By Kevin Sweeney
Wade Mason says he’s on house arrest.
A man whose job is defined by its long hours, weeks spent on the road and helping others is trapped inside his home to save him from himself. On the rare occasions he does venture out, he wears his newest fashion accessory: a white surgical mask to prevent contact with germs since even the common cold could kill him.
Wade Mason is an assistant men’s basketball coach at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX. He’s 43 and a father of two.
He has stage IV liver cancer.
The college basketball season has been underway for about a month. Mason should be watching film, preparing game plans, and spending hours in an otherwise-empty gym with his players. Instead, he’s engaged in a battle for his life, going through the vicious cycle of chemotherapy, recovery and more chemo. That cycle has destroyed his immune system, left him throwing up for days at a time and now has dropped his white blood cell count to levels that make it dangerous for him to leave his house. It’s a tale that is all too common: an active individual who devotes his life to helping others saddled with a disease that threatens his life.
Even through all that, Mason refuses to be defined by his illness. Instead, he chooses to be defined by how he responds to it: by fighting. The good news? Fighting isn’t new for Wade Mason. “My father died of a heroin overdose, my mother has been on drugs since I was eight years old,” Mason told me in an October FaceTime conversation. “The fighting part is easy.”
After winning a national championship as a high school player, Mason departed his hometown of New Orleans for Tyler Junior College in Texas. He later transferred from Tyler to Tulane, where he played guard for two years and helped the Green Wave win 20 games in his senior season.
One of the coaches who recruited him to Tyler was Kyle Keller, an assistant coach at the time. That sparked a bond between the two that has lasted over 20 years, and eventually led to Keller giving Mason a job at Stephen F. Austin when Keller got his first head coaching opportunity in 2016. “He’s a very well-rounded guy,” Keller said. “He’s bright, he’s a really good basketball coach, but most importantly he has a great feel for people.”
Keller was in the room when Mason received his initial cancer diagnosis in late May– stage one colon cancer. Mason had originally undergone surgery to deal with a bleeding ulcer, but following the procedure, doctors called in Keller and assistant head coach Jeremy Cox to help deliver the news. “Wade didn’t even blink,” Keller said.
“When I saw [Keller and Cox] in the room, I knew something wasn’t right,” Mason said. “As soon as they told me it was cancer, the only thing I could think of was death.”
After those initial horrors, Mason’s mind quickly pivoted to his children. His daughter Jalia’s high school graduation was in two days, and he knew he couldn’t miss it.
Just over a week later, Mason underwent surgery to remove the cancerous mass from his colon. He was feeling good and had returned to the court to help prepare his team for a summer trip to Spain. Then, on July 7, a follow-up CT scan revealed the worst possible news: the cancer had spread to Mason’s liver and groin. It was now considered stage IV, the most serious diagnosis possible. The news was devastating, but again, Mason didn’t blink.
The diagnosis meant that Mason was now confronted with a year-long treatment plan: six rounds of chemotherapy at the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, surgery on his liver in December, six more rounds of chemotherapy with treatment finally set to conclude in June of 2020. “Probably the worst year of my life,” Mason said.
Through the early stages of chemo, Mason has kept fighting to stay on the basketball court. He typically receives treatment on a Friday and stays at the hospital through Sunday, spend three to four days recovering, then go to practice starting on Thursday or Friday.
“My players don’t treat me any differently, unlike what happens at other places,” Mason said. “When people see someone with a mask on, gloves on, they start catering to me. The other day, a guy wanted to help me push my basket.”
The gloves and mask are just the outward consequences of the treatments. In the days following a round of chemo, Mason faces a vicious cycle: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constant fatigue. “Your life is not your own,” Mason said. “You have to enjoy the good days because you know in just a few days, you have to go through it all over again.”
Despite the risks, it shouldn’t be surprising that Mason has stayed so connected to his team throughout his fight. After all, he has given everything to this game.
After graduating from Tulane in 2001, Mason went to work at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, securing a steady income as his children grew up. But his heart never left the game of basketball, and he departed his 9-to-5 job in 2011 to pursue his dream of becoming a college basketball coach and helping young people.
“I had coaches that changed my life,” Mason said. “The game has taught me how to deal with life and adversity, and that’s always been what I wanted to do for other people.”
He first broke into the business with head coach Lon Kruger as a graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma, just about the lowest level on the coaching totem pole. “You go from playing and being catered to to being a manager and doing other people’s laundry,” Mason said.
He didn’t want it any other way. “I always wanted to get into the game the right way,” Mason said. “I didn’t want to get into it by using a player that schools wanted to recruit, I wanted to pay my dues.”
Even as Mason engages in the fight of his life, his thoughts remain on everyone but himself. He rues the fact that him having cancer will be a distraction for his team this season. He even worries that he’s not doing his fair share of work during his absence. “I appreciate Coach Keller because they are working without an assistant coach,” Mason said. “The added burden of practice falls on everybody, recruiting falls on everybody.”
Mason’s primary concern, however, is his children. He said that by far the hardest part of finding out about the cancer was telling Jalia (18) and Wade III (14) the news. “The hard part is that you can’t promise them that you’re going to live,” Mason said. “No matter how much you explain the process, there’s no guarantees.” It leads to a lot of difficult reflection, especially when Mason is stuck at home with no one else but his own thoughts.“Have I given them enough?” Mason asks. “Could they survive in this world today and tomorrow if I pass away?”
There’s no way for Mason to know what lies ahead. The timing of his immune system weakening is far from ideal: not only is basketball season just getting underway, but it’s the height of cold and flu season, which makes him even more susceptible to contracting an illness that could threaten his life. He’d like to get healthy enough to get back in the gym and coach his team early in the season, but he concedes that his surgery in December will likely leave him on the shelf for a bit.
Stephen F. Austin opened the season on Wednesday, November 6, at home against LeTourneau. On the bench was none other than Mason, rocking a crisp navy sports coat and doing what he does best: coaching. He jumped to his feet a few times to yell out instructions to his team or give high-fives to his players when they returned to the bench.
“He needs to do as many normal things as his body will allow him to,” Keller said. “He’s an integral part of the success we’ve had here. I need him around.”
In the team’s second game of the season, Mason watched from the hospital after undergoing a round of chemo the previous day. While wearing a SFA T-shirt and a surgical mask, he jokingly tweeted that he missed the game for “load management,” poking fun at a recent NBA trend in which players skip regular season games for rest.
Then came November 26. Stephen F. Austin had traveled to Durham, NC to take on perennial power Duke. The Lumberjacks were 28-point underdogs. Duke hadn’t lost at home in non-conference play since 2000. Yet somehow, SFA won the game in overtime on a buzzer-beating layup– a moment that will surely be replayed thousands of times over the next decade. It was the largest upset of the past 15 years, per Westgate Las Vegas. As senior guard Nathan Bain streaked down the floor for that uncontested game-winning bucket, the world’s collective jaw dropped and the Lumberjacks on the sideline exploded off their bench to celebrate. Mason ran joyously from the bench onto the court, both hands in the air, looking simultaneously thrilled and in disbelief. Within an hour, Mason had tweeted his plans for the next day: recruiting. “FUTURE LUMBERJACKS WE’LL BE ON THE ROAD TOMORROW AND WE COMING TO (sic) GET YALL,” the message read.
Despite the uncertainty that these next eight months will bring him, everyone who knows Wade Mason knows one thing: he’ll never stop fighting.
“There’s a reason why he unfortunately has this, but it’s only going to enhance his story to mentor these kids,” Keller said.
“This isn’t the end of him, this is only the beginning.”