If not for a quirk of fate combined with the courage of a high school government teacher to flunk him in a class his senior year, the under-sized, under-the-radar Frank Mason was bound for school at Towson and on trajectory to anonymity.
Instead, the University of Kansas senior from Petersburg, Va., on Thursday was named The Associated Press national player of the year — a first to a Jayhawk for an award they began giving in 1961 ... just after the KU days of Wilt Chamberlain and, earlier, Clyde Lovellette.
So no wonder Mason’s parents were charmingly conspicuous at the accompanying news conference, cheering as he received the honor and later searching for the right words to describe an out-of-body feeling.
“There’s so much joy; I think every father in his lifetime should experience the joy that I feel,” said his father, Frank Jr., a fork-lift operator who added that he always believed in his son but ... “My imagination wasn’t (this) big.”
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No wonder Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend, who unearthed Mason in an AAU tournament in a Las Vegas gym when he was watching another player, was left thinking about the journey.
“To get from there to here, if you see a guy like (Andrew) Wiggins or Josh Jackson win something like this, you (don’t) expect it, but you go, ‘OK, that makes sense,’” Townsend said. “But from how far he came, it was nothing but hard work and determination, so it makes you really proud.”
No doubt with more to come this weekend, as more of the major awards are given out on what in a certain way is amounting to a victory tour for Mason — whose tenacity and heart and knack for the big moment made him a fan favorite and joy to watch.
“I’ve got my whole weekend full just supporting him,” Townsend said, smiling. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The words barely were out of Townsend’s mouth, though, before he had to grit his teeth and consider the other way he would rather have it: with Kansas here at the Final Four instead of relegated to that piercing Elite Eight loss to Oregon last week at the Sprint Center.
“Feel like my life is over,” Mason posted on Twitter after a game in which he scored 21 points and played all 40 minutes.
Presumably, that sensation will pass.
In time, anyway.
But it’s too soon for it to have faded now.
That makes this recognition the essence of bittersweet for Mason, which is a telling thing in itself about the guard who scored more than 20 points in all four of Kansas’ NCAA Tournament games to cap a season that KU coach Bill Self called “the best year of anybody I ever coached.”
The 74-60 loss to Oregon will be attached to anything he will feel these next few days around the Final Four, and who knows how long it will take him to reconcile or process his last moments in a Kansas uniform?
“I haven’t yet; I’ve still been thinking about it,” Mason said. “And I just have to move on to what’s next.”
It might seem like a nice consolation prize — and, of course, one that will mean much more in the future.
Trouble is, there’s something hollow about it in the moment, something that is less soothing than gnawing.
“I think it hurts him more that the guys aren’t here, because that’s what he always wanted to do: lead his team to the national championship,” Townsend said. “That’s what’s most important to him, way more important than all this stuff.
“It’s hurtful, and you can see that, but that’s what makes him so special.”
Just the same, this is a remarkable thing, a moment to cherish for the fifth of eight children whose family had many challenges and who was the least touted of a recruiting class that included Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden.
It’s easy to say this from afar, but he should bask in this and try to put what didn’t happen into a compartment and think about what did:
He went from improbable KU prospect to the first in the storied program’s history to be thus distinguished, a walking affirmation of the power of second chances and a relentless work ethic.
Being failed by teacher Terri Smith, as beautifully chronicled by my colleague, Sam Mellinger, led to not qualifying academically for Towson and attending a year of military school and brought forth a certain code in Mason.
As he agonized over failing that class and wondered if there was a way he could make up the work, his mother, Sharon Harrison, urged him to think otherwise.
Just go to summer school, she told him, so you never have to worry “about anybody saying they gave you something. … You’ll know you did it on your own.”
Much as he’d rather have not been at the Final Four on his own, his presence here is testament to that mindset.
“It does go to show you anything is possible if you work at it and you really want it,” Townsend said. “Everything he got, he deserves.”
Beyond what anyone could have imagined.