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.
This is my interview with Dr. Lyle Mason, continuing from Part I. Lyle was the Jazz physician for 36 years and was kind of enough to sit down with me and talk shop for a couple hours. My questions are in bold; his answers underneath.
Stockton and Malone were famous for coming into training camp with a body-fat-percentage competition, right?
Mason: Yeah. They were always 1, or 2, or 3% body fat, and Karl at 260, or 256 was what he usually came in at. They just worked hard; they kept themselves at that peak level because they were always looking ahead: maybe next year we can still do it. In basketball it’s funny because it’s just kind of a perfect storm: you get these players that come together, and sometimes they don’t fit, and sometimes they do, and we just got this bunch of players together that fit, but then, if that mix changes, sometimes you’re just not as good, and I think that’s really what happened, the mix of the other players wasn’t as good, and then the skill level of our best players started to drop off and you could see the handwriting on the wall. It just wasn’t going to happen.
And then John deciding to step down, that actually came as a surprise. Karl was unaware of it. He didn’t know it, and the coach didn’t know it. John just said, I think he said it to a reporter.
“I think I’m done.”
I know when Karl heard it, he goes, “What?! Are you kidding me? He really said that?” He just was hoping that year would be a move upward, and when it wasn’t… he was what, 39 years old?
I think he was 41?
He played longer than anybody would have expected him to be able to play, and still played at a pretty high level when he quit.
What about Andrei Kirilenko?
Andrea-vich. I always call him that. He was an odd player. I don’t mean that personally, but his skill set was so odd, so unique. Just a unique player. At his size, and to do the things he was able to do. Defensively, he was so dangerous when he got behind you because of his leaping ability. He could score, he could do a lot of things, and he was certainly a different personality than Karl and John. Not as… into greatness. I don’t think he ever looked at it and said, I can be great!—and unfortunately, and I think this was unfortunate, he was picked to the All-Star team early, and I think that hurt him. I think he thought, I’ve arrived, I’m there, I don’t need to get better. He just didn’t have that drive that Karl and John had, but just a great guy. Great player. Very skilled. Very athletic.
I don’t know if you know his history, but when he was a kid, at Russia at that time, they picked athletic kids and put them in separate schools. If you look at him, at his build and everything: long, powerful legs; smaller upper body; thin, great jumper, he was in the track and field school to be a high jumper. And then, as he told it, he told them, “I don’t like track and field, I don’t like high jumping; I want to go to into the basketball.” And they said, “Pretty close,” so he switched over to basketball, so all the way up from a kid, he was trained to be a basketball player. And by the time he was 14 or 15 he was a very skilled player, certainly in the junior ranks.
When he came to Salt Lake, I remember he asked if I would take him out to pick up his wife at the airport. So he jumps in the car and we drove out there, I said, “Do you own a car?” He said, “No, I don’t own a car.” I said, “Well, I think Larry H. would probably make you a great deal on a car.” He said, “You think I can have a car?” Yeah, I think you can have a car. That was the first time I think it really dawned on him that this money is going to make a difference for [him].
The other funny thing about Kirilenko is he was not driven by money. He’s a very generous guy. He told me that they had an apartment in Moscow and the building was rundown, as every apartment in Moscow is, and so he ended up remodeling the entire building for all the tenants. He didn’t spend money on a lot of craziness; eventually he did get a nice car, but that was not the driving force for Andrei. He liked basketball; he wasn’t driven by it, but he liked it, and he was good at it and he knew he could be good at it. When he left the Jazz, that left a big hole, really. He was just a great draft pick.
Kirilenko could dominate without scoring a ton.
Yeah, he could dominate a game defensively. He could go in there and people, they didn’t know where he was. If he’s behind me, I’m a dead man. He’s one of the few players I ever saw who preferred to play defense from behind, and he was great at it. He was really good at playing defense from behind—blocking shots without fouling and tipping the ball. He loved getting into the mix and playing defense from behind.
It drove the coaches nuts sometimes because they wanted him to be the standard type player, but he never fit that mold. He wasn’t a standard, common type of player; he was an unusual type of player, with a completely different skill set, but still a very good player.
What about the AK/Deron/Memo years?
Deron, when he came, was a guy who was a very skilled player, and the coaches looked at him and Chris Paul—we could have taken either one—I think Jerry decided on Deron because of his size, strength, and his durability. They thought he might be just a little bit better than Chris, although they liked both players, and then when he started playing, he was an outstanding player. BUT, the personality conflict grew between him and the coach, and eventually it became impossible for the two of them to stay. When the coach quit, management still decided that it was best if he went somewhere else.
Deron was the opposite of Stockton: Deron could not handle the coach calling any plays. He wanted to call every play. I’ll never understand why that was such a big deal, that if the coach called one play, he was going to run another one, which he always did. And that was part of what really drove them apart, was that Deron just decided he didn’t need coaching, and Jerry obviously thought otherwise.
Deron, in my dealings with him was always very nice, very friendly, I still consider him a friend.
He seemed to really like the environment in Utah for raising kids; he still talks about that.
I think he did. Why he couldn’t adapt to Coach Sloan’s way of coaching, I don’t know. I know that Karl and John adapted to it because of their tremendous respect for Jerry. And maybe that same respect was not there with Deron. I don’t know. But when he plays, he’s a great player. But obviously changing teams in midstream is going to adversely affect his career somewhat, but Chris Paul also did the same thing and he’s done alright.
But it still remains to be seen what he can do long-term. Obviously, with New Jersey he’s been hurt a lot, too. Nobody ever figured the wrist out. We knew he had loose ankles. And then those just got worse, I think, at least more symptomatic when he went to New Jersey. But that’s been a big part of his problems in New Jersey is his inability to stay on the floor.
That trade brought Derrick Favors to the Jazz. Your first time meeting Derrick Favors—what was that like?
Very quiet guy, kind of unassuming, but obviously quite a physical specimen. When you say soft-spoken, he’s not like an intimidated soft-spoken, he’s just a small-town kind of guy and he just is kind of soft-spoken, but obviously when he came to the team and started playing it was obvious that he was going to be a very good player.
You’ve often talked about Memo being one of your favorites.
When we got Memo—that was another great deal, as far as I’m concerned. Memo’s just a wonderful guy, just great personality, great guy to be around, great teammate, obviously a great shooter. Obviously a little different skill set for a big guy than what you typically see.
He’s probably be more valuable in today’s game.
Yeah, he would stretch the defense. But just as nice a guy as you’d ever meet in your life. He’s the kind of guy you really would like to golfing with—which, I did several times. He hits it a mile, which you might expect. But just a terrific guy. Even though he wasn’t with the team a long time, he helped us a lot. Great family man, great kids, great wife, just a really good guy.
What about Boozer?
We liked him out of college; we wanted him out of college. When he came, I think the coaches were pretty high on him. This is a guy who can really help us. Obviously he was a good player. He was a beast. If he had been a little taller, he probably would have been a great player. But could. Not. Stay. On. The. Floor. He only played about the half the time. And then he only played on one end, yeah2. And then he made it known that he didn’t want to stay in Utah, so the marriage was pretty much annulled and away he went.
What about Ty vs. Quin?
Ty’s just a wonderful guy, a great guy. A player’s coach3, but completely different personality than Snyder. Snyder is a Type A personality. He is a driving force. I don’t think you could say that about Ty. Ty was more the old-school type of coach, but still a wonderful guy. But Snyder has the background, he has the personality, he has the drive to really drive this team. Now, how do players adapt to a real Type A personality coach? Not always favorably. There will be players who won’t like it and it’s very possible that Enes was one of those, that just didn’t fit the mold where he and the coach were going in different directions. And there’ll probably be other players that will not enjoy that hard-driving coach or coaching. BUT, players who want to be great, that’s what they want. They want coaches that are demanding, that push them to be the best they can be, and I think Snyder’s that kind of a coach.
What can you tell us about the concussion protocol?
It’s very involved and requires a lot of the doctors and trainers, and it was driven by football, obviously. And if one of the other sports come up with a protocol, you can bet the NBA will follow. It’s certainly a good thing that players are checked and assessed for concussion, and if they have a concussion, they ought not be on the floor. That is obvious. Whether it’ll make a significant difference over the long-term over the way it’s always been done, I don’t know. School’s still out, I think. Because we have to do preseason testing to get the baseline. And the players are not really into it. Extracting their cooperation is like pulling teeth sometimes. They’re thinking, Oh crap, I’ve never had a concussion and I never will, but the idea is good and it’s there to stay. They may fine-tune it but it’s there to stay.
You look at the way Klay Thompson got hit in the playoffs . . . He was checked out and fine and then was back. But he got hard, right on the side of the head. When they slow-mo’d that, that was a hit. And Steph Curry’s fall looked more spectacular but maybe not as dangerous. They’re checked immediately and they may or may not have symptoms, then they’re checked after the game, then they’re checked the next day, and if they develop a headache or something then they’re pulled out, until the headache is gone, and then you have to run through the whole protocol.
How did you balance your time with your practice and the Jazz?
It was tough there when I had a really busy practice and was doing the Jazz. I had times where at halftime I drove to the ER, took care of a broken arm, and drove back before the third quarter started. What a flippin’ zoo that was.
You’ve done knee surgeries–both scopes and ACLs–for several folks I know. They were on rehab machines before they were awake from the surgery.
When you’re involved in sports medicine to the extent that I was, you tend to push the envelope a little bit more because, for these players, one day earlier or a week earlier makes a huge difference. For many people, that might not be a critical issue, but it certainly is for an athlete, and when you get used to doing things one way for professional athletes, it carries over to what you do for other people, too. You just look at it a little bit differently. Anything that will make a little difference can be important.
You were the physician for one of the Olympics teams, the team that played in Beijing. What was that like?
There were some surprises on that team. Our best player was Carmelo. LeBron hurt us because he held the ball and they played a zone against us—every team played a zone against us. You can shoot over the top, but you’re not going to drive. And LeBron was adamant he was going to drive. But I personally thought LeBron hurt us some because he held the ball and just wanted to dunk over people and we ended up losing to Greece in the semis and Greece had not a single NBA player on their team. But their players had played together since they were about 14. They just played a zone and we did. Not. Break. Up. The. Zone.
You had quite a few conversations with Kobe.
Kobe was fun. I sat with him at dinner a couple of times and sat with him on the bus and talked to him. Very personable, very good conversationalist, and…
Were you upset that you liked a Laker?
I didn’t think I was going to like him and I actually quite liked him. And it was funny, in China, you had LeBron and Kobe, but Kobe was the star. When the crowd chanted, they chanted Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. After games, when we were out in the bus, fans would surround the bus and yell Kobe, Kobe, Kobe, which surprised me, because at that time, LeBron was really becoming the King, but in China, at least, Kobe was the man. He’s an interesting guy. I’m sure I don’t understand him completely, but at least my interaction with him was very positive and he was very personable, and I talked with him at lunch for maybe over an hour. It was interesting to get his perspective on things; he’s a bright guy. You did not see Kobe sitting around talking to all the rest of the players. That didn’t happen. There was a reason he was talking to me. He’s a little bit of a standoffish guy, at least with the other players.
Coming tomorrow: Part III of my interview with Dr. Lyle Mason.