NEW YORK -- When he played in Turkey, the milk and food didn't taste right, the movies didn't have subtitles.
But Anthony Mason, who grew up in Queens, went where the game was. Tennessee State. Turkey. Venezuela. Spain. Italy. The Continental Basketball Association. The United States Basketball League. The nearest park.
Now he's with the New York Knicks, a sculpted, intense, 6-foot-7, 250-pound forward, and people are saying he has been a factor defensively in the NBA Finals, somehow helping clamp Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, the league's Most Valuable Player.
Could that be? Could Mason be the reason Olajuwon was a combined 2-for-12 in the fourth quarters of the first three games of the best-of-seven series that continued last night at Madison Square Garden with the teams deadlocked at two victories apiece? And if he was that effective, how was he doing it?
"My personal secret," Mason replied. "I'm just trying to take him out of his comfort zone. That's the best I can tell you."
Olajuwon is skeptical of Mason's effect. Some games, it is immaterial which players attempt to guard him, as it was Wednesday night, when he dropped 32 points on the Knicks in a 91-82 Houston loss.
Mason also was busy elsewhere. He was called for a flagrant foul on the Rockets' Robert Horry with 4:18 remaining in the third quarter. As Horry soared to the basket for an apparent dunk, Mason knocked him dangerously off balance. Horry landed hard on his lower back, but was expected to play in Game 5 last night.
Olajuwon, weary of the focus on Mason's defensive aptitude, had deftly placed his tongue in his cheek earlier in the week, offering his own evaluation.
"Everybody's giving Mason credit," Olajuwon said. "He's doing a fantastic job, maybe that's what I have to say. He's the greatest defensive player in the NBA. I will give him my [Defensive Player of the Year] trophy."
Still, Mason is hungry for some credit. He has used his quickness and strength to attempt to prod Olajuwon away from his favored spots on the court, to pass more than shoot.
The same guy who was suspended by coach Pat Riley late in the regular season and very nearly was left off the playoff roster has become a strategic key.
"I'm trying to wear him down, make him tired," Mason said.
Coming out of college as a third-round draft choice of Portland in 1988, Mason could not know that he would reach this level, but he believed he always had a chance.
"I liked Turkey, it showed me another side of life, I could play a physical style," he said. "In Venezuela, they didn't allow you to be physical, so I learned to play another way. The lifestyle [overseas] was different . . . I did a lot of shopping and movie-watching. I collect movies now as a result of that. But over there, they didn't have English titles, so I had to buy my own tapes.
"I stuck to it, played hard, told myself better things would happen, that Turkey was just the beginning. Everywhere I went, I was the best player. In the leagues I played in, each team had two Americans, but one played. If that one got hurt, the other would step in.
"I went from Turkey to Spain to Italy, then I got to come back. It was a hard road that I took, so people think I'm high strung, but I'm no more high strung than anyone else.
"I played in my own back yard, with New Jersey [in '89-90], had one coach who liked me, then a new coach, then I got released because of numbers."
But Mason did not turn in his blue collar. He served another apprenticeship with Tulsa in the CBA and Long Island in the USBL, got a 10-day contract with Denver, then finally landed with the Knicks in '91.
He had learned to stay strong as a kid in Queens, fighting off negativity among his peers.
"I was in boys clubs, the Boy Scouts, I was always a member of something," he said. "Your peers want you to try this, try that -- either drugs or to do something bad, to steal, to try and get away with it. I felt I had to stay strong, even if I was the only one in the group saying no. I had to drop a few people."
He remembers the tough travel, especially a CBA flight from Seattle to Yakima, Wash., "in a plane so small, the seats were sideways. I didn't know what was holding it up."
And out of all of this has come the gritty, in-your-face, glaring defender. Mason knows that Olajuwon isn't buying the premise that he is in any way being bothered by a 6-7 sub. He is accustomed to not getting any credit.
"I would like to make the [All-Defensive team]," Mason said. "I see people who make it, and I don't know what [the voters] are looking at. I think, if you play three or four positions and do it well, you deserve recognition. But right now, I'm just trying to see our team get championship recognition. This isn't the time for personal recognition."
Olajuwon smiles and says he simply could catch the ball in the post and shoot over Mason.
"I've been hearing and seeing all these things that [Mason] has been my nightmare, and that's a joke," Olajuwon said. "Just pass the ball to me."
Conversely, it is comments