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On June 26th, 2002 Roger Mason Jr. sat in a rented-out bar room surrounded by family and friends. As tears stream down his face, Mason Jr.’s dream of being a first-round pick come crashing down, and his relationship with the UVa basketball program is left soured.
The 31st pick in the NBA draft fell from a guaranteed top-fifteen selection to the first pick in the second round, and he was understandably upset. He recalls “I was so upset… the draft was not a happy day for me.”
Weeks earlier in a pre-draft workout, Mason Jr. had re-aggravated an injury he sustained late in his third season in Charlottesville. In fact, he dislocated his shoulder twice in the workout and tore his labrum. Said injury required surgery, so no matter if Mason Jr. stayed in the draft, or returned to Virginia for his fourth year, he wouldn’t be playing basketball for the next nine months.
Decision to Leave Early
Faced with the decision of staying in the draft with the potential for his stock to drop as a result of the injury, or return to college to redshirt his fourth year and play his fifth, Mason Jr. stuck to his guns and entered draft night with high hopes.
While there was significant disappointment regarding his fall in the draft, what he’d left behind was also weighing on Mason Jr. “I loved college,” he says, “I would’ve had no problem going back, had I not gotten hurt.”
In fact, there were significant reasons for him to stay in Charlottesville. “I wanted to live on the lawn. I wanted to get my jersey retired,” he says. Also mentioning a potential run to the Final Four, he emphasizes that “I wanted all those things,” but “at the same time, my lifelong dream was to go to the NBA.”
With that in mind, Mason Jr. signed a multi-year contract with the Bulls that August and set out on his professional career.
Reaction to his Decision
But back in Charlottesville, people were still upset about Mason Jr.’s decision to leave early. While, more recently, Justin Anderson, De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy have all left school early, Mason Jr. was the first player since Olden Polynice in 1986 and Gus Gerard in 1974 to leave Virginia early for professional basketball.
As such, the reaction in Charlottesville was less than ideal for Mason Jr. According to him, “[Coach Gillen] wanted me to come back because he was under a lot of heat [to] have a winning program,” and as a result, “Our relationship took a turn for the worst when I declared for the draft.”
Not only did Mason Jr.’s relationship with Gillen sour as a result of his decision, but with the university as well. Notably, Mason Jr. says that “because I left early, and I was the first person to really do that, I didn’t really [receive] the same love [from the University],” adding, “I didn’t get the love that I would’ve gotten if I’d stayed four years.” Unfortunately, that does tend to be true for Mason Jr. Many Virginia fans tend to either forget or misremember the tremendous amount of success he had at UVa, and later on in the NBA.
Virginia Playing Career
Even coming out of high school, he was a top-tier talent. Named the 1999 Powerade D.C. Mr. Basketball, Mason Jr. ranked 37th in his class, and was part of a recruiting class among the best in the country. Along with #23 national player Majestic Mapp, and the 28th ranked Travis Watson, Mason Jr. headed to Charlottesville with the goal of turning the program around.
Despite offers from Duke, N.C. State, Maryland, and Syracuse, Mason Jr. picked Virginia for a couple of reasons. First, he emphasizes that “my goal was to make it to the NBA and I felt like that program and the opportunity there could help me do that.” Secondly, considering the lack of success the program had experienced in recent years, “I felt like we could have the recruiting class to turn things around.”
In his first season on Grounds, Mason Jr. came off the bench and averaged roughly twenty-three minutes per game, scoring 7.3 points per contest. While, for a first year, those numbers are relatively impressive, Mason Jr. was frustrated with his playing time.
While the frustration persisted, he returned to Charlottesville the next year with experience and a full summer of work under his belt. As a result, his playing time and production each took a massive jump. In his second year, he played thirty-two minutes per game and averaged 15.7 points per game on 44.2% three-point shooting.
On the back of his success, the Wahoos rose as high as sixth in the AP Poll. Tragically, a last second shot from Gonzaga saw the teams’ NCAA tournament hopes dashed in the first round of play.
