Anthony Mason made it clear during the first practice of his first training camp as a Knick that he wasn't going to be pushed around. It was a moment that helped establish the identity of the 1990s Knicks.
Jeff Van Gundy was an assistant under Pat Riley, and he said he never will forget that day in Charleston when the unproven Mason and the established Xavier McDaniel got into a fight that didn't end quickly.
"It started with a block-out drill, and five minutes later, Xavier McDaniel and Anthony were going around the gym throwing haymakers at each other," Van Gundy said by phone. "I think it set the tone for just how hard we were going to play that season. He came in to compete and he backed down from no one."
That passion and ferocity made Mason a true success story. It's what many, including Van Gundy, chose to remember Saturday, when Mason died several weeks after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
"I think anybody who coached Anthony will always remember him for his intensity, passion, toughness and a really long work ethic," Van Gundy said. "He didn't take days off practice. He played every night. He was really a great, great story of perseverance that turned into success I don't think anybody imagined when he came to training camp for the first time with the Knicks."
Mason didn't have much of an NBA resume when he signed with the Knicks in 1991. He had played overseas and in the CBA and USBL, and had totaled only 24 games with the Nets and Nuggets. But Mason became a big part of Knicks teams that averaged 54 wins during his five seasons with them.
He was one of the mainstays of teams led by Patrick Ewing and featuring Charles Oakley and John Starks. That group reached the conference finals twice and the NBA Finals once.
"We had a great, really, really tough, hard-nosed team," Van Gundy said. "There was a lot of competition, a lot of tough guys, and he was one of them . . . I think we were an almost-championship team who had a very strong bond."
Van Gundy, who later became Mason's head coach with the Knicks, marveled at the career the Queens product carved out for himself. He made an All-Star team with the Heat in 2001.
"I don't think anybody knew he was going to be such a valuable member of our really good teams and get to an All-Star Game at age 34," Van Gundy said. "Incredible. It's just a great story for the people who watched him develop. He had a great ethic. It just goes to show you when you have a great work ethic, some remarkable things can be accomplished."