I recently spent a couple of hours with Dr. Lyle Mason, picking his brain on the last 36 years of life — just barely more than half of his life — as the team physician with the Utah Jazz. It’s impossible to perfectly encapsulate that long of a career into a brief article, or even series of articles, and give him the proper honor I believe he deserves, but I’m certainly going to try. I’ve known Lyle for a really long time; it’s actually more accurate to say he’s known me for a really long time, since he remembers me being in diapers far better than I do. He’s the epitome of a gentleman, the old-fashioned kind who never makes a big fuss about opening your doors or carrying your bags, but does it because that’s just what gentlemen do. Being raised in a small town in Idaho in the 40’s and 50’s engrains that in a man.
Born in Hawaii, but growing up mostly in Rexburg, Idaho, Lyle Mason spent time in hospitals and doctor’s offices as a young boy, tagging along with his mother around who worked in both. When he was in high school, he worked as an assistant janitor in a hospital. Having been exposed to the medical field from a young age and seeing its ins and outs, he thought it looked like something he’d want to do.
He took aptitude tests in high school which suggested he should be a physicist or chemist. Armed with that knowledge, Lyle started off as a Physics major at BYU with a math minor, only to realize he wanted to deal with people, not things.1 After a mission for the LDS Church to Germany, he resumed his studies at BYU, and eventually decided on Tulane, in New Orleans, for medical school.
Interestingly, the Jazz were not yet an NBA team while Mason was in New Orleans; they were admitted to the NBA in 1974, two years after he’d left the city for his internship and residency in Oregon.
Here’s Part 1 of my interview with Dr. Mason; my questions in bold and his answers following. Occasionally, I’ll throw in a comment in italics.
How did you choose orthopedics?
Lyle Mason: When you go to medical school you decide what your aptitudes and interests are, and there are two great divides: the surgical and the non-surgical, and there’s a little overlap in there. I decided I was more surgical than non-surgical, but my exposure to orthopedics was just terrible in medical school, and I just wasn’t sold on it. My last rotation was orthopedics, and I absolutely LOVED it. Unfortunately, they already chose the residents for the next year because this was the last rotation.2
So he signed up to do ER for a year, and then went back to apply for a residency in orthopedics the following year. During his residency in Oregon, he worked with the group that took care of the Portland Trailblazers, and he loved it. He — gasp! — had become a big Trailblazers fan3 and wanted to stay in Oregon, but his wife wanted to go to Utah; Lyle figured he’d never get a chance to work with a pro team in Utah. They moved the family, now with two little girls, to Utah in the spring of ’78 and, as luck would have it, rumors started going around that the New Orleans Jazz were considering a move to Salt Lake City.
How did you start with the Jazz?
I just wrote to them and said, ‘I’d be interested in talking to you about [the team physician job]; here are some references.’ So before they moved to town, Don Sparks came and talked to me, met with other physicians, and offered me the job. Sparks warned me and said, ‘It’s not as easy as it looks. You’ve got to be at every game, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.’ That’s fine, I can do that.4
The timing was perfect: Lyle was 35 years old, wanted to work with a professional team and had recently established his own orthopedic practice in Bountiful. He was there when the Jazz started in Utah, and he was with the team until just recently.
When the Jazz started in Salt Lake . . . (pause) they were . . . (pause) . . . 5
Awful. They were awful. You could’ve stood up in the old Salt Palace with a submachine gun, done a 360, and you wouldn’t have hit anybody. So it was bad. I had tickets and I’d say to my neighbors, ‘Hey, I’ve got a few tickets tonight, do you want to go to the game? <pause> Oh, you’re going to stay home and watch TV. Okay. All right. Great.’ There was just no interest because we were so bad.
What do you remember about Stockton and when he was drafted?
The only other team that was really interested in him was the Trailblazers. And they had a pick after us6. When we picked John, they were on the phone and wanted to trade for him, trade their pick, plus another pick, and fortunately7, we didn’t do that.
I remember a preseason game against the Warriors and fans were saying, “Who is this guy? Who’s #12?” because “you could see this guy could be good.”
What about the time you called Stockton a freak of nature?
It ended up in the newspaper8. And so he (Stockton) asked me about that, “What exactly do you mean when you say a ‘freak of nature?’” I told him, “The context was that you never got hurt!”
What do you remember of Stockton’s shot?
I did not see it. Because I had ten seven footers in front of me, and I didn’t see it. I was in Houston, and in Houston, the floor is above the bench, or was at that time, so I was sitting below floor level. All of a sudden, when the ball went to John, the guys jumped up and all I knew was the screaming, and I go, “I guess he made it.”
Stockton never looked for his own shot; he would take it if it was there, but he was never looking for his own shot. The interesting thing, every play during the period of time that John was the starting point guard, was called from the bench. Every. Single. Play. And that never drove him nuts.
How was it operating on John Stockton’s knee? Nerve-wracking?
No. The problem was one I’d dealt with a hundred times or a thousand times. It was funny, when I told him what the problem was, we did the MRI, I told him, “This is what you have, this is what needs to be done,” and he just said, ‘Let’s go do it.’ So, the decision was his to make. Coach Nissalke had a talk show afterwards and somebody said, “Why would John have his surgery done here? Why didn’t he go to Birmingham or LA or New York or somewhere” and Coach Nissalke said, “Because he chose to have Dr. Mason do it.” Which I’ll be forever grateful for. It wasn’t a really complex operation, although it was one that some guys do okay with and some guys don’t. . . . He came back and played great.
What was one of the more enlightening parts of the conversation with Dr. Mason was how much influence agents have on a player’s medical decisions now. It wasn’t the case when he first started with the Jazz, but it’s changed over the years.
You used to perform a lot more of the surgeries. What happened?
Initially, when I was taking care of the players, I did almost all the surgery on the players. Then over the years, agents started getting more and more power, and got involved in choosing who would do surgery on them. And I’ve always said, players from California from LA, they have their surgery in Colorado, but Denver sends their players to Miami, but Miami sends their players to Chicago, and Chicago goes to New York and New York goes to Birmingham and Charlotte goes to LA. It’s crazy. And sometimes agents refer them to really top-notch people and sometimes not. Sometimes it’s somebody that operated on an uncle. The whole thing has changed.9
That whole process has just changed over the years, sometimes for the better, and sometimes it’s just really complex because the agent wants them to get four or five people, and then if you get two that disagree, then what do you do? Get three or four more? Agents play a huge role now in the medical care, which I’m not sure that’s very good because they’re not medical people. But they’re trying to justify their 4% of everything the guy makes. That’s a lot of money, so they’re trying to justify that salary.
What’s up for part II? A bit more about John and Karl, the AK/Memo/Deron years, and then Part III.