The bus ride lasted 31 hours, through the darkness of one day, and into the chilly Midwestern morning of another.
The bus chugged along empty highways. Rows of farmland disappeared into the horizon. As Sharon Harrison gazed out the window and made small talk with a group of fellow passengers, she saw parts of the country she had never seen before. She also thought of her son.
Two days earlier, the phone had rung inside her apartment in Petersburg, Va. Her son, Frank Mason, was three days away from the official start of his freshman season at Kansas, and he was calling with a simple request. In three days, Mason told his mom, KU would kick off the basketball season with Late Night in the Phog.
“Mom,” Sharon remembers her son saying, “you need to come because everybody else’s mom is going to be here.”
Sharon could hear the nervousness in her son’s voice. When Frank was a little boy, one of eight children living in a five-bedroom apartment in a Petersburg housing project, he would so rarely show emotion. He was quiet and reflective, the kind of boy who just wanted to bounce a ball on a nearby basketball court or wait for the next AAU tournament that would provide a weekend away from the streets of tiny Petersburg, a hollowed-out town of 32,000 in central Virginia.
Frank was never the type to make his mom worry, but in this moment, Sharon could sense that her son needed her. A plane ticket on short notice would be too costly, so she checked the nearest bus schedule, plunked down a couple hundred dollars for a round-trip bus ticket from Petersburg to Lawrence, and headed for the bus station.
“When I got to Lawrence,” Sharon says. “I ended up going straight to Allen Fieldhouse. He just wanted to hug me.”
More than a year later, Sharon Harrison says she doesn’t worry about her son anymore. Mason, a sophomore guard, has found the necessary comfort and stability in the Kansas basketball program. He spends nights making fried tilapia or chicken at his apartment at the Jayhawker Towers. He calls home to talk to his 3-year-old son, Amari. He spends evenings in the lonely quiet of the gym, hoisting up extra shots to work on a developing jumper.
On this Kansas team, ranked 10th entering Saturday’s game against Lafayette at Allen Fieldhouse, Mason is the Jayhawks’ silent engine, the only healthy point guard on a team with Final Four aspirations. In nine games, Mason is averaging 10.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists, solid numbers for a first-year starter.
But after the departures of Naadir Tharpe and Conner Frankamp — and the recent injury to freshman reserve Devonte’ Graham — so much of the Jayhawks’ season could rest on the shoulders of Mason, a once-overlooked recruit who was set to play at Towson out of high school before some fortuitous academic issues surfaced.
“We won’t have a more valuable player,” Kansas coach Bill Self says of Mason. “He may not always be our best player, but I think he’s as valuable as anybody that we’ll have in our squad night in and night out.”
As Kansas, 8-1, prepares for the final stretch of its non-conference slate, the goals remain the same: an 11th straight Big 12 title; a Final Four run; perhaps another banner, if everything falls into place.
But even during a seven-game winning streak, the one question that has plagued Kansas for the last two seasons has re-surfaced yet again.
Sharon Harrison has stopped worrying about her son. Can Kansas finally stop worry about its point guards?
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The town of Petersburg, Va., sits on the banks of the Appomattox River, a small enclave just 24 miles south of Richmond. If you venture into downtown Petersburg on a fall day, you will see signs of gentrification and progress — coffee shops, food stands and new housing. If you venture a little father, you will see the signs of plight and poverty that define Frank Mason’s memory of his hometown.
Once upon a time, Petersburg was a cradle of the Civil Rights movement, a place of knowledge and thinkers and the oldest African-American Baptist church in the United States. This is not the Petersburg that Mason remembers.
“Most of the people in Petersburg,” Mason says, “they been there for a while. They want to go to different places and different cities and big cities, but they’re kind of stuck with the violence and the neighborhoods and the type of environments they around. They stuck around the bad violence. It’s hard for them to get out and do positive things.”
Mason grew up on the east side of town, in a five-bedroom apartment with his mother and seven brothers and sisters. His father, Frank Mason II, was incarcerated until Mason was 12. His mother supported the household by working as an hourly manager at a local Dollar General.
