A View From Courtside

It was only a few years ago when Norm Roberts only knew one person named Anthony Mason: his former high school teammate at Springfield Gardens in Queens.

When Roberts was an assistant at Illinois three years ago, Mason dropped him a line and gave Roberts, now the coach of St. John’s, a hot tip on an emerging high school sophomore from Memphis.

Roberts brushed it off as parental bias – Mason was talking about his own son.

“Anthony [Sr.] had told me about three years ago, ‘Hey, my son A.J. is pretty good,'” Roberts said. “I said, ‘Yeah yeah, OK, right.’ And then as I kept reading more brochures and seeing [what people wrote about him], I said, ‘Hey, he is really good.'”

The A.J. that Mason was talking about, of course, is now St. John’s freshman Anthony Mason Jr. Or as some might categorize him: Roberts’ first big recruit in the school’s journey back to prominence.

The recruits starting their first season at St. John’s are the results of Roberts’ first full recruiting period. When he started in April of 2004, he scrambled to sign Cedric Jackson, Eugene Lawrence and Dexter Gray – three solid players Roberts was lucky to get that late in the process.

Roberts had a full year to get letters of intent from junior-college transfer Aaron Spears, and freshmen Ricky Torres, Tomas Jasiulionis and Mason. Those players are the foundation of where St. John’s wants to be. They’re the groundwork for other recruits. They’re the players that are going to be hitting their stride at the school when juniors Daryll Hill and Lamont Hamilton – undeniably the team’s top two players last season – are long gone.

One could argue getting Torres was the most important. The Bronx native was one of the most sought after New York City players coming out of high school last season and Roberts had him locked up early.

But Torres isn’t at the same stage as Mason Jr. is. Which is no knock on Ricky at all. Young Mase is just bigger, stronger, quicker and longer. Young Mase is a man. Torres might be a better jump shooter right now – might be – but Mason does everything else better. And there’s a good chance that will never change.

“I think he brings savvy to the game,” Roberts said of the 6-foot-7 swingman. “He’s got a very good basketball I.Q. and I think he brings length and athletic ability. He can play in different spots. He’s so long. He can be a really, really terrific defender.”

One can’t blame Roberts for gushing. Mason Jr. is the most versatile player on the roster. Chances are he won’t be a star though, not this year, not three years from now.

He’ll be a secondary scorer, a defensive stopper, a do-it-all kind of guy. He won’t be Marcus Hatten; he won’t be Malik Sealy; he won’t be Chris Mullin.

He’s not the kind of player to take over a game. He’s not a program changer – he’s a program building block.

But that’s OK; Roberts knows it.

“I told him, ‘You could be like a Paul Pressy (a former Milwaukee Bucks forward),'” Roberts said. “But he doesn’t remember who Paul Pressy is.”

Roberts should though. Pressy, a solid player, but no star, attended Tulsa where Roberts made the third stop in his coaching travails. Under Roberts and head coach Bill Self, Tulsa, a school not really known for being a basketball powerhouse, made it all the way to the Elite Eight in 2000.

Now Roberts is trying to take St. John’s, a school with a long history of being a basketball powerhouse and the fifth-winningest team in college basketball history, back to where it once was – a perennial NCAA Tournament team.

“It’s good to be part of something that’s on the rise, being part of the family, being part of the tradition of St. John’s,” Mason Jr. said. “This is a winning tradition. [We’re trying to] get it back on the map.”