Me and Coach Self got a special relationship.
Something most people don’t know about Coach is that when he’s all over you in practice — and he’s usually all over you — he wants you to talk back. He likes when you get agitated. If you’re not talking back, he goes even harder.
I remember this one day at practice when he wasn’t happy with my defense. So he and I were really going back and forth. When anyone questions my toughness, I can’t help but get defensive.
“Frank, you’re terrible!” he said. (Well, that’s basically what he said).
“Terrible?” I said. “Terrible? Nah, I’m a pit bull!”
“Pit bull?” he chirped back. “You’re a poodle!”
Poodle? I had to laugh.
I got my first nickname before I can even remember. (It wasn’t Poodle.)
I always knew how to play ball. I was the best player on the playground wherever I was playing, including the blacktop in the middle of the Pin Oaks houses in Petersburg, Virginia. That’s where I grew up with seven siblings and my mom. I was a natural, so some guys who watched me on the playground outside our house started calling me The Phenom. I’m not talking about AAU coaches or scouts. I’m talking gangsters, drug dealers and some of the seedier dudes who hung around Pin Oaks.
My family did everything they could to shield me from that element of the projects. I gotta admit though, I liked the nickname.
In elementary school, I played in a tournament and a coach from around the way named Michael Blackwell was in the stands. In Petersburg, I was already well known, even though I was just a kid: When I entered the gym, someone would announce, over the loudspeaker, “Here comes Frank ‘the Pheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeenom’ Mason!” But I wanted people from outside Petersburg to know my name, too.
We won the tournament. (Obviously. I’m sorry, but obviously.) And after the game, Coach Blackwell came over to me and my mom and told us that he thought I had a lot of potential.
“I’d love for Frank to join my travel team,” Coach Blackwell said.
“That’s up to Frank,” my mom said. She wanted me to decide on my own. I was 11.
What do you think I said?
But it was more complicated than that.
My mom worked as a manager at Dollar General to support eight kids, but she was barely holding the house together. My dad wasn’t around — he was in prison on a drug conviction. He went in when I was one year old. That’s where coach Blackwell stepped in and changed my life. After school most days, he would come pick me up and drive me to his house in Ettrick, Virginia, about 20 minutes from Pin Oaks. I’d spend some nights at coach Blackwell’s house, playing basketball, watching basketball, breathing basketball. If it wasn’t for those nights at Coach Blackwell’s, I don’t know what I would have got into.
Coach likes to tell the story that, at the end of every out-of-town tournament, my only question for him was: “When is the next tournament?” It’s so hard to make it out of Petersburg, and he gave me the opportunity to have a better life through basketball.
By the time I got to high school, I was a local celebrity. Trey Songz had gone to my high school about a decade before me and he supported the program, so when I was scoring 29 points per game as a junior and 30 points per game as a senior, we connected through our team’s success.
Not many people from Petersburg are like me and Trey — not that many people get out. So when Towson University offered me a scholarship my junior year, I took it immediately. A lot of people talk about that decision now, like it’s a shocking deal that I almost played there (and that my KU teammate Devonté Graham almost played at Appalachian State), but when you come from Petersburg, and someone offers you an opportunity to make your life better, you take it. Period.
But then, during my senior year, I failed my U.S. and Virginia Government class, and wouldn’t be eligible to play at Towson. I begged my teacher, Miss Nelson, to reconsider the grade but she refused to let me off the hook. I took summer school, but it wasn’t enough — my scholarship to Towson fell through.
I was devastated. Everyone in my family, everyone I knew was down too. Towson was gone. I was probably looking at a prep year at military school, and then a reopening of my recruitment, but other than that it was all question marks. I had recently fathered a child, a boy named Amari, so that added a lot of pressure to what I was going through.
Everything was up in the air for me. I felt like the dream was over.
But then, Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Virginia reached out — my family and I decided that going there would help me get my academics up and keep me pretty close to home. However, it couldn’t be a more different setting than my public high school. I’d have to wear a uniform, complete with a FRANK MASON nametag, and march three times a day in formation, the first of which began at 5:45. I’d be scrubbing toilets and living with a bunch of strangers in one giant building.
But it was my best option, by far, at the time. I enrolled.
That summer, though, after my senior year and before military school started, I travelled to a tournament in Las Vegas. I was aware of all the schools that were there and now that Towson wasn’t happening, I was really hungry. I saw Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend before that game, watching. I saw him up in the stands and, man, I just went crazy out there. They were there recruiting another point guard, but I outplayed him. They stopped recruiting that guy after that game.
After the game I was like, I know the Kansas coach is impressed with me. I hoped he would be at our game later in the day, which was a playoff game. We won the game — I could swear I saw Coach Townsend in the stands, but I wasn’t sure — and we made the championship the next day. Either way, I played like he was there.
The next morning, at the championship game, I caught Coach Townsend in the stands again. Yep, that’s definitely him, I thought. Let’s go. I put up another great performance, and came home with the MVP for the tournament. Even though I could tell Coach Townsend was there to see me, he and I didn’t talk or anything after. But I knew.
When I got back to Petersburg, I was talking so much game to my friends.
“I got MVP,” I was telling them. “The Kansas coach saw me, and I swear I saw him at my second game. He had to come back and see me — I was going too crazy out there! They gotta offer me!”
My friends were just kinda rolling their eyes. Naw, man, I doubt it. Why didn’t he offer you there, then?
But five minutes later, I swear to God, the phone rang.
“Hey Frank, this is Bill Self from Kansas. I’m here with Coach Townsend. We wanna offer you a scholarship.”
To this day, I absolutely regret failing that high school government class and having to go to military school.
But I guess you can say it worked out.
I spent a year at Massanutten and then enrolled at Kansas in 2013. It’s crazy to think that was just four years ago.
It’s crazy to think that I just graduated from Kansas. (What’s up Miss Nelson).
It didn’t end how I wanted — after the Oregon loss, I tweeted that it felt like my life was over—and, man, it’s still hard to shake that feeling of disappointment. Sitting back in the locker room, where guys were crying and feeling terrible, I had no choice but to focus on the positives and on what’s next. Graduation. The opportunity to give my son a better life than I had growing up. I thought about how far I’d come, from being a guy who couldn’t qualify to play at Towson to the Wooden National Player of the Year at one of the best programs in the country.
When I was up on the stage at the Wooden presentation, I took a moment to look around and appreciate all the good people and friends around me that day. KU has given me the family I’ve always needed. The culture around here — the fans, the coaches, everyone around here is just great people. One of my favorite things to do this year has been to go up to the academic advisers’ office and just chill, and talk about life. I like to go to the Underground — the cafeteria underneath Wescoe Hall — and hang out and eat Chik-fil-A with the other students. I’m going to miss all the genuine people at Kansas, my teammates — I want to thank them for how much they’ve impacted my life on and off the court, and for making the decision to play at Kansas the best one I ever made.
When I was 12, my dad got out of prison. This year he’s made a big effort to come to as many of my games as he can. Every day since then, he’s been in my life. During my senior year at Kansas, you could see him behind the bench, wearing my jersey, cheering his ass off. He made some mistakes and wasn’t there when I was a kid, but since then, he’s been trying hard to lead me in the right direction.
I’m keeping all of this in mind as I raise Amari.
While being at Kansas has made me a better man and person, I owe a lot of my development to being around Amari, who is five now. He’s helped me change throughout the years and learn a lot — and not just as a father. I’m thankful God put him in my life. All I want for him is to have a better life than I had growing up — I want to be here for him, not locked up like my dad was. I try to get better every day as a man and as a student.
As I move forward in the NBA draft process, my only goal is to show people that I’m the person I’ve been my whole life. I’m the player I’ve been my whole life, a winner with a pit bull mentality.
A pit bull.
Not a poodle, Coach.