This is my interview with Dr. Lyle Mason, continuing from Part II. Lyle, an orthopedic surgeon, was the Jazz physician for 36 years and sat down with me for a couple hours to talk Jazz and the NBA. My questions are in bold; his answers underneath.
During the years immediately after the dress code was put into place, Lyle was supposed to wear a tie to every game since he sat right behind the bench. The ties he had were probably originals from the 70’s, so I took it upon myself to give his wardrobe a quick refresh. I bought him maybe 10 new ties so he could look spiffy at the games. In classic Lyle style, I noticed he wore the same tie three home games in a row. “Lyle, is that tie your favorite? Would you like me to get you some more like that and not like the others?” “No, I like them all. I just pick whatever tie is closest.” So I told his wife she needed to rotate his ties so there weren’t back-to-back repeats.
You worked under three different owners. What’s that been like?
There was a huge change from Battistone to Larry H. Initially, when he came to Utah he had a minor partner that he bought out. Sam Battistone, I think he looked at the team as not his primary concern. His primary concern was his businesses and the team was a sidelight and it was not a money maker. He was just trying to keep it together, which he was successful in doing. When Larry took over the team, all of a sudden it became a business. And Larry was said to have made the comment that he would not take money from his other businesses to support the Jazz. The Jazz had to support the Jazz. And I think that’s the way he wanted to run it; it had to be self-sufficient, and he was going to do everything he could to make it self-sufficient. His decisions were designed to do that, and I think that really helped the team. All of a sudden it started to become a business.
He had all these other business. The Jazz was really important to him. Nothing he hated worse than losing to the Clippers. (laughing) And losing to the Clippers just galled him. He’s a competitive guy and so it wasn’t like he looked at the game and said, Ah, we lost again. He took it personally,
And he wanted to see effort.
Absolutely. He was big on win, lose, or draw, I want to see effort out there on the floor, and if he didn’t see it, that’s when he started to lose interest in those players that didn’t bring it every night. And that was good. I don’t think you want an owner that doesn’t care. The great players, it isn’t so much that they love to win; it’s that they hate to lose. I look at Karl and John and Horny and all those guys—they hated to lose. That was more important to them than winning, was not losing. And some players come along and that’s not that critical to them. Larry, if he saw team members laughing or joking after a loss, it would drive him nuts. He’d say, “You gotta HATE losing. You’ve gotta do everything you can think of to not lose.” I think that attitude really helped the team. I don’t think anybody could look at Larry and say he didn’t care, because he did! He got in trouble because he cared—he cared so much. But that caring made the team better; I don’t think there’s any question about that.
Now when Larry died, it went over to Gail and Greg and the other boys, and I don’t think there’s any question that that’s a different management team than Larry. And Larry’s one of those unusual guys—he was a business genius—and they don’t come down the pike every day. Now they’re changing the management again—they’re going to have a board of directors. It’s going to be run as a little more of an independent business. Most of the teams run with that kind of a system, so it’s going to be run a little more like a lot of the other teams in the NBA. I think, when the Clippers sold for $2 billion, that changed a lot because virtually every team in the league doubled in value, and people looked at that and went, “Holy moly!” This is a big business and we’ve got to run it as a big business or we’ll be run under.
What about Dennis Lindsey?
Dennis made the decision that we were going to follow the San Antonio model, but if you’re going to pick another team to imitate, San Antonio’s probably a pretty good one1. And so they picked up Dennis from San Antonio and Quin Snyder, basically from San Antonio, and a lot of the other personnel had ties to San Antonio and Dennis brought in a lot of these ideas, the meals at practice and everything, that was part of the San Antonio model. I think Dennis and maybe others felt strongly that we should have a D-League team to develop talent and that’s, again, part of the San Antonio model. So a number of changes have been made that are very similar to the way San Antonio is run. We’re into that a few years now, and certainly I think most Jazz fans and look at the team and say, The team’s getting better, and we’re maybe one or two players from being really competitive, and maybe one or two years away from being quite competitive. Hopefully that’ll be the case. But I think most people look at it and say, Whatever’s happening seems to be working. We seem to be on a good trajectory.
Gordon is a really good player who could possibly be a great player.
I’m surprised he keeps getting so much better; I didn’t know his ceiling was this high. I kept thinking he’d hit it, but he keeps getting better.
He’s a good guy, he’s works hard, and he’s got some skills, and he comes from a real basketball family. Both of his parents played basketball. He was a solid choice.
What about P3?
That goes back quite a ways. Mark McKown, the strength and conditioning coach, got it started with the Jazz. Other teams had been using them, so he went down with Rafael Araujo to go through it and really liked it. Now it’s just become part of the routine. Virtually all of the players go down now.
They had measurable changes in agility and jumping and hand-eye coordination, all the things that P3 works on, and they were demonstrable changes. You’re not looking for huge changes. Small changes can be really important in athletes at this level, and they were seeing that, so more and more players went.
So you’re a believer?
Yeah. I’ve been down there, I’ve looked at their training program. It makes sense to me. It’s a refining, basically, of skills. It certainly is not going to hurt anybody, and if you can help these guys just a little bit—and some guys you can help more than others—but if you can help these guys a little bit, that might translate into significant differences. So I think that’s worked out to be a good deal for us.
They work on balance, flexibility, rapid changes, hand-eye coordination, so many different things, each of which is an important aspect of basketball, and it seems to have helped the players. I haven’t done cost-benefit analysis, but they’re looking for anything that will help the players. And I think the players like that part of it, too. They’re down there sometimes for a week, 10 days, two weeks. They spend some significant time down there.
What about nutrition?
We now have a dietician that works with the players. Traditionally, players didn’t buy good meals; they’d live on fast food. A lot of these guys were single and didn’t have anybody to make meals for them. Recently, the players usually have breakfast together. They eat a number of their meals together that are provided for them, well-balanced meals. It’s a wide variety, but dietetically, obviously high calorie for these guys. But they get everything that the dietician wants them to have, and I think that was a good idea. Because I know some of these guys were just awful.
The Lakers have really shifted what they were eating with “Grass-Fed Tim.” You’re starting to see more teams pay attention to the nutrition aspect.
Some of these guys really just had terrible eating habits. Some don’t. Karl was always very persnickety about what he ate, and John the same way. But some of these players just eat junk food, and you’re not going to get maximum performance out of that. So the Jazz have—and I think other teams, too—tried to take control of that a little bit more to ensure that these guys are getting nutritious meals. They can’t make them eat it, but at least it’s there and it’s easy for them, because it’s at practice.
What about Rudy Gobert? He’s been quite the story.
Who would have thought? I don’t think he set the world on fire anytime up until we picked him. I did a physical on him for the summer league in Orlando, and he’s such a funny guy. His English then was not nearly as good as it is now, and he said, “Tell me about illegal defense, what is that?” So I said, “If you’re in the key, you’ve got to be arm’s length from somebody that you’re guarding, and the three-second rule applies.” He said, “Oh. I just don’t understand that. And I can’t hit it off the rim, right?”2 “No, you can’t do that.” “What else is different?” Because he was really worried about the rules. I told him, “You’re going to make these mistakes, every European player does, but you’ll learn it.” But he was so concerned about where would he fit in, what would he do, and who would have thought that within just a couple years he’d be where he is right now? And a lot of it is this: he works hard, and he’s got confidence. He’s a confident guy. He thinks he can be great. And he does whatever it takes to get there. Boy, he’s got the physical makeup to be a really great player. If he just doesn’t get hurt and is able to keep playing the way he is, all the minutes he’s playing, he could be a great player.
What about Dante and Trey? (Note: This interview took place before the ACL tear and surgery)
First of all, they didn’t think Dante would be there for our draft pick. When he slid it was a done deal, and I think he can turn out to be a terrific player. He certainly is a terrific guy. He works hard. I think he’s going to be very good, and now they’ve found out that Burke really is a shooting guard, despite his size. He’s a shooting guard, and they’re playing him as a shooting guard, because he’s a very good shooter3, but he’s got to adapt to that role. And then they can have two point guards, with Exum and Burke on the floor. They were getting killed with Burke’s size and defense. But they can’t do that with Exum and his length.
But Exum’s built for it: he’s got long arms, he’s a pretty good defender, and it solved that problem (Burke’s deficiency with size). And Burke, to his credit, has adapted to that. He didn’t say, Well, I’m a point guard, or I’m the starting point guard. It’s one of those, “I’ll do what you ask me to do,” and he was more effective.
If Exum turns into who we want him to be . . .
Next year will tell us a lot.4 And with more experience, I think he’s got what it takes to be a really good player. He certainly has the physical attributes. And, once again, he’s a good guy, works hard, does what you ask him to do, doesn’t make a lot of stupid mistakes. If there’s anything the coaches look at him and say, it’s that they want him to do more. If he’s got that open shot, take it. He can knock it down. He’s a good shooter. A lot of times that shot will be wide open for him and he’ll pass off, and I think they want him to change that and be more aggressive, which he will do. I don’t have any doubt about that. He will be very good.
What’s the war room like on draft day?
Part of the problem is that sometimes, at the last second, they’ll want to call a trainer or a coach or something and when Karl was drafted, we thought he’d go Top 5. So he wasn’t on our radar. And then he doesn’t get picked and he doesn’t get picked and he doesn’t get picked and Sparky says, “We need to talk to his trainer.” So I talked to his trainer, “So what’s the problem? Was he hard to deal with? Alcohol problem? Drug problem? Anything at all?” “No, nothing, he’s great, he works hard, he does everything you ask him to do.” So then I end up talking to his coach. “What kind of problems have you had? Physical problems? Alcohol? Drugs? Anything there?” “No, nothing, this guy’s great.” And we couldn’t believe he was sliding. And they keep asking me, “What do you know? What’s wrong with this guy? Why’s he sliding?” They say he’s healthy, they say he’s great, they say he can play, no legal problems, no drugs, no alcohol, nothing. Closer and closer, if he’s there, we’re going to take him. I was thinking, Please don’t let them find out he’s had a heart attack of something. That was just such a shock that he kept sliding back. A lot of it was, he played at Louisiana Tech. He played well at a small school, but not good enough to play at a major college. He was the leading rebounder in the country, but that was at Louisiana Tech against second-rate opponents—Millsap heard exactly the same thing. They said he’s not going to make it as a pro. Just one of those inexplicable things that people looked him and passed over him. Same thing with John. People passed over him. For us, it was great, but it was still inexplicable. Once again, played at a small college against not the greatest competition. It’s funny how those things eventuate, how a guy becomes available that you never, in a million years think will become available.
When you look back, what do you think? 36 years.
Staying with the same team for 36 years in and of itself is rewarding, because you see the birth of the team and the struggles and then you see the championship-type years where we were as good as or better than anyone in the league, and then you see that falling away, then you see the struggles trying to get back to it, and that falling away, and now you see another surge to try and become a championship-level team. That’s certainly been the most enlightening thing to see. The best thing about it for me has been the people I’ve gotten to work with. Frank Layden and Jerry Sloan and all those guys. Just the type of people that the Jazz were able to get and keep because of Larry’s devotion to his people, really made it fun. I talk to other team doctors and some of them have been through excruciating times dealing with coaches or GMs or other people that were almost impossible to deal with, and I never had that. I certainly never had that with management, and although some players are easier to work with than others, the Jazz really try to avoid problem players, and that just made my job so much easier.
So, what are you going to do now that you’re officially retired?
My wife and I will be going to the Dominican Republic for a year to serve a medical mission for the Church (LDS Church). That’ll be a different challenge. I’m of an age now where if I’m going to do something like that, I’ve got to do it now while my health is still good. But this is something I’ve been thinking about doing for quite some time, so I think it’ll be a good challenge.
Note: Lyle often volunteers his time and skills where needed. He used to travel to Asia with Operation Smile to operate on cleft palates. In more recent years, he’s gone on shorter, two- to three-week medical missions for the Church teaching neonatal resuscitation in third-world countries like Romania, Moldova, Honduras, etc. Since he loves picking up languages—he spoke German on his mission and picked up some Russian, Spanish, and Chinese along the way—he would cram as much Rosetta Stone time as he could before trips in order to speak in the native language. And not just conversational language, but medical terminology.
Will you still go to Jazz games? Are you still a huge fan?
Yes. The Jazz will always be an important part of my life. The success or failure of the team will always be an important thing to me. As long as there are people there that I know and care about, especially.
Bottom line is that Lyle Mason is the best. He spent 36 years–more than half his life–with the Jazz organization. He was the surgeon who operated on John Stockton’s knee. He did countless surgeries on Jazz players. He was at every home game. He gave back through Operation Smile and the LDS Humanitarian arm. He’s a good, good man–a true gentleman. And he’s part of the Jazz family for life.