You can find Nate Mason on the Minnesota campus, getting stronger and working on his game — just like any of the past four Novembers.
The now-graduated point guard is using the Gophers’ facilities and living near campus, just like he did as a four-year standout, while going through physical therapy after hip surgery in the spring. An NCAA rule allows schools to pay for a former athlete’s medical care for two years after eligibility expires.
“I really do appreciate Coach [Richard] Pitino, [athletic director] Mark Coyle and [trainer] Ben Felz have been really big with this process,” Mason said. “They open their arms to me even after graduating.”
But along with the gratitude is frustration for Mason. Before last season, the Georgia native talked to team doctors and a hip specialist they brought in about whether he should have surgery, or go through physical therapy and play. Following a recommendation from the specialist, Mason chose to play.
Late last season, Mason’s hip broke down again, and now he is upset that he followed what he calls “bad advice.” He said the injury caused him to miss his chance to make an NBA team or play professionally overseas.
“This is exactly what I said I didn’t want to happen,” Mason said last month. “It blew up in my face. … It’s been really, really tough. But the school has done a good job helping me out.”
Members of the U’s medical staff said they can’t speak about specific cases because of HIPAA laws protecting medical information. Gophers medical director Brad Nelson said it’s unfortunate when injuries linger after college.
“Sometimes we sit down and explain the risks of returning to play and help them work through that,” Nelson said. “But if we have concerns about a guy hurting themselves, we’re not going to let him play.”
Mason injured his hip in the 2017 NCAA tournament loss and couldn’t walk after the game. After following the advice and rehabbing his hip, he still felt a nagging pinch occasionally last season and his practice minutes were often restricted. Mason still averaged career highs in points (16.7) and rebounds (3.6).
It wasn’t the final season he had hoped for, though. The Gophers started 13-3 but collapsed to 15-17. Making matters worse, Mason learned late in the season he had a torn labrum in his hip — and this time he was told he needed surgery. He nearly broke down crying as doctors gave him two options: immediate surgery, or cortisone shots to keep playing.
“I wasn’t going to miss Senior Night and my last few games,” Mason said recently. He was held out of practices and gutted out games, including Senior Night, when he put up 33 points against Iowa.
He rested after the season, felt better and won a 3-on-3 title over Final Four weekend. Ten NBA teams called his agent to schedule workouts and he had three summer league invites. Any hopes ended, though, after Mason felt severe hip pain again while playing in the Portsmouth Invitational in April. The cortisone treatment had worn off.
Pitino was devastated to hear that news.
“I [ask] all the players the same thing: Are you good and comfortable?” Pitino said. “Whatever it may be. The trainers and the doctors are the ones who decide and that’s the way it should be. If any guy ever comes to me and says he wants to do [surgery], I would say whatever’s best for you and your career.”
Mason was Pitino’s first recruit at Minnesota. The coach is glad the school is able to help Mason now.
“We’re allowed to pay for housing when he’s in rehab, which is great,” Pitino said. “It’s good we are able to take care of him, because Nate has given so much to us.”
Schools use the same general-fund “cost of attendance” money they use to pay for athletes’ tuition to cover health care costs for recently graduated athletes.
Mason wishes he would have had surgery before last season and was now getting ready to be a fifth-year redshirt senior. Instead, he is focused on showing scouts what they haven’t seen in a long time: Mason at 100 percent.
“It happened,” Mason said. “I can’t do anything about it now, but I try to be positive and move forward.”