For­mer Yalie Ma­son beat Bay­lor ... then he joined ’ em

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Sports - JEFF JACOBS

WACO, Texas — Makai Ma­son’s first name means “winds to the sea” in Hawai­ian, but the winds of bas­ket­ball life have brought him here to the banks of the Bra­zos River in cen­tral Texas.

This doesn’t mean they didn’t al­ready know him when he showed up in Waco last spring af­ter he grad­u­ated from Yale. The folks around here haven’t for­got­ten what Ma­son did to the Bay­lor bas­ket­ball team that af­ter­noon of March 17, 2016 in Prov­i­dence.

“For sure, it’s come up,” Ma­son said at the Fer­rell Cen­ter, hours be­fore the Bay­lor women would end UConn’s 126- game reg­u­larsea­son win­ning streak. “In the sum­mer, it was on in the locker room a cou­ple of times. It was kind of weird.

“Ish Wain­wright’s in there and stuff like that. Kind of re­liv­ing it a lit­tle bit. Yeah, I just walked in and some of the guys were watch­ing it. It was pretty funny.”

Ma­son was ter­rific in scor­ing 31 points as No. 12 Yale up­set No. 5 Bay­lor at Dunkin’ Donuts Cen­ter and ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, couldn’t stop talk­ing about him. An Ivy League school had top­pled a ma­jor con­fer­ence pro­gram and the 6- 1 sopho­more guard with a

com­pelling story be­came the early face of 2016 March Mad­ness. Bay­lor coach Scott Drew would say, “Ma­son con­trolled the game.”

And now here he is, 1,000 days later, av­er­ag­ing 14 points for Drew and Bay­lor as a grad­u­ate trans­fer. Here he is talk­ing about Wain­wright, who also played Bay­lor foot­ball and now is play­ing bas­ket­ball in Ger­many. Talk­ing about cir­cling the calendar for the Bay­lor women’s game against UConn. Yes, he beat Bay­lor. And he joined ’ em.

“I’m en­joy­ing it, I like the whole ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Ma­son, work­ing on a grad­u­ate de­gree in sports man­age­ment. “It’s ob­vi­ously a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than Yale in terms of New Haven vs. Waco and the Big 12, maybe the best con­fer­ence in Amer­ica, vs. Ivy League.”

Yes, he de­cides, “I guess there are a lot of dif­fer­ences.”

“I’m the first grad trans­fer they’ve had here at Bay­lor in the pro­gram his­tory,” Ma­son said. “It’s a lit­tle ex­per­i­ment, kind of fig­ur­ing things out on the fly. I’m in class with some of our grad­u­ate as­sis­tants. So that’s pretty funny.”

The Ivy League and NCAA can make for strange bed­fel­lows. Some rules smack of early 20th cen­tury am­a­teurism. Some prac­tices smack of 21st cen­tury net­work tele­vi­sion money. At any rate, Ma­son found him­self look­ing at the Ivy League el­i­gi­bil­ity rule that stip­u­lates a player can com­pete only in a four- year time frame. The NCAA al­lows a fifth year.

His in­jury came in a closed scrim­mage against Bos­ton Univer­sity be­fore the 2016- 2017 sea­son. Ma­son dis­lo­cated his right toe, broke the sesamoid bone in the ball of his foot and torn the plan­tar plate. He lost his ju­nior sea­son.

“I made it known I wanted to do the grad trans­fer thing af­ter my in­jury,” Ma­son said. “We looked at dif­fer­ent schools. We got to know the Bay­lor coaches. We de­cided if I liked it when I was down here, this was the place.”

Notre Dame, Duke, Gon­zaga, were in­ter­ested, too. He de­cided on Bay­lor in May 2017.

The first story of Makai and his dad Dan was well told in March of 2016. There were some el­e­ments as clas­sic as the Yale blue and neon yel­low Bay­lor uni­forms worn in Prov­i­dence. Dan Ma­son, who coached high school ball, raised his son to be a player from a very early age. He de­vel- oped Makai’s skills in most com­pre­hen­sive and nu­anced drills. He brought Makai from their home in ru­ral Green­field, Mass., to the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment of Spring­field to forge his game. When Dan be­came turned off by the AAU world he pulled Makai out and, not sur­pris­ingly, his re­cruit­ing rat­ings fell. Ma­son played for The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville be­fore Yale. It was not a sur­prise he quickly be­came one of the Ivy League’s best play­ers.

There is a sec­ond story now, one of per­se­ver­ance and an un­re­lent­ing love for the game. Ma­son played only one game be­tween the sec­ond- round loss to Duke and hit­ting three 3- point­ers in his first game with Bay­lor against Ni­cholls State on Nov. 16.

“It was tough,” Ma­son said. “You have some­thing you love most in life on a daily- ba­sis taken away, it’s def­i­nitely tough.”

There were re­habs. There was the steer­able knee­walker. There was shoot­ing and drib­bling from chairs. Cleared to play, with big things ex­pected for his se­nior year, Ma­son suf­fered a stress frac­ture of in his foot be­fore the Novem­ber 2017 opener. Over- com­pen­sa­tion may have caused foot pres­sure else­where. Ma­son fi­nally got back in the lineup af­ter 25 games in Fe­bru­ary, played one game against Har­vard and went back out. His Yale ca­reer was over.

“I think it’s fair to say I don’t take any­thing for granted now,” Ma­son said.

The good news is a Yale po­lit­i­cal sci­ence ma­jor was healthy enough to walk for grad­u­a­tion.

“To have my par­ents there, fam­ily and friends, to un­der­stands all the sac­ri­fices they had made in my life, was re­ally cool,” Ma­son said. “It was sur­real, hon­estly.”

And wouldn’t you know it? Three- four days be­fore the Bay­lor opener, he suf­fered a sprained an­kle. Sur­real, hon­estly.

“It was like, ‘ Here we go again,’ ” Ma­son said. “David Chan­dler ( Bay­lor di­rec­tor of ath­letic train­ing) is great, work­ing with me ev­ery day to get me on the court. It was great to be out there com­pet­ing again.”

Ma­son said his par­ents, who had been to a cou­ple games al­ready, were com­ing to the TCU game Satur­day and were stay­ing for games against Iowa State and Kansas. Dan and Jody moved to Meri­den while Makai was at Yale. Nei­ther are of Hawai­ian de­scent. Jody was born in Ger­many and re­port­edly con­sid­ered nam­ing him Wolf­gang. Makai holds dual pass­port and played some with the Ger­man na­tional team.

“I owe pretty much my whole bas­ket­ball ca­reer to my dad,” Ma­son said. “His wis­dom, his hours in the gym, his sac­ri­fices, it has been in­valu­able. I want to make him and my mom proud ev­ery night. It is cool to be on this jour­ney with them.”

It is a bas­ket­ball jour­ney that in­cluded a fas­ci­nat­ing game of pickup in Spring­field.

“It was one of those things where my dad didn’t want to tell my mom where we were,” Ma­son said. “There was like a dis­agree­ment over a foul. The next thing you know the guy has a knife, wav­ing it around, threat­en­ing him. It was wild. I was like 11- 12.”

At this point, Ma­son is laugh­ing.

“We got through it,” he said. “We were able to fin­ish the game. And we came back the next day.”

He’s look­ing to make a mark on the Big 12 this win­ter. He’ll look to get work­outs with NBA teams af­ter the sea­son. He’ll look to play pro ball wher­ever it takes him. That’s the thing about Makai Ma­son. He al­ways comes back the next day.

Catherine Aval­one / Hearst Connecticut Me­dia file photo

Makai Ma­son scored 31 points as Yale up­set Bay­lor in the open­ing round of the 2016 NCAA tour­na­ment.

Jerry Lar­son / As­so­ci­ated Press

Bay­lor head coach Scott Drew, left, speaks with Makai Ma­son dur­ing a re­cent game.

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