Sam Mellinger

The teacher who flunked Frank Mason: a Kansas basketball success story

Frank Mason on teacher who flunked him: 'I'm thankful she didn't help me take the easy way out'

KU point guard Frank Mason and coach Bill Self spoke about the high school teacher who gave Mason a failing grade in high school, which led to him not qualifying to play at Towson. Mason attended prep school instead and eventually wound up at Kans
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KU point guard Frank Mason and coach Bill Self spoke about the high school teacher who gave Mason a failing grade in high school, which led to him not qualifying to play at Towson. Mason attended prep school instead and eventually wound up at Kans

To really tell the story of how one of the great success stories in Kansas basketball began with a failure, we need to find a high school teacher in Virginia.

So, a phone number is dialed and on the third ring a sweet voice answers. The woman sounds sincere, but also a little nervous. This is a conversation she might rather not have, about a decision she wishes she never had to make.

But at some point over these last few months she knew this call would come — the questions for the teacher who flunked Frank Mason.

“That would be me,” Terri Smith says.

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You might know some of this story. Mason was a basketball star at Petersburg High scoring more than 27 points per game. That year, he might’ve been the most famous person in a town of around 30,000 people just south of Richmond, Va. He signed a scholarship at Towson, and even if he should’ve been with a bigger program, it was a Division I school. It was a chance.

But, he never got that chance.

U.S. and Virginia Government is a 12th-grade class. Along with English 12, it’s one of two classes required by the state for graduation. Mason did not pass, so he could not graduate, and for a time, Smith felt the town’s anger.

She said she was “bullied” multiple times by people who wanted her to give Mason a passing grade. But she gave Mason several chances to make up the work, she said, and besides, two other kids in the class failed with a higher average than Mason. If she was going to make an exception for one, she’d have to do the same for two others.

So, no. She would not pass Mason. She needed to apply the same standards to a rising basketball star that she would a student headed to the military, or college, or into the work force. Smith knew she was doing the right thing, but that doesn’t make it the easy thing, or what she wanted to do.

“There were days I had to sit at my desk and cry,” she said. “Because everybody wanted to tell me I was wrong.”

Nobody could have known this would actually turn out to be the luckiest break of Mason’s life.

Hundreds of basketball fans showed up at the Sprint Center to watch KU practice Wednesday afternoon. No. 1 seed KU will face No.4 seed Purdue on Thursday for a spot in the Elite Eight.

Massanutten Military Academy is a three-hour drive from Petersburg. The school’s post-graduate basketball team is a powerhouse, but different than many other prep-school programs that play coast-to-coast.

Students at Massanutten wake up every day at 6 a.m. They line up in formation three times a day. They mop floors. They take out the trash. They clean toilets. They wear military uniforms to class, and are reprimanded if they’re not up to code. This is a decidedly tougher route than many high school basketball stars would prefer.

Virtually every player at Massanutten fits one of two categories: they either did not qualify academically or want to improve their recruiting.

“Frank did both,” Massanutten coach Chad Myers said. “Yeah, Frank did both.”

Kansas’ coaches discovered Mason by total accident. They were watching another player, Jordan McLaughlin, but Mason outplayed him in an AAU game. He was the fourth point guard on KU’s list, but Mason kept improving, and the other three kept choosing other schools.

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After that summer, a few other major schools were talking to Mason — South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Maryland — but he was generally viewed as program depth. ranked Mason No. 131 in his class when he committed to Kansas. Andrew Wiggins was the No. 1 player that year, and Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden made KU’s class No. 2 in the country, behind Kentucky.

Wiggins set the school freshman scoring record before becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Embiid developed quicker than the KU coaches expected and was the No. 3 pick that year. Selden was the No. 12 player in his class, a three-year starter who earned second-team all-conference honors.

But nobody outside Petersburg could’ve possibly predicted that Mason would have the biggest impact — conference and national player of the year as a senior. Someday, his jersey will hang in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters.

“Sometimes in recruiting you luck into things,” KU coach Bill Self said.

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It’s impossible to know what Mason’s basketball career or life would’ve been if he had passed that government class and gone to Towson. Maybe he’d have struggled, or maybe he’d have been just as good there. Maybe he’d have transferred to a bigger school, or made himself famous from Towson.

But even in a world like college basketball, full of unpredictable rises to stardom, how long would you need to find another story like this?

“He would not be the national player of the year (if he passed the class),” Smith said.

This story gets even better.

The year after Mason left Petersburg High, Smith said few athletes took her class. Maybe one, two at the most.

Her reputation had been made, and while Smith was fine with that, she didn’t like feeling that Mason or anyone else held a grudge against her for the decision she made. Then, a few years later, Mason’s little sister took Smith’s class, and the darnedest thing happened.

The girl said her older brother asked about his old teacher.

“Really?” Smith remembered asking. “You sure you got the right teacher?”

Mason’s sister laughed, but said yes, she was sure. Frank had said to tell Ms. Smith “Hi.”

“That made me feel good,” Smith said. “It made me feel like he’s grown up, and matured. And that’s what I hoped for, overall, that he’s matured.”

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Mason will turn 23 next month and will graduate with a degree in liberal arts and sciences the month after that. He has a 5-year-old son and will pursue a professional basketball career as soon as he’s done at Kansas.

All of which is to say, yes. Mason has matured, enough that he turned one of the worst situations he could’ve imagined five years ago into one so great that nobody could’ve predicted it.

“I think about it all the time,” he said. “I just talk to my friends about it sometimes, too. When I was back in high school, I was really sad, and just kind of mad that (Smith) made the decision to not pass me. Now that I’m older, and more responsible and things like that, I look at it as a blessing.

“She helped me get to where I am today, and helped me be responsible, as a man.”

Purdue's Caleb Swanigan and KU's Josh Jackson and Landen Lucas spoke during media availability on Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at Sprint Center in Kansas City. The Boilermakers and Jayhawks will play Thursday.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger