LAS CRUCES — The first time Justin Hawkins met Brandon Mason, the 6-7 transfer from the University of Utah wanted to embarrass Mason, a former pro player and standout in New Mexico State at the time , who had just won the 2006 NBA D-League Championship with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds.
“Somebody told me he was a pro and I was trying to kill him,” Hawkins said. “It was my birthday that day and he ended up renting a limo and ended up going out that night and having an amazing time. From that point on he was like a big brother to me. “
Even as competitors, it’s hard to hold a grudge against Mason for long. Who else could be loved by New Mexico State and University of New Mexico basketball fans than the Chicago native who calls New Mexico home?
“I’m really proud of him,” Hawkins said. “It’s an incredible job he’s done for New Mexico to try to bring some recognition to basketball in this area. If anyone can do it, it’s B-Mase. is a man of the people.”
Mason is the man who got the million dollar winner to take it all New Mexico Basketball Tournamentwhere he also established the state’s only basketball prep school, Albuquerque Basketball Club.
But it certainly didn’t happen overnight.
After his playing career, Mason was on the coaching staff for the University of New Mexico, twice, and New Mexico State, even following Marvin Menzies to UNLV for a stint.
Mason was still a college assistant when he created a UNM alumni game in 2015. But the former Aggie didn’t stop there. He hosted a Rio Grande Rivalry alumni game in 2016, which Hawkins played.
Eventually, Mason organized The Enchantment, a team of UNM alumni who played in last year’s TBT, losing to an Oklahoma State team in Wichita, Kansas. Mason went on to create The Panamaniacs, a team of NM State alumni with Hawkins and others, who will play The Enchantment in the first round of the Albuquerque Regional on Monday on ESPNU.
“Once we were able to join and were admitted (last year’s TBT) I was trying to fund this team’s trip and we did an alumni game with 4,000 fans and support online and gambling, I said imagine if you would do a regional there,” Mason said.
This week’s Albuquerque region includes alumni teams from Boise State and Colorado State, as well as New Mexico’s two Division I programs.
“It gives the West and South West teams a region for TBT and I connected the dots with UNM and they knocked it out of the park with presentations and different things and it worked” , Mason said.
Much like everyone involved with New Mexico’s two TBT teams, Mason has a day job, which also revolves around basketball.
Its ABC program features 26 AAU teams (boys and girls) and the prep school competes in The Grind Session, against the top preppers nationwide.
“I had mentors where I grew up in Chicago at the YMCA and different places where they made sure we played non-stop,” Mason said. “We had different avenues in Chicago that I couldn’t see. I myself have three boys in this community that I want to be successful in basketball and in life and I wanted to be that person to get more attention and basketball awareness.”
Michael Nanez, a former Aggie player and head coach of the Organ Mountain Boys, quit his job with the Knights, following Mason to Albuquerque, where his son, Evan, is in seventh grade at prep school.
“We’re trying to help kids in New Mexico,” Nanez said. “We know there are players here and now good schools are offering those kids. I’ve known Brandon since he was 17. His connections and the faith the coaches have in him and he has an eye for talent so when he reaches out to other coaches about a kid, they listen.”
New Mexico isn’t a traditional home for basketball talent, but ABC builds itself exclusively with players from the state.
“We’re playing at the highest level and we’re playing with kids from New Mexico,” Mason said. “I could easily pick up 10 kids from somewhere else and try to compete at a higher level and do more. I’m really not about the shoe business and national attention for myself. I want the New Mexico kids have opportunities they haven’t had.”
While Mason is instrumental in shaking things up in the background, don’t try to ask him to pick a winner for Monday’s game, even though he had success against the Lobos as a player.
“I remember guarding Ruben Douglas, who was the leading scorer in the country and Lou Henson telling me I stopped him and he was 27,” Mason said. “We had some good battles and I won more games than I lost against UNM.”
So where can you find Mason on Monday during the game?
“I’m going to stand by the bench of the winning team,” Mason said.