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Comet Headed for UCLA : Westchester’s Zan Mason Meets The Challenge

He was the new kid in school but his reputation had preceded him.

It was said that Zan Mason possessed all the tools a great basketball player needs. He had the size of a high school center and the quickness of a guard. He could bang the boards with anyone, yet could still shoot from the outside. He was strong enough to withstand the physical demands of the game but bright enough to overcome the mental pressures.

Westchester had supposedly lassoed a rising star when Mason transferred following his freshman year at Verbum Dei. But the other Comets weren’t so quickly impressed and ready to bestow stardom on the new kid just yet.

If he thought he could just waltz onto their basketball court and assume star status, he was wrong: The Comets felt compelled to challenge him and his reputation.

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So one day during a half-court pickup game of 3-on-3, they started banging on him, throwing elbows and knees and pushing him out of the paint.

Jamaal Ross, who had quite a reputation as a physical player, denied Mason the ball and position. He grabbed his arms and dragged him away from the basket.

Mason was frustrated but refused to lose his cool.

Then a shot bounded high off the rim. Mason leaped for it and brought it down, cradling it like a baby. He faked and started to go back up, but Ross climbed on his back.

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Mason never hesitated. He continued his ascent with Ross in tow and threw down a thunderous slam dunk that drew applause and respect from his new teammates.

“They welcomed me when I first came, but to a certain extent I felt they were challenging me,” said Mason, who moved into the Westchester district before his sophomore year.

“What they didn’t know is that playing physical is my game, and I think that surprised them a little.”

There was another person in the crowd that day who was taken aback by Mason’s physical play, but it was a sweet surprise for Westchester Coach Ed Azzam.

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“When he first came here all the kids were talking about this new kid who was so strong, so big and so good,” Azzam recalled, “but you know I had heard this kind of stuff from kids before and the player turned out to be pretty ordinary.

“Then I saw him go up with the ball with Jamaal on his back and I knew right then that we had a player. He showed me that day that he has what it takes.”

That slam dunk may have earned him pickup game immortality, but it was merely a precursor of the bright future Mason and Westchester would enjoy. Now a 6-6, 210-pound senior, he has blossomed into one of the best players in the South Bay and, before he committed to UCLA, was one of the most sought-after prospects in the nation.

He’s averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds a game going into today’s pivotal contest at which will decide the top team in Metro League 4-A play. Westchester and Manual Arts are sitting atop the league with 6-0 records. The Comets are 13-3 overall while Manual Arts is 16-0.

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Mason is a two-time all-City selection and was named to Parade magazine’s All-American honor roll as a junior. Bruin Coach Jim Harrick was ecstatic when Mason committed to UCLA before this season, and the feeling was mutual.

“UCLA offered the best combination of social, academic and athletic life,” said Mason, who was also interested in Notre Dame. “I figured that if I could get the best situation and still be close to home, why not take it.”

By all accounts, Mason is a pleasant, friendly young man who is somewhat of an enigma off the court. He admits to being quiet and studious, an assessment agreed upon by his friends, but he is hardly somber.

“At times he appears withdrawn because he seems to study so much,” said Booker Waugh, Mason’s teammate. “But on weekends, if you can get him away from the house, he’s just a regular guy.”

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Renaud Gordon has known Mason since their days at Louis Pasteur Junior High and moved over from Verbum Dei with him. They’ve played together on the varsity for three years and Gordon knows Mason as a player and a friend.

“People think he is a very serious guy,” Gordon said. “But he also likes to have fun and a lot of people don’t know that.”

Mason acknowledges that he is somewhat withdrawn off the court, but he calls it perspective. His philosophy is that there is a time and place for everything.

“I’m probably considered very serious,” he said, “but that’s good because I want to be remembered as a student first and then a great player.”

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On the court he’s much easier to figure out, albeit unstoppable. Besides his obvious scoring and rebounding prowess, Mason forces opponents to alter game plans.

Teams started double- and triple-teaming him, so he worked on his passing and outside shot and that defensive strategy no longer works.

Opponents also worked on denying him the ball, but Mason improved his moves to the hoop for position on the offensive rebound.

“Not only can he dominate inside but he’s extremely quick,” Azzam said. “You can stop him from getting the ball, but you can’t stop him from getting the rebound. The best thing about Zan is that he makes up for a lot of our mistakes with his rebounding ability.”

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Said Waugh: “He’s like a big security blanket because he’s such a big rebounder. And when other teams start doubling up on him, the other players have a field day because we’re so open.”

Westchester has lost three games this season--two by one point--but Mason was a dominant figure even in defeat. Fresno Edison beat the Comets, 74-73, in the Tournament of Champions at Ocean View High School, while Memphis Westwood (58-57) and Flint Hill of Virginia (69-49) defeated Westchester in the King Cotton Classic at Pine Bluff, Ark.

Mason scored 28 points in losses to Fresno and Memphis and poured in 20 against Flint Hill.

He also made lasting impressions.

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“There really is no stopping him,” said Edison Coach Bill Engle. “The main objective is to deny him the ball and I think we did that pretty well, but he still scored 28 against us.

“He’s one of the best players we’ll face all year, and now that he has developed that outside shot, he’s twice as tough.”

Don Mead runs a scouting service in Irvine for colleges and junior colleges and became aware of Mason as a junior player. Mead has an unforgiving eye: Not only does he look at the tangible assets such as scoring and rebounding, he also looks for the less measurable qualities of attitude and desire.

Mead gushed when asked about Mason, who earned the scout’s highest accolades.

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“He’s a nice young man who has his head screwed on straight,” Mead said. “He doesn’t seem to have any problems or serious hang-ups.

“But the best thing about him is that he is an unselfish player who works hard on all facets of the game. He leads, but he leads by example, and other kids like to follow a guy like that.”

Azzam said it would be a disservice to Mason to think all he had to do was slip into his gym shoes, hit the floor and pour in 30.

He said Mason is the hardest worker he has coached and he is impressed by his willingness to work on aspects of the game that he is not so strong in.

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For example, Mason had one assist in his sophomore year. This year he is averaging nearly three per game.

“At this level, kids have a tendency to work on their strengths,” Azzam said. “If they’re good shooters, they’ll just keep on shooting.

“Zan’s the kind of guy who works on his weaknesses until they become strengths.”

Azzam would like to see Mason work more on passing. Engle said he would become the complete player if was more intense on defense. Mason said he’d like to improve his free-throw shooting.

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Said Mead: “I’d like to see him grow about three inches and become lightning quick.”

So there is definitely room for improvement and growth. Mason said he’s working on that. He expects to grow a couple of inches before entering UCLA.

Now he is content working toward a City Championship.

His immediate goal? “From now on to win every game.”

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It remains to be seen whether Mason achieves that, but one thing is for sure: Nobody stands in the way of Zan Mason and the goal.

Ask Jamaal Ross.


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