“Back then, it was amazing,” Mason says, smiling. “We were all in the same house — all love. But it was like driving my mom crazy, because it was just her.”
On most days, with family apartment overflowing with people, Mason would seek refuge on a basketball court located next door. He would bounce the ball until his palms ached, and then return to do it again the next day. Basketball was an outlet from the confines of his life, Mason says now, but he didn’t realize it would become more.
In the fifth grade, Mason was playing a local tournament for his grade-school team. A man named Michael Blackwell, a local AAU coach, watched from the stands in awe.
“The kid was obviously different,” Blackwell says.
Soon after, Mason joined Blackwell’s team, traveling to tournaments across Virginia and the rest of the southeast. Mason enjoyed the increased competition, of course, but he really relished the opportunity to leave Petersburg during the weekends.
Each week, Blackwell recalls, Mason would show up for practice with one question:
When is the next tournament?
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Bill Self likes to say that Frank Mason has never been a true point guard, which is perhaps theoretically true on some levels. When Mason a standout player at Petersburg High, leading the school to the cusp of a Virginia state title, he would dominate the ball as a lead guard, taking a healthy number of shots as the team’s No. 1 offensive option.
“He’s still not a true point,” Self says. “He’s a scorer.”
Mason, though, possesses many of the elements that Self desires in his point guards. He plays with an innate toughness, however unquantifiable that may be. He is a solid and tenacious defender. And mostly, he is able to break down a defense off the dribble and create havoc on drives.
In some ways, though, Mason is still learning how to run a team.
“He can score,” Self says. “Sometimes when you force him to be more than just (a scorer), it takes away from that. I think I’ve done that to him a little bit. And certainly with Devonte’ being out, I’m probably going to do it to him a little bit more.”
One example: The Jayhawks were scrimmaging at a recent practice, and Mason drilled six three-pointers in a row. Most coaches would probably be enthused by the prospect of a guard dominating practice like this, but Self felt slightly conflicted.
Mason can be one of Kansas’ best scorers. But he also must learn to manage a team.
After nine games, the numbers are trending upward. Mason’s assist numbers are up and his defensive rebounding has been a quiet weapon. He is also shooting 50 percent from three-point range (10 of 20) after shooting just 33 percent from three as a freshman. In clearer terms, Mason has not quite proven himself elite in any one area, but he has been solid in many.
“He’s tougher,” Self says. “He understands the game better.”
The questions, though, remain. For now, Mason is averaging more than 32 minutes per contest. And with Graham out for at least three more weeks with “turf toe”, Mason’s load might have to increase even more.
“It’s imperative that we keep him fresh,” Self says, “and it’s imperative that he stays healthy.”
One year ago, Mason was calling home, leaning on his mother during the opening month of his freshman season. One year later, Kansas will lean on Mason.
Lafayette at No. 10 Kansas
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Records: LU 7-2, KU 8-1
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
TV: Cox 22
Lafayette at No. 10 Kansas
LAFAYETTE (7-2): Located in Easton, Pa., Lafayette was projected to finish fourth in the Patriot League after finishing 11-20 last season. The Leopards returned all five starters and started 7-2 this year, with their losses coming against Yale and West Virginia (83-56). Lafayette ranks 132nd in the country, according to computer rankings at KenPom.com. But the Leopards’ profile is a case in extremes. They rank 28th in the country in offensive efficiency while shooting 43.1 percent from three-point range as a team. But they rank 314th in defensive efficiency and are susceptible to giving up tons of offensive rebounds.
KANSAS (8-1): The Jayhawks will try to run their winning streak to eight games. . It’s the time of year where games are more spread out, and Kansas coach Bill Self can focus in on practices. After the victory over Utah, Self said the Jayhawks needed to “redefine” themselves on offense. A couple of numbers that illustrate the offensive issues: The Jayhawks are converting on 50.3 percent of their shots at the rim, according to numbers at Hoop-Math.com. But they are also shooting 41 percent from three-point range during their seven-game winning streak. Will this team need to rely more heavily on its outside shooting? The Jayhawks will play their second straight game without freshman guard Devonte’ Graham, who is expected to be out at least another three weeks because of a sprained right big toe.