People always thought he was afraid. Jamal Mashburn felt they were wrong, but he was never so sure of that as he was now that he knew what real fear was. It was October, just after the start of his first training camp with the Charlotte Hornets, and the phone rang in his new apartment. His mother, Helen, was on the other end, and before she even spoke, Mashburn had a feeling of dread. She tried to break the news to him gently, but soon she was sobbing, and the only two words he could make out were colon cancer. "I couldn't even cry," Mashburn says. "That's how great the shock was. I couldn't cry until the next day."
This was fear, and it had nothing to do with playoff pressure or the last-second shots Mashburn was supposedly afraid to take. Fear was the feeling in the pit of his stomach when he thought about losing the woman who as a divorced mother in Harlem had raised him, who had given him the kind of education he couldn't get in a classroom. Helen Mashburn had wanted her only child to be independent and sophisticated, so she made sure that nearly every day contained a lesson for him. She taught Jamal how to ride the subway at age seven and which fork to use in fine restaurants. She took him to museums to learn about art and to Washington, D.C., to absorb some of his country's history.
"She's always wanted me to know that there was a world beyond Eighth Avenue, where I grew up," Mashburn says. "Whatever I needed, whether it was someone to talk to or someone to give me a little push, she provided it."
When her cancer was diagnosed, however, it was Helen who needed the push. "She wasn't exactly giving up, but she wasn't herself either," Mashburn says. "After a while I had to get on the phone and dig into her a bit, talk to her like a coach. I told her it was time for her to start fighting." The mother took the son's advice. Helen, 58, has had two surgeries and faces chemotherapy, but she is fighting, and on Feb. 16 she felt well enough to travel to Charlotte from her home in Fort Lee, N.J., to watch a Hornets game in person for the first time all season.
For Mashburn, a 6'8" small forward, that visit was the highlight of what has been the most satisfying season of his eight-year NBA career. He has played so well while dealing with his mother's illness that the idea that he withers as the game clock ticks down seems absurd. Mashburn's ability to perform in the clutch has been a matter of debate for most of his career, especially the 3� seasons he spent with the Miami Heat before being traded to Charlotte last August. But with the help of an offensive system that makes better use of his improvisational talents, and with teammates and coaches who pump up his confidence at every opportunity, he is peeling off his label as a player who crumbles at crunch time.
Mashburn's 20.1 scoring average through Sunday is his best since he averaged 23.4 for the Dallas Mavericks in his third season, and his averages in rebounding (7.8) and assists (5.0) make him one of only three NBA players in the top 30 in those three categories. ( Kevin Garnett and Antoine Walker are the other two.) Mashburn's all-around game has also propelled Charlotte into contention for the Central Division title. The Hornets' 100-90 win in a showdown with the first-place Milwaukee Bucks last Saturday was their ninth victory in 10 games and improved their record to 36-27 three games behind Milwaukee. Against the Bucks Mashburn contributed 15 points 12 rebounds and seven assists, but the Hornets took control early for a change and didn't need any late-game heroics from him.
"I think Mash is driven to prove that he's not afraid to take the last shot, that he can be depended on to take over a game down the stretch on a consistent basis," says forward P.J. Brown, who came to the Hornets with Mashburn and Otis Thorpe in a nine-player deal for Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason. "He's playing with a focus and a fire that I haven't seen in him before."
The Hornets are counting on Mashburn to blaze a trail for them through the postseason. Although they have the league's most underrated backcourt in Baron Davis and David Wesley, and their big front line, led by the 6'11" Brown and 7-foot center Elden Campbell has helped them lead the league in rebounding they won't cause much buzz in the playoffs unless Mashburn displays his star quality at critical moments They are sure he will.
The team expressed its belief in Mashburn by signing him to a six-year, $54 million contract extension in November, and the early returns on the investment have been encouraging. Mashburn had 14 fourth-quarter points in an 82-72 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 26 and scored 10 points in the final 1:51 of a 91-88 win over the New Jersey Nets two nights later Against the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb 24 the Hornets were trailing 85-80 with 42.9 seconds to go when Mashburn drilled a three-pointer setting up the game-winning trey by Wesley 5.9 seconds later.
It's not hard to see why Charlotte coach Paul Silas felt Mashburn could be the leading man in his offense. Mashburn has three-point range, the quickness and ball handling ability to beat defenders one-on-one and, at 241 pounds the power to overwhelm most opponents around the basket. The Hornets take advantage of this package by using Mashburn in the post at times and as a point guard to orchestrate fast breaks at others "He's doing things now like getting to the basket and creating for other people that I almost forgot he could do," says Orlando Magic forward Bo Outlaw.