Mario Nicoleau had the sweater made up especially for this occasion. It's the name Anthony Mason, with every letter filled with pictures of Mason in his prime, driving to the basket, graceful and powerful. Underneath, it reads "Queens.''

The hero of Springfield Gardens came home one final time as fans, community members and childhood friends alike came to pay their respects to the former Knick at the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica on Thursday. A private funeral -- followed by a public one at 11 a.m. -- will be held in the Cathedral Friday morning.

Mason died of congestive heart failure last Saturday.

"I still can't believe it,'' said Nicoleau, who lives in Springfield Gardens. The two used to go to the gym together in the late 1990s and frequent local clubs. "He was a gentle giant -- a kind heart. You couldn't ask for anything better. He was polite . . . Just to see him gone is unbelievable. It brings tears to my eyes just talking about it.''

Kyle Thomas' brothers played basketball with Mason at Springfield Gardens High -- they were coached by Ken Fiedler, father of former NFL quarterback Jay Fiedler -- and Thomas didn't think Mason would make it all the way to the NBA.

"He was a good dude,'' said Thomas, 50, of Springfield Gardens. "Smiling all the time . . . He used to be a much more slender guy, but he still had a handle -- good jump shot . . .

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"We didn't think he would make the NBA. It was great. Great to see him out there. Everyone had love for him.''

Patricia McDonald, of Richmond Hill, remembered Mason as a jokester. The two met at a club in Queens and Mason and his friends threw paper at her. "It kept coming my way,'' she said. "And I said, 'If they keep throwing this paper at me, it's going to be a problem.' I was like, 'Look, I don't know who you are' -- I had to look up at him -- 'I don't know who you think you are,' and from there, we became friends."

She added: "He's a clown and he's really playful and I'm a Knicks fan for life, no matter what they're going through.''

Nearly everyone had a story. Raymond Scretchen also would go to clubs with Mason -- "Manhattan Proper was his favorite,'' he said -- and though he said he didn't watch Mason play much, he was always touched at how he remained a part of the community after his success with the Knicks.

"He was just a regular guy from around the way,'' he said.

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Eric Lutz didn't know Mason from the neighborhood, or the local clubs, but he was the first person at the wake. He grew up watching Mason's grit and enjoyed his hard-nosed but precise play. In a Facebook tribute, he called him "a tough guy with a chip on his shoulder and a sick handle.''

"My love for Anthony Mason comes from him being a tough guy and a New York Knick,'' said Lutz, 35, of Glendale. "Dribbling and bringing the ball up as a [6-7] forward. Most guys my size [about 5-8] do that and he did it better than guys my size.''

Though the snow kept some at bay, a steady stream of people followed Lutz. Truth was, Mason never really truly left the neighborhood. For his wake, the neighborhood showed its loyalty right back.

"It was like Michael Jordan walked into our neighborhood'' when Mason would come to town, Nicoleau said. "A guy from our neighborhood that made it in the NBA and played for the Knicks, our hometown? It's unbelievable. It was like a dream come true.''