2011 Hall of Fame Feature: Jesse Mason
By Roscoe Nance
Jesse Mason has one up on Dr. James A. Naismith, who used a peach basketball for the first basketball hoop.
Mason, a sharp-shooting guard from 1956-60 at Arkansas AM&N College - now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff - converted an empty orange bag into a hoop and shot baskets in his bedroom with a rubber ball as an eight-year-old growing up in Millington, Tenn. From that improbable start, Mason went on to become a three-time All-SWAC performer who led the conference in scoring his senior season. He will be inducted into the SWAC Hall of Fame Thursday night in Birmingham, Ala.
"This means quite a bit to me," says Mason, Director of Education at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. "I'm grateful, honored and touched. It caught me by surprise. I know I followed in the footsteps of a lot of great athletes. I knew it was a possibility. It's one of those things you kind of hope it happens, but when it does it, it still catches you off guard."
Mason, a four-year letterman, went on a scoring tear the final three games of the 1959-60 season and edged out future NBA star Zelmo Beaty of Prairie View A&M for the SWAC scoring crown. He averaged 25.2 points a game.
"I really wasn't going for the scoring title," Mason says. "I had the attitude that if we played well and executed the way Coach (H.O. 'Ox' Clemons) set things up for us, the points would come. I was double-teamed a lot, but I was smart enough to know that if they double-teamed me, somebody was open. We were a cohesive team. We knew if we played well, good things would happen. It wasn't a thing where they fed me the ball."
One of Mason's more memorable games was against Tennessee State his junior season. Mason hooked up in a scoring duel with Dick 'Skull' Barnett, who led Tennessee State to three consecutive NAIA National championships and was MVP of the 1958 and '59 NAIA tournaments before embarking on a stellar NBA career. Tennessee State defeated the Golden Lions 51-50 when Barnett made 40-foot shot as time expired.
"I'll always remember that game," Mason says.
Mason played against a number of future NBA players, including Woody Saulsberry of Texas Southern, John Barnhill of Tennessee State and Cleveland Buckner of Jackson State. But at 6-0, and because there were so few black athletes playing the NBA at that time, Mason knew the odds of a pro career weren't in his favor.
"Pro ball was a dream," he says. "But that was something I knew I wasn't going to do. You could count the black people on one hand who were in NBA, and I just didn't feel I had the skills to make it at that level. I would like to (have played) but reality set in."
Mason went on to serve in the United States Air Force. He also had a career in the music industry as a producer and publisher. He has also coached high school basketball and track and taught business management, in addition to serving as Vice Mayor of Little Rock.
He says basketball is the foundation for the success he has had in life.
"Basketball taught me discipline on the court, in the classroom and at this stage of life," he says.
Mason was a prolific scorer in high school. He once scored 50 points in a prep game despite taking a nasty fall and sitting out five minutes after hitting his head on the floor.
"He was a great basketball player," says Arkansas-Pine Bluff Chancellor Dr. James A. Davis, Jr., who played in the backcourt with Mason for two seasons. "One thing about him, he was a prolific scorer and a tenacious defender. He was a hard player. He had a terrifying shot from three-point range. If we would have had the three-pointer, his average would have been much higher."
Mason estimates his scoring averaging would have been in the mid 30-point range if the three-point field goal had been around when he played.
"But you never know what could have been," he says, adding that when he tells his grandchildren about his basketball exploits, they ask him why wasn't there a three-point shot when he played.
His answer: "We barely had lights then."
Mason gravitated to basketball as a youngster almost by default. He grew up in a farming area, and most of the youngsters had to help harvest crops. The schools had split terms and were in session depending on when all the crops were gathered. Usually that was in late fall, which meant there was no football team because schools were closed until after the season was well underway. That left only baseball and basketball.
"I always loved basketball," he says. "It was a passionate part of my life."
But oddly enough, it was a baseball player - Jackie Robinson - that Mason chose as his hero. Robinson was barnstorming with a team that played in Memphis, and Mason's father took him to the game. Mason was so impressed with Robinson that he wore Robinson's No. 42 throughout his high school and college career.
Mason is a staunch supporter of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and its athletic programs, especially the basketball team. He attended all of the Golden Lions postseason games in 2010 when they won the SWAC Tournament championship, advanced to the NCAA Tournament Opening Round game, which they also won, before they lost to No. 1 seed Duke.
"I was very proud of that team," he said. "It brought back a lot of memories."
Those memories, along with many others will be on display this weekend now as he enters the SWAC Hall of Fame.