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For Mason, lessons in persistence

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

He went to an exclusive local middle school with Chelsea Clinton and studied architecture in college. The doctor's son also has a younger brother preparing to enter medical school.

His mother is a registered nurse with a graduate degree in health care administration. And his fiancee is finishing Harvard law school this spring.

"I have to finish school," said Roger Mason Jr., 27, who left Virginia after his junior year. "My future wife has a degree from Georgetown and Harvard law school. I can't be the one holding us back."

It is no surprise that Mason is a professional — although his field seems a bit unusual considering his upbringing. The Silver Spring product makes his living on the basketball court, where he is enjoying a breakthrough season with the Washington Wizards.

"He has meant as much to this team as myself or Caron [Butler]," forward Antawn Jamison said. "Things work in mysterious ways. Lo and behold, we have injuries, and he had the opportunity to play. He's one of those stories of a guy who wouldn't give up."

Mason spent time with Chicago and Toronto and played in Greece and Israel before returning home in 2006. After playing sparingly in his first season here, the 6-foot-5 guard has found a niche this season with Gilbert Arenas sidelined most of the season because of a knee injury and surgery.

Mason averaged 9.1 points during the regular season after totaling just 2.7 the season before. The sharpshooter led the Wizards in 3-point percentage (.398) and ranked 20th in the NBA among players who have taken at least four 3s a game.

"We call him the 'quiet assassin,' " coach Eddie Jordan said. "It seems like he is just a deadly shooter, and he doesn't have any emotions ... We knew he had the capability of doing it. He needed time."

Like most of his teammates, Mason has struggled in the playoffs against Cleveland. He missed all five of his 3-pointers but scored 10 points in 22 minutes in Game 2. He'll try to relocate his touch tonight and help the Wizards halve their 2-0 series deficit in Game 3 at Verizon Center.

Mason's nontraditional NBA background is nearly as unusual as his roundabout route to NBA relevance. Roger Mason Sr. was an eye surgeon and head of the ophthalmology department at Howard. Roger Jr. went to middle school at prestigious Sidwell Friends in Northwest, a Quaker-affiliated school known for educating the children of several presidents and other prominent people like aviator Charles Lindbergh — not NBA players.

"I looked at all kinds of schools but none of them basketball-related," said his mom, Marsha Mason-Wonsley, whose son transferred to more athletically oriented Good Counsel High in Wheaton in 10th grade. "Sports were a secondary thing. It seems like the more you try to keep something away sometimes, the more they want it."

His resolve was tested when he was 10 years old, following Good Friday in March 1991. That is when his father died of kidney failure at 36. Roger, the oldest of four children, said the loss still resonates with him.

"It kind of makes you who you are, even though it happened at such a young age," said Mason, who has a large tattoo on his left biceps from Psalm 46, the biblical verse of mountains falling into the sea the family constantly repeated while Roger Sr. was sick. "With me being the oldest, I kind of took on a leadership role. I have a brother and two sisters."

The sisters, Adrienne and Lauren, went on to graduate from college with honors. His brother, Frank, turned down several mid-major basketball scholarships and captained the Division III team at Johns Hopkins. Frank recently did medical research at Cornell and is finalizing plans to become the family's next doctor.

"I kind of had to be their example and be the strong one," said Roger, who now works with the National Kidney Foundation. "Something my dad always told me when he was sick was, 'Take care of your mom and brother and sisters.' I was only 11, but I really took that to heart. And I had to grow up much quicker."

His mother, who got remarried to former Washington Redskins running back Otis Wonsley, said she did not notice a dramatic change in her son. After all, he was always goal-oriented and never caused waves.

"He was serious from when he was real young," she said. "Sometimes I wish he would act a little more normal and get into a little trouble like the other kids. But that's not him."

Roger put on a brave front after his father's death but said it masked rage inside.

"I really didn't understand it at first," he said. "I was angry all the time. I used the anger and frustration on the court. I think that gave me an edge ... Over time, I had a little counseling for anger and my faith in God increased big time. That just pulled me through."

Not much later, Mason began to gain recognition for basketball at Friends, whose program was run by local hoops legend George Leftwich at the time. Leftwich, who played high school basketball at Archbishop Carroll with former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. in the late 1950s, also coached Wizards coach Eddie Jordan at Carroll.

Leftwich recommended that Mason find a school with a higher-profile program, and at Good Counsel, Roger developed into a top-50 college recruit. He went to Virginia and averaged 18.6 points as a junior in 2001-02. Mason left after that season when NBA representatives assured him he would be a top-15 pick.

That quickly changed in his first NBA workout in Detroit, when he went up for a layup and was knocked to the floor by another player. He suffered a shoulder separation that required surgery, was sidelined for eight months, and watched his draft stock plummet.

"I saw everything disappearing in front of me," said Mason, whom Chicago selected in the second round (31st overall).

He rode the bench with the Bulls before they traded him to Toronto. The Raptors waived him in the middle of his second pro season. He went from Canada to Athens to Jerusalem before returning to the District. Mason credits much of his success to playing overseas, where he regained confidence in his feel for the game and confidence in his shoulder.

Last season he turned down a big contract — larger than the $1.1 million he earned in Israel — to play for his hometown NBA team. It did not immediately work out. Mason was again saddled on the bench, playing only eight minutes a game in largely a mop-up role.

However, at least one other team saw promise. The defending champion San Antonio Spurs offered him a three-year deal reportedly worth more than $3 million. The Wizards countered with a one-season offer for the veteran minimum of $895,000.

That was more than enough.

And now it will be a busy offseason for Mason. He should be a sought-after free agent this summer after making an unlikely impact in Washington.

"I only wanted a one-year deal," said Mason, who credits much of his decision to stay from intense offseason workouts with Wizards assistant director of player personnel Tim Connelly. "I knew if I got the opportunity, the gamble would pay off. I worked on playmaking and ballhandling all summer. Little did I know Gilbert would be hurt and I would be playing more at point guard. It is no surprise it worked out.