Nonetheless, expectations were high for his third year as the core of the team returned. As many will remember, the 2001-2002 team didn’t live up to the hype, and ended up missing the NCAA tournament. Mason Jr. still stood out, averaging 18.6 PPG and raising his draft stock to a top-fifteen pick.
Of course, that’s when things went downhill for Mason Jr. He fell out of the first round of the draft, was unfairly criticized by the UVa faithful, and was forced to sit out for the majority of his first season with the Bulls due to the surgery on his shoulder.
Things took a turn for the worse when Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ General Manager, resigned and the new management traded Mason Jr. to the Raptors.
Even worse, only months into his time with the Raptors, their medical team misdiagnosed Mason Jr. with a heart disease that supposedly ended his basketball career. Numerous experts labeled the Raptors’ diagnosis to be incorrect. But the damage was done, and the Raptors waived him that December.
With his NBA dream floundering, Mason Jr. looked overseas for an opportunity to keep his playing career alive. Subsequently, he signed with the Greek powerhouse Olympiacos. After a season in Greece, he traveled to Jerusalem to play for the billionaire-owned Hapoel Jerusalem squad.
Mason Jr. saw his time overseas as an opportunity to fine tune his game to get back to the NBA. “I want[ed] to get the ball back in my hands, where I’m the man again,” he recalls, noting that his mindset was “I’m going to go to Israel for a year. I’m going to get my game back, and I’m going to come back to the NBA.”
And so, after a year away, Mason Jr. returned to the states to continue chasing his dream in the NBA. As unconventional as his journey was up to that point, he made his way back into the league in similar fashion.
After returning to D.C. and hearing about pickup games at the Verizon center, Mason Jr. forced his way onto the Wizards’ summer league team with impressive pickup game performances. Despite a hamstring injury keeping him out of summer league play, the Wizards still offered Mason Jr. a shot at making the team in training camp.
At the same time, a Spanish team had just offered Mason Jr. a guaranteed seven-figure deal. At that point, Mason Jr. told the Wizards he needed a guaranteed contract from them to stick around. They complied, offering him a measly $48,000 guaranteed contract, but noted that he’d still have to fight it out for a roster spot. Nevertheless, Mason Jr. accepted the deal.
“I bet on myself,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll turn down the seven-figures, I just need them to give me some kind of commitment.'”
That bet paid off. Mason Jr. secured a roster spot for the 2006 NBA season. From there, Mason Jr. solidified himself in the NBA. After two years in a rotational role in Washington, he signed a two year deal with the Spurs.
In San Antonio, he flourished in a starting role, averaging 11.8 PPG on 42.5% three-point shooting in his first season. Once Mason Jr.’s contract with the Spurs ended, he bounced around the league for four years. Playing for the Knicks, the Wizards once more, the Pelicans, and finally on the 2014 Miami Heat.
For his career, Mason Jr. averaged 6.3 PPG to go with 38.3% shooting from three-point range, and 86.6% from the charity stripe.
Following his retirement, Mason Jr. became the Deputy Executive Director of the NBA Players’ Association. A few years later, he partnered with Ice Cube to help form the BIG3 League. Unfortunately, his time as President and Commissioner of that league was cut short due to tensions between Mason Jr. and league co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz.
Since then, he co-founded Vaunt, an organization meant “to be a trusted and comprehensive resource for entertainers and athletes to develop their intellectual property,” according to Mason Jr.
Mason Jr.’s twelve year NBA career, and his notable successes in the athletic world post retirement make him one of the most relevant UVa basketball alumni. In fact, for a long while, he was the only Wahoo in the NBA. Yet, he seems to be disregarded or passed over, solely for making the logical decision for his career.
His love for UVa has never wavered. “I’ve been carrying the UVa flag since I went there… I love everything about UVa.”
It’s about time UVa and its fanbase reciprocated those sentiments.