Chances are that Oklahoma State forward Desmond Mason is the only athlete in America who goes on road trips looking like a struggling Manhattan artist on his way to a Soho gallery. When you're a studio art major and you've already sold five of your pictures, you get used to lugging around a few works in progress. During last year's Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo., Mason repaired to his hotel room, colored his palette and fashioned an oil painting of a rottweiler. On a trip to Baylor this season he put the finishing touches on an abstract vertical-line watercolor. Most recently he has been fine-tuning a miniature matte-board floor plan for his 3-D design class. As Mason will proudly tell you, his traveling studio knows no bounds—with one exception. "I can't take any of my sculpture on the road," he says. "You know, blowtorches and all."
If Gene Autry was the Singing Cowboy, then Mason is the Renaissance Cowboy, a constant source of wonder and surprise. It's not enough that one of his professors thinks Mason could have a career in art, or that doctors said he would never walk normally after being burned in a childhood accident, or that he considers a convicted crack dealer—his father, Johnney—to be the most positive influence in his life. Desmond is also the most electrifying player you've probably never seen, a top candidate to become the breakout star of this month's NCAA tournament. Through Sunday he was averaging 18.1 points and 6.8 rebounds a game for No. 17-ranked Oklahoma State (23-5) while busily turning Big 12 arenas into his own Masonic temples.
A 6'5" senior with a 38-inch vertical leap, Mason has finally shed the rap of being a one-dimensional dunking savant, a reputation he earned by shattering a backboard during the first practice of his freshman year. In Stillwater, stories of Mason's feats are as common as roadside possum carcasses; last year's Cowboys highlight video included a five-minute homage to Mason's greatest dunks, from his Amsterdam-worthy windmills to his thundering tomahawks to one of those bring-the-ball-between-the-legs reverse flushes. "He's had a couple that Vince Carter would be in awe of," says Oklahoma State point guard Doug Gottlieb, the nation's second-leading assist man and Mason's most frequent provider. "Desmond does things that humans aren't supposed to do. During warmups other teams will stop what they're doing just to watch him."
For all of Mason's spring-loaded pyrotechnics, he was never considered a complete player until he schooled Auburn star Chris Porter in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament, scoring 26 points while holding Porter to nine. A year later, Mason has added a newfound confidence on the perimeter, where he was shooting 42.9% from three-point range through Sunday, up from 33.0% his first three years. In a 31-point assault against Kansas last month, he sank all five of his three-point attempts and missed only four of 14 shots-two of them, incredibly, on botched slams. "When I was a freshman, all I did was dunk the ball and try to block shots, but I had no knowledge of the game," Mason says. "Now I've learned how to slow my game down, how to read and come off screens. I take a lot of shots that I never felt comfortable taking last year."
Nobody knows more about how far Desmond has come than his father. Johnney was a witness to the terrifying scene that took place in Waxahachie, Texas, on a blazing summer day in 1981. Three-year-old Desmond was asleep in the front seat of Johnney's parked car when a friend pulled up, radiator hissing. He popped the hood and unscrewed the cap—without releasing the pressure. Suddenly boiling radiator fluid sprayed crazily through Johnney's car window, directly onto Desmond's chest, back and legs. The toddler wailed. "He was smoking," Johnney says. "I snatched him out through the car window, and the steam was so hot coming off his clothes that I couldn't even hold on to him. I pulled his jeans off, and when I did, all his skin came right off with the pants."
"At first the doctors said I might not be able to walk, much less walk normally, and I would never be able to run," says Desmond, who spent three months in the hospital, a year in physical therapy and another year wearing a cast at night to straighten his crooked left leg. (The skin graft was so tight that his leg was stuck in a bent position.) Defying his doctors' predictions, Desmond started playing basketball and football by age seven, showing no ill effects from his burns, save for the scars that snaked up his legs and caused him so much embarrassment that he never took showers with his teammates or wore shorts away from the gym until high school.
Though he and his two siblings lived with his mother, Willie, after their parents separated in 1982, Desmond followed his father everywhere, from Waxahachie's Penn Park (where Johnney played basketball), to the rec center (where Johnney coached Desmond's peewee team) to the Texas Raceway (where Johnney drag-raced on Friday nights), and so it only seemed natural that Desmond occasionally joined his dad on the 25-mile trip to south Dallas, where Johnney bought his crack cocaine. He had started dealing one day in 1985, making $380 in one hour on his first $80 bag. "I quit for a couple of years," says Johnney, who ran a small automotive repair shop, "but when Christmas rolled around [in '89], I wanted some nice things for my family, so I decided to deal again."
Eventually, Johnney says, he was making as much as $10,000 in a five-day week. By the time he was 11, Desmond knew exactly what was going on. "There were times when he poured all this stuff out on a table in our house," Desmond says. "If you sold rocks, you could get a crack fiend to pay you with stolen VCRs, TVs, couches. We never had to buy anything like mat because that's how everybody got their stuff."
Johnney had three rules—no using, no selling to kids and ("You might laugh," he says) no selling on Sundays—but any qualms he had about the drug trade were eased by the steady income. Steady, at least, until he was arrested in March 1991, convicted on four counts of narcotics trafficking and sentenced to 12 years in prison. During Johnney's jail term, Desmond visited him only once at the Ellis County Penitentiary in Waxahachie. "It was nothing I ever wanted to see again," Desmond says.
At home, Desmond spent his time shooting baskets and dice in Penn Park (he cashed in for $600 one lucky night) and cut classes so often that he was ruled ineligible for the second half of his freshman basketball season at Waxahachie High. According to Mason, the only thing that kept him from selling crack himself was the constant specter of violence. "It didn't matter to me that my dad had gone to jail," he says. "It's just that I was terrified of having to carry a gun."