Just looking at Shaquille Olajuwon Mason's name, it doesn't take long to realize basketball plays a major role in his life. His name was given to him by his basketball-loving mom, but he's got his own passion for the game.
As a football player, Mason's own basketball career took a backseat. He stopped playing his junior year of high school, but now he's still in the game -- just courtside.
Meet the Columbia Marathon, two boys AAU teams for eighth and ninth graders in Mason's hometown of Columbia, Tenn. Mason is the proud sponsor of the Columbia Marathon, but more than writing a check for the boys to compete in tournaments, he is very much a part of the team. He hasn't missed a tournament yet.
"This is very important to me because I'm seeing these guys, not just me but the coaches I have as well, just put together such a great opportunity for them and just seeing how thankful these kids are to be a part of something special," Mason said. "It means the world to me because it's something bigger than me honestly. That just brings light to me just seeing those guys be filled with so much excitement, energy and love for basketball and learning life lessons outside of basketball."
Mason knew he wanted to bring an AAU team to his hometown to give kids there an opportunity to play at a higher level. He intended on kicking it off in 2020, but due to the pandemic, the Columbia Marathon's first season started this spring. In their inaugural season, the teams have been doing well, better than even Mason expected.
Most of all, their chemistry and willingness to fight for one another is what's impressed him the most so far.
"We're a first year program and we're turning heads already. We're getting invited to bigger tournaments and things like that so it was kind of shocking to me, just us getting recognized in our first months of doing this," Mason said. "It's been a whirlwind for me, as well, just how quickly this thing is kind of turning into something bigger. That's a testament to the coaches and the kids because I think they're starting to realize the opportunity that they have."
While, of course, the goal is to help these teams prosper in basketball, Mason also set out to create something bigger. Growing up in Columbia, he said they didn't have much. Creating a team like this gives kids an opportunity to grow as people as much as athletes.
In their most recent tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., Mason heard kids talking about how they had never been to the beach. So, as a team, they made a trip to the beach. It's all about experiences and opening up their worlds.
That's why as Mason's football responsibilities in Foxborough slow down over the summer and he can spend more time in Columbia, he is putting an emphasis on community service work.
"I want them to grow into the best basketball players they can be and also the best young men they can be. That's why I made it known on the first day that this program is not going to be strictly about basketball," Mason said. "We're going to do a lot of community services on weekends that we don't have tournaments just to show them, teach them to give back."
Though Mason is putting his name and his time behind the teams, he made it clear the coaches are pushing the kids to be great on the court. With Tradarius Goff, James English and Cordero Duncan coaching the eighth grade team and Daquinn Goff, Jeremy Brown and Dedron Pillow leading the ninth grade team, they've got a great working balance.
"We all work hand-in-hand. They've played at the next level so it's kind of been cool just to kind of bounce ideas off each other, especially me, coming from football," Mason said.
Football is, of course, how Mason makes a career, so it's only natural that he picked up some coaching lessons from the Patriots.
"I just leave them with little tips and reminders of just life coaching. A lot of things that I learned in the building here, I implement that in them," Mason said. "Things I hear in meetings or things from Bill [Belichick], I'll just implement that into telling them to jumpstart them in life."
Having the wisdom of Belichick on your side doesn't hurt when coaching teenagers either, Mason has learned.
"They are some things I'll say and I'll just tell them, 'That's coming from the best of the best,'" Mason said. "They get a good kick out of that."