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VYPE Cover Story -- His World
January 11, 2013By Matt Malatesta of VYPE MAGAZINE - Houston
Atascocita's Nick Mason Uses Hoops to Deal with Asperger's Syndrome
By Matt Malatesta
He's heard it all before.
"Are you retarded?"
"You aren't any good at basketball."
"What's wrong with you?"
From elementary school and through junior high, Nick Mason, who has Asperger's Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), has been picked on, picked last and ridiculed. But he and Team Mason are having the last laugh.
The pain that parents go through when their child is attacked, left out and or embarrassed is excruciating, especially during adolescence and the teen-age years when kids are especially mean.
"Someone with Asperger's has to go through the pain and failure to succeed," mom Sybil Mason says. "We have all been through it with him, but it's the only way he really learns."
That is powerful.
Sybil and Donald Mason met in Germany when both were playing professional basketball after their college careers ended at Stephen F. Austin and Fresno State, respectively. The couple was married, relocated to California and back to Texas, before they began having children. First came Nick, then Noah, who is a sixth-grader.
Donald grew up in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles and took his hoop skills to Fresno State. After a solid four years in college, he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. An injury led to him getting cut and off to Europe he travelled. All the while, he had been challenged with Asperger's, which is passed on by the male gene. He got it from his father and he passed it on to Nick. Noah, however, is not affected.
"Back then, I was just thought of as weird," he says. "I had some friends through basketball, but the things I did were just awkward. I just became tremendously focused on basketball and let my play define me. People with Asperger's have to like themselves first, and that is what I instill in Nick."
Asperger's Syndrome is an austism spectrum disorder. Asperger's by medicine's terms is a social disorder, which includes a failure to develop friendships or to seek shared enjoyments or achievements with others. There is a lack of social or emotional reciprocity, and impaired nonverbal behaviors in areas such as eye contact, facial expression, posture and gesture.
Individuals challenged with Asperger's often display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. They may stick to inflexible routines, move in repetitive ways, or preoccupy themselves with parts of objects. They become intensely focused on one thing and become obsessive in that one area.
"I have had children in the classroom with Asperger's and consult with families who are dealing with the syndrome in their homes," says Andrinee Martinez, a counselor at Cleveland High School. She is also the wife of Atascocita basketball coach David Martinez and taught at Atascocita High School. "People with Asperger's are very intelligent, but it's difficult for them to communicate their emotions back to you. It's like a kink in a hose on the social side of their lives.
"I've had students immerse themselves in a range of subjects like tigers, the NFL or dinosaurs. They learn everything about it. You may think they go overboard and obsessive with it, but that is their focus," she says.
Nick's focus wasn't always on basketball. Before karate, Nick was so withdrawn and would virtually not speak to anyone. No one.
"When I was young I was a tall and shy kid," Nick says. "I started doing karate and I learned that it was okay to speak up for myself. I began looking people in the eyes and was not afraid to tell people about my condition. I learned so many life lessons and I still go by there to say hi when I can."
He didn't mention that he earned a double black belt.
Nick was always picked last at basketball. The only reason he was picked was because he was tall. That was two years ago.
"Since then, he and his father have been inseparable," Sybil said. "They work on basketball all the time. It's a special bond and they can relate to each other. The both have Asperger's, so when they watch basketball, they are really breaking it down. They will watch it and rewatch the same game for hours. Me and Noah just leave them alone."
Nick patterns his game after 6-foot-7 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of the Charlotte Bobcats. Kidd-Gilchrist also won a national championship with the Kentucky Wildcats as a freshman last season.
"I'm supposed to grow to his size or taller, but I just love how he goes 100-percent all the time," Nick says. "That is my biggest thing. I have to go hard all the time and I don't understand when others don't. He's not afraid to take the big shot when the game is on the line. I like that."
Because of his condition, Nick's basketball IQ is off the charts. He knows college defenses, NBA tendencies and can give scouting reports like Rockets' GM Darrell Morey. That doesn't bode well for his opponents.
"Me and my dad watch so much of our film and our opponent's film," he says. "That's just what we do. I love to change the game on the defensive end. I can guard any position on the floor and I know who goes left and who goes right. I know what our opponents are trying to do. I'm not really afraid of anyone on the court and I feel like I belong out there."
Strong words by a freshman, but remember Nick has no filter either. His focus to play college basketball took another turn this summer. Not even in high school yet, Nick contacted each Atlantic Coast Conference school from Duke to Wake Forest asking for the academic requirements to enroll after his senior season. He just needs to know what to focus on to reach his goal.
"I want to finish high school, go to a good college to play basketball and get a good education," Nick says. "I want to either be a doctor or be in the business world. I could also see myself doing things with kids. I love little kids because they like you for just being you. Sure, I'd love to play basketball, but I always have a back-up plan."
Nick is focused beyond his years and his triumphs should give hope to those with Asperger's throughout the region and country. Through hard work and the patient love of others, Nick could become the face of a syndrome that has been so dark and damaging to so many.
"I consider myself a basketball player with Asperger's," he said. "I don't let it define me."
THE INNER CIRCLE
Support System Imperative to Mason's Success
By Matt Malatesta
Having a strong support system for anyone with mental or social issues is imperative. It's never more evident in the story of Nick Mason.
His father understands him because he is challenged with Asperger's and his mother is in the education profession, working for the Houston Independent School District as a graduation coach for curriculum. Their decision to mainstream Nick in the public school system isn't for everyone, but it works for them mostly because of their attitude to attack Asperger's.
"You have to give them the tools, let them fail and then let them respond," Sybil says. "Now I'm going to protect my child to the end, but he has to learn to stand up for himself. People get discouraged because their child gets bullied and attacked, which leads them to becoming even more introverted. That's how they have to learn. And you can walk them through that process and explain to them why they are being treated that way.
"I have taught Nick that he needs to teach others how he wants to be treated. It's not easy, but there was a defining moment. He was being picked on in seventh grade. He and his father would spend hours rehearsing what he would say to people picking on him. Sure enough I got a call from Nick at work. Someone was picking on him and he did what we rehearsed. He was backed into a corner with two kids and he finally fought back. Now I'm not condoning violence, but it was a defining moment and he stood up for himself," she says.
If he hadn't had the training and support there likely would have been a different outcome.
"I know I have a great support system and I'm grateful for everyone," Nick says. "From karate, to my teachers, coaches, family and friends, I know I have had help every day."
When he stepped on campus at Atascocita, Nick was determined to play varsity basketball. He started on the junior varsity and his team dominated. He was moved up to varsity and now starts as a freshman. But there were bumps in the road.
"I'd find him in my office eating lunch," coach David Martinez says. "The lunch room was too much for him on a social level. During practice our kids didn't understand him either. We would be walking through plays and he'd be going 100-percent. I had to have a team meeting and tell everyone about Nick's situation. It's challenged me as a coach also. I have to explain why we do things a lot better. I can't tell him to just do something. I have to give him the reason why we do what we do.
"He's going to be a great player," Martinez said. "His motor is something you can't teach. He gives so much effort. He's going to be a 6-foot-7 athlete, who can defend anyone on the court. His offensive game will be the easy part to improve. We have to remember that he's only a freshman and he is this good."
But how does a freshman with Asperger's translate in the locker room?
"Nick is Nick and we understand him," junior Joe Burton says, who is a high-major DI talent himself. "He brings a lot of energy to our team and he's just one of the guys. We can joke around with him because we are with him so much. He's one of us and when people mess with him in the hallways, we have his back."
Atascocita plays in an unforgiving district with the likes of Westfield, Spring and Kingwood, and will need Nick to play a major role on their squad as they make the rounds in the district.
"He's our defensive stopper and he knows where to be on the court," guard Nolen Bilbo says. "He can play. We are going to be together the next two years because we all are pretty young. We want to make the playoffs this year, but really leave our legacy next year. Nick will be a big part of that."
With the proper people in his life, Nick's upside is limitless. But the main man in his life is the one who knows what he is going through -- his father Donald.
"Donald has done an amazing job," Sybil said. "It's a journey we are all on and it's tough, but he can relate with Nick and he knows that all people with Asperger's have a trigger. Something that hits them deep in the core and causes them to react. Donald has to say one thing to get Nick motivated or really going."
"So you just want to be average, do you?" Donald says.