next day was in multiple gyms from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., to remind himself that making the NBA was going to be difficult work.
He's exactly what the Spurs crave. Popovich, not an easy coach to please, told USA Today that when Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker were hurt it was Mason who "kept us afloat. . . . As the year has progressed he has been a quick study on both ends of the court. I didn't realize he was as skilled at the point as he is."
Though the Spurs had tried to get him before, Mason, now 28, so wanted to play for the Wizards he gave them the ultimate "hometown discount" three years ago. He'd gotten an offer from a team in Spain to play for $1.6 million guaranteed. Mason had no aversion to playing overseas; in fact, he loved playing in Greece and in Israel, and did it for a salary that was several times the NBA minimum. Still, he'd put in all that work to try to make it in the NBA. So there he was, he recalled the other night, asking the Wizards, " 'Can you guarantee me something? Anything?' They gave me $43,000."
Mason made the team that fall of 2006, and the kid who attended Sidwell Friends, then Good Counsel and the University of Virginia, played 62 games in a Washington uniform. "Being from here, growing up here, my dream was to play for the hometown team," he said. "I was trying to get back into the league and I was desperate. It was stressful. I went out on a limb financially because I had made some investments in business ventures and needed that income. I really needed to get to January 10 that season" when his contract for the season became fully guaranteed.
He could have gone to San Antonio for the 2007-08 season; his agent and even some of the Wizards thought Mason was nuts for staying here, but with the injuries to Arenas and Daniels, Mason got to showcase an improved all-around game, particularly an increased shooting range.
So, this past summer, when the Spurs came with an offer for the second time, one for $7.3 million for two years, Mason had to pack.
And again, because of injuries, Mason got more minutes than he would have otherwise. In seven games this month, Mason has played 30 or more minutes six times, and he was on the floor 45 minutes at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks last week. For the season he's averaging 30 minutes, 12 points and 3 rebounds per game, but that doesn't come close to measuring the impact he's had with four game-winning shots.
The first was against the Clippers. "It was actually drawn up for me to come off a pick-and-roll and get the ball at the top of the key . . . and I was like: 'This is my chance. . . . Don't blow it." He didn't. A more dramatic shot, at the buzzer to win, came Christmas Day against the Phoenix Suns in a nationally televised game. He hadn't even played much in the fourth quarter when Popovich sent him into the game. A third game-winner beat the Lakers. On the fourth, against the Celtics, Mason grabbed the rebound and was dribbling up the sideline right in front of the Spurs' bench when Popovich said, essentially, "Go ahead, Roger . . . " He called the "quick 2" play, which is Mason's play, and his three-pointer with 20.4 seconds left put San Antonio ahead for good.
Not surprisingly, Mason feels he's a great fit with a coach as intelligent as Popovich, and with teammates as unselfish as Tim Duncan, Parker, Ginóbili, etc. "It starts with Tim," Mason said. "They're all coachable, unselfish, humble . . . even though they're all-stars, three- and four-time champions, and future Hall of Famers."
It seems preposterous to suggest that Mason, so new to this scene, could somehow replace the recently departed Robert Horry, one of the great end-of-game shooters in NBA history, but for all practical purposes it appears that "Big-Shot Rob" (Horry hated Rob, but it stuck) has been succeeded by "Big-Shot Rog." Mason was a little taken aback during his appearance on All-Star Saturday (in the three-point shootout) that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, among others, were coming up to him to congratulate him on having a great season.
The conversation turned to having, at long last, made it, and Mason was having none of it. "This is just my second year getting real playing time . . . I've got a lot of room for improvement, I flew my trainer [Joe Connelly, brother of Wizards Director of Player Personnel Tim Connelly] out to All-Star Weekend. And I told him: 'I'm really going to get to work this summer. I will be a better player next year.' "