I used to go to community college. It wasn’t exactly the university experience that TV shows and movies had me believe was possible, but it was the perfect landing spot for a middling teenager like myself.
My best friends were away at universities, making memories and getting girlfriends.
I was stuck at home taking the family dog for walks and eating Pizza Hut on Saturday nights.
For fun I went to the Life Time Fitness in Maple Grove three times a week to play basketball. I was the youngest guy in a room filled with realtors, freelancers, hedge fund managers, and the nighttime manager over at Burger King.
My two-year plan took three years, the third year added on because I could never figure out how to get passing grades in math and science courses.
But I did it. I finally earned enough credits and was accepted into a traditional university.
“I’m about to get a girlfriend,” I told myself.
Things were also looking good over at Life Time Fitness. I was slowly adding weight onto my lanky frame and becoming a competitive basketball player, to the point that I was one of the best players on the court.
That lasted for a few weeks, until my reign as king of the pickup court came to an abrupt end one afternoon.
“My guy has played a little basketball before,” one of the regulars said of his friend who was coming in that day.
“Who is this guy?” I arrogantly asked.
“You’ll see,” I was told.
A few minutes later, in walked a man with muscles popping out of every part of his body. While warming up, he dunked after having taken off from close to the free throw line.
“Jesus Christ,” I whispered to myself, needing no more visual evidence to know that my time as king of the Maple Grove Life Time was over.
The man who walked in that day, and for many more days that summer, was Jefferson Mason, a professional basketball player who was an All-American during his brief stint at Minnesota-State Mankato.
At the time, Jefferson’s career was on the upswing.
“In 2012-13, I had just finished up my rookie year playing over in Germany,” he explains. “I was in the process of trying to make a run in the NBA. It sounds a lot easier than it is, but I had an opportunity to work out with the Minnesota Timberwolves.”
Jefferson’s successes were not a surprise. An athletic wing with the ability to jump out of the gym, it was very possible that he would one day don an NBA uniform.
“I stuck with them [the Timberwolves] for a few months, had a chance to work out with the guys and feel what the NBA life was like. Then I was drafted in the NBA D-League by the Dallas Mavericks,” Jefferson says.
For most mid-level prospects like Jefferson, the NBA isn’t a given. Many players spend time in what is called the G League, which is the NBA’s minor league where teams can stow away players until the coaches and organizations feel like that player is ready for the bright lights of the NBA.
Many American players actually opt out of playing in the G League, choosing instead to pursue bigger contracts in Europe, Asia, or Australia.
Jefferson was one of those who sought the allure of a larger payday and more playing time outside of the United States.
“Coming into that summer  I was high on adrenaline and confidence, and that summer I signed to play the following year in Luxembourg,” he says.
This brought Jefferson to a small European country that’s wedged between Germany and France. Luxembourg is smaller than the state of Rhode Island, its total population just over 600,000.
Jefferson describes his time there as a joyous one, an occasion rife with memories that will last a lifetime. Not only did he meet great people, that year also helped establish him as a bona fide stud in the European basketball scene.
The goal was to push for a spot in the NBA, but that was no easy task.
“How hard is it to make the NBA?” I ask Jefferson.
“Almost impossible,” he laughs. “I say that jokingly, but it is very difficult. You have to think: there are only 450 guys in the NBA, and every year 40 or 50 are added in depending on who retires or gets released.”
“If you take into consideration the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of players that are trying to make it in that league, your chances are very bleak. A lot of things have to go right for you. You have to not only be a great basketball player and person, but you have to get the right opportunities and be in the right place at the right time.”
Despite averaging 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game for AB Contern in 2013-14, no NBA team signed Jefferson the following summer.
“When it comes to the NBA, for the GMs and scouts, they don’t like to make a lot of mistakes,” Jefferson mentions. “Often, if there are guys who’ve proven themselves at the high school and collegiate level, NBA teams are willing to sign or draft them because they know that they’re probably a sure thing.”
To NBA GM’s, executives, and scouts, a sure thing can best be described as a player they know won’t flame out and get them fired. Betting on a player who doesn’t come from a major college program like Duke or Kentucky isn’t what talent evaluators want to mortgage their careers on.
I was always curious to know what skills the NBA stars we see on TV had in their arsenal that separated them from the rest of the pack.
“What makes Kevin Love, Kevin Love? What separates him from any other really good basketball player?” I ask Jefferson.
“For a guy like Kevin,” Jefferson begins, “he was able to hone in on his skill set and the type of player that he wanted to be. Obviously, he’s a tremendous rebounder for his size and an absolutely amazing shooter. IQ is huge. There a lot of athletes out there who don’t understand the game of basketball, but often what you’ll see in the basketball realm is if you’re a guy who is a high-level basketball player, a top-25 ESPN rated guy, and you went to a big college and were on TV, you’re going to get a lot of attention.”
“Then you get to a guy like me who played D-1 basketball for a couple years and was an All-American [later at MSU-Mankato]. To the normal person, that seems really cool, but I would be considered so far down on the totem pole and such a big risk that no scout or person would draft or even give me an opportunity,” he explains.
It’s why so many players spend their entire careers overseas, grinding with the hopes that one day they will get their opportunity. It’s an uphill battle with no guarantees of success.
“It’s like anything else in the world. There’s only so many CEO’s and vice presidents of companies because the opportunities are very slim, and to get there you have to work really hard,” Jefferson admits.
Adding to that difficulty, basketball players around the world have continued to evolve. They’re now more skilled and athletic, plus players are taught and develop basketball IQ at a much younger age.
Another example of a player with an immense amount of talent is Karl Anthony-Towns, the diverse big man for the Minnesota Timberwolves who has already made two All-Star teams in his short career.
Guys like Karl Anthony-Towns are becoming the new normal in the NBA, and without a complementary set of skills, players who rely solely on their athleticism are getting passed by in favor of those with a better feel for the game.
Which is to say, if a player isn’t A+ in every facet of his game, a spot in the NBA probably won’t be in their future.
Following Jefferson’s impressive season in Luxembourg, he signed to play the next season in Germany. It was a full-circle move for Jefferson, considering he began his professional career playing in Germany just a few years prior.
After a tumultuous 2014-15 season with Hebeisen Hanau, Jefferson made the surprise move to retire from basketball at the age of 28. As he says, his life was always going to be about more than just the game.
“Basketball was not the end game for my life. It wasn’t what defined me as a person. I knew that it was just simply a platform for me to do greater things,” he says.
The time was right for him to return home. Both he and his wife wanted to buy a home and start a family, and growing up in a religious household, he also knew that his family would support him in whatever decision he made.
“I wanted to trust my faith in God. I didn’t have anything lined up, but I wanted to try something different and I knew that if I kept faith and did things the right way, something would pop up,” Jefferson says.
Jefferson will be the first to tell you that walking away from basketball wasn’t easy. Even though he always knew there would be a life after his playing days were over, it was still an adjustment.
“When you go to a bar or gym and people are like, oh that’s Jefferson Mason, he’s a professional basketball player, not only is that a good feeling, it’s an ego boost, and it’s who you are as a person. When you stop doing something that’s such a big piece of who you are, you can be lost,” he says.
Fortunately, shortly after arriving home, a friend introduced Jefferson to the CEO of Dr. Dish Basketball, a company that specializes in offering both products and training to help basketball players take their games to the next level. One conversation led to another, and soon Jefferson had signed on to join a new kind of team.
“I took a leap of faith, and they really sold me on the vision of what it could be,” he says.
Working for Dr. Dish offered Jefferson the chance to continue working in the basketball world, albeit with a different title. Helping to run camps around the world, he made trips back to Europe, and also to Australia.
And when he was in the United States, he was able to train NBA players like Quincy Pondexter and Frank Mason III.
“When I stopped playing professional basketball, I thought that part of my life would be over,” he says, but instead Jefferson has simply found a new way to appreciate the game he has always loved. “All that is because of the platform I’ve been given by Dr. Dish and my walk of faith.”
Jefferson swears by the products at Dr. Dish, going so far as to say that if he used them during his career, “maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. I would probably still be playing professional basketball,” he jokes.
The future is still bright for Jefferson. He has invested a lot of time and energy into Dr. Dish’s vision, continuing to create partnerships, build the brand, and improve as a skills trainer. It’s a powerful foundation that he doesn’t want to walk away from.
Dr. Dish is already an international brand. They’re widely popular in the ever-growing basketball market over in China, and their goal is to continue expanding to even more countries.
“My ultimate goal is that anywhere you go, you’ll see one of our machines,” Jefferson says.
With the faith that he displays in himself and in his religion, one can imagine that Jefferson will certainly get to wherever he wants to go next.
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