High school boys basketball: ‘Big brother Chet’ guiding young men on and off court at Brush
D.J. Dial moved into the South Euclid-Lyndhurst district in middle school. Dial’s mother found a house in the district and moved her and her son out of an inner-city neighborhood.
When it came time for Dial to move up to the high school level, he wasn’t sure what to do. He liked Benedictine, but the Bengals were looking for a new boys basketball head coach. So was Brush. Dial initially didn’t give Brush much consideration, but as each job opened, so did his mind.
Then Brush hired area basketball legend Chet Mason. Dial’s decision was made.
“That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Brush after he got hired,” Dial said. “He kind of had the same background as me, being from the inner city and stuff like that so I knew I could relate to him. I knew he would teach me some good stuff.”
Mason had just concluded an 11-year playing career spent mostly overseas after he starred at Cleveland South and was an All-MAC first-teamer at Miami (Ohio). He wasn’t sure what his next step was, but he most likely would go work for an NBA front office.
“I was hanging around in the summer before I retired,” Mason said. “I saw a lot of young men that needed help and they had the talent, but it takes more than just talent to get to where you’re trying to go.”
Mason, who grew up on East 102nd Street in the Kinsman neighborhood of Cleveland, recalls playing against Ruben Patterson and Earl Boykins as a sixth-grader at Luke Easter Park — known as Woodland Hills park to locals.
“It’s a tough park,” Mason said. “If you can go up there, if you can play there you can play with anybody.”
As he moved on to the high school level at Cleveland South, which closed in 2010, Mason compiled a career that requires the inclusion of his name in the same sentence as LeBron James, Patterson, Boykins, Damon Stringer, Steve Logan and Sonny Johnson when discussing Northeast Ohio’s best players in recent memory.
Mason averaged a triple-double of 25 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists as Chet “The Jet” led the Flyers to a Division I regional final and the Senate League title in 2000. Among a handful of individual accolades earned that season, Mason was the first Cleveland public school player named Mr. Basketball by the Associated Press before he headed to play for Charlie Coles at Miami (Ohio).
Many schools inquired about Mason’s services out of high school. He had offers from Kent State coach Gary Waters — who took the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight in 2002 — and George Mason. But Coles, who retired as the winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history, brought a different pitch to Mason and his grandfather in contrast to those regurgitated by most recruiters trying to sell recruits on their program.
“Something about it told me Coach Coles was the guy,” Mason said. “I was an inner-city kid. I’d been through it all, what inner-city kids go through, city-schooled all my life and Coach Coles came in, looked at me and said, ‘I can help you.’”
Mason was drawn to Coles, then in his fourth year as Miami’s head coach, as someone who could help him grow not just as a player but also as a man. In Oxford, Mason capped his collegiate career as the MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.
After he began his pro career in 2005, Mason bounced around from the Continental Basketball Association’s Albany Patroons in 2006 to Turkey’s Fenerbahçe in Istanbul before he returned for another stint with the Patroons and a few months with the Los Angeles D-Fenders in their first year as the Lakers’ D-League affiliate.
Mason became close with Jamario Moon in Albany, who he’s still in touch with, and threw more than his share of alley-oops to the high-flying forward as Moon caught the attention of NBA scouts, which he parlayed into a contract with Toronto Raptors in 2007. In Los Angeles, Mason and the D-Fenders would finish practice in the mornings. That is right around the time Kobe Bryant would arrive, and Mason witnessed the NBA’s all-time third-leading scorer’s mythical work ethic firsthand in the hours before the Lakers practices began.
Mason ran with a few teams in the NBA summer league, then played with his hometown Cavaliers in the 2007 preseason before he moved to the overseas game full-time. Mason won back-to-back championships in 2008 and ’09 with Siroki Eronet in Bosnia’s top league, and was named finals MVP in 2009 before he was the league MVP in 2010.
Mason has lost track of all the countries he has played in, but recounts France, Italy, Russia, Israel, Kuwait, Greece and Slovenia among those he played for teams in. He picked up a little bit of each language along the way — but he definitely noticed when other players talked about him, or his pay. Above all else, Mason returned to the United States with a heightened understanding of what it meant to be a diehard fan.
“Overseas is crazy,” Mason said. “But it’s the best as far as playing, the fans — unbelievable. It’s not like America, it’s passionate.”
Most players with Mason’s playing experience and a contact list filled with phone numbers from all over the world would go work for an NBA team’s personnel department. If he wasn’t the head coach at Brush, Mason would likely be scouting.
But what he has learned from his time playing from a park in Cleveland to arenas all over the world is a lesson he hopes to impart upon his players on Glenlyn Road.
“Your character is everything to me,” Mason said. “People might think different, I think character is your No. 1 thing when you’re trying to have success for yourself. Everybody wants good people around them.”
THE YOUNG BOYS
High school wasn’t where Mason thought his basketball path would lead before he retired. Aside from the opportunity to mold and guide young players, Mason said South Euclid-Lyndhurst Superintendent Linda N. Reid, who attended Kent State on a track and field scholarship, is a main reason he came to Brush after he was a player development coordinator for a year at Garfield Heights.
“This is a great district,” Mason said. “You’ve got, to me, the best superintendent in all of high school. Superintendent Reid, she’s the best.
“She understands the changing of the dynamics going on in every district. She understands this, she sees this, she sees the importance of things that she’s doing, whether it be the sports, the education, any of that.”
Since he started at Brush, Mason’s mission has been to show his players their talents on the court may be special but not all they’ll need to reach their potential.
“In high school all you think about is just the ball,” Mason said. “You think the ball is going to take you to the promised land. It doesn’t happen like that all the time. You can be successful at other stuff, and that’s what I’m trying to teach them.”
Mason has tried to instill a collegiate atmosphere at Brush. But that’s not to misconstrued as an effort to set up a basketball factory. Not every player will play in college, and Mason knows that.
“But if you make it a college atmosphere, then you work on discipline,” Mason said. “When you work on discipline, you’re working on building a team. At your job, you’ve got to work with somebody.”
Mason isn’t trying to be a father to his players although he knows some don’t have that presence. Rather, he thinks of his role as more of a big brother — he’s still only 35 — as someone a little more on the players’ side but still capable of providing fatherly counsel and guidance.
“It’s good because I can always come talk to him,” Dial said. “He has experience in life and everything. He can give me life lessons and tips and stuff about what I want to ask him.”
As Mason often shows instead of tells in practice, he does so off the court as well. Mason and his wife Yahira were married in 2007, and she is glad to have him at home full-time, even though she and the Masons’ children were able to see the world while he played overseas.
The Masons are at every Brush game, including all five daughters Shania, Tatiana, Nylah, Laylah and London.
“My wife and my kids come to every game so they can see this,” Mason said. “They can see how a man’s supposed to be. This is how a man has a family, not running around trying to get every girl.”
Around Christmas time, Mason took the Arcs to a Salvation Army location in East Cleveland, where they handed out jackets and fed the needy on a cold December night. While the purpose of the trip was to have the Arcs give back to their community, the experience also provided a glimpse into what life could be like if they don’t capitalize on the opportunity to study and obtain good grades in high school and move on to college.
“This is what happens if you don’t have a great character,” Mason said. “You can get caught up into something and end up in this (situation).”
Many coaches refer to their players as players, or kids. To Mason, they’re his “young boys” who he hopes to help grow into good men and members of the community.
Dial and his teammates’ relationships with Mason are unlike any with a parent or even a friend, but blend the best elements of each — like a big brother. Mason shares many experiences similar to what his players have dealt with, and his players have come to understand he cares about them as people before players.
Junior Tyler Williams may understand that better than any of his teammates. Williams’ brother, Ronald, died at age 19 this past summer.
“It wasn’t him looking at me as a coach,” Mason said. “It was him looking at me like an older brother to him. When I got the call, it was late, I jumped straight up, got in my car. There was no questions, I just had to get up here to make sure. I had to console him and his family.”
Mason’s door has been open to Williams whenever he’s needed it. But sometimes Mason goes out of his way to make sure the junior, who’s one of the youngest in his grade after turning 16 just as school started, is doing all right or to share wisdom.
“He just grabs me and talks to me,” Williams said. “He says it’s all right to cry in front of your brother. He just helps me through a lot and he helps my family too. Especially when it first happened too, he was always around and that’s what really kicked it with me and his relationship. He was there. He’s a real good person.”
ON THE COURT
Mason’s position at the helm of the basketball program has already had a tangible impact by raising the region’s awareness about the Arcs. Already, sophomore guards Dial and Andre Harris have Division I scholarship offers as does 6-foot-9 freshman John Hugley, who was offered by Cleveland State before he played a high school game.
The Arcs struggled in the early parts of last season before showing flashes of promise with a late-season winning streak. This year, they’re out to a 10-2 start and look like one of the top teams in the area, and while Mason wants to be sure his team doesn’t become complacent, he also wants Brush to be mindful of why the game is played.
“The game can get serious sometimes and you can forget about having fun,” Dial said. “Just being around my brothers, sharing the bond, having fun, I think he’s doing a good job. We’re building a culture, changing the culture from what it was before.”
To hear Williams tell it, there didn’t seem to be much of a culture around the basketball program as he went through the district in recent years.
Mason immediately emphasized the development of a youth basketball program in the district — something ingrained in him by Sonny Johnson — and Arc Elite basketball now boasts more than 100 kids from the district playing. While Williams would go to basketball games with family in middle school, Mason now has the youth players sit behind the bench to give them an idea of what it’s like to be there for a varsity game, and as it creates more dedicated followers of the Arcs. The by-product is a talent base that is ideally less likely to leave the district for a private school.
“You can be from the inner city and make it out,” Williams said. “You don’t have to transfer or take a different path. You can stay where you’re at and actually do something with it.”
Mason’s network of contacts on the homefront affords the Arcs chances to play in the LeBron James or Play-by-Play Classics. All he has to do is pick up the phone. Games like the one the Arcs played against Holy Name Jan. 7 at Baldwin Wallace’s Play-by-Play event are useful for Mason, as Brush was tested against the Green Wave and guard Dwayne Cohill.
“We can go and you can win games, but you need a game to see where you really are,” Mason said. “Holy Name will show you it’s different levels. The Dwayne Cohills of the world will show you you’ve got some really good young guards, but now you’ve got a top 50 player in the country and he’ll show you why.”
Brush has recently attracted two more former Division I college players to its staff as well, in Brush alumnus Curtis Oakley — nephew of NBA great Charles — and Euclid native Darrell Blanton, who played at Bryant and Gannon, respectively. Dial and Williams say the players get the better of the coaches in practice, but Mason begs to differ — especially when the players need to be reined in.
“I can still lace ‘em up,” Mason said. “(If) they get out of line, I get on the court and I go at ‘em and put them back in line. Then I’m back to being coach, big brother Chet.”
Coaches with Mason’s experience in basketball are seemingly rare in the high school ranks, but Dial and Williams have played for their fair share with little experience above the high school level. Mason’s resume not only ensures players listen to his direction, it makes him highly qualified to show his players exactly what they should be doing on the floor.
“It’s better to have someone who actually played so he can be hands-on,” Williams said. “In practice he won’t just tell you, he can actually show you things he’s talking about.”
Mason thinks the team is a year away from where the Arcs want to be. But he is fine with that — this year, he just wants to see the team consistently improve and whatever positive results come along the way are just a bonus. Brush doesn’t have senior leadership, but when Williams, Tajh Benton and Deion Burton are seniors next season, Mason looks forward to such a presence on the team.
Until then, the Arcs continue to trust their process.
“Superintendent Reed believes in what we’re doing here,” Mason said. “It ain’t no problems going on, she ain’t worried about what the wins and losses column looks like. She sees the big picture, I see the big picture, the coaching staff sees the big picture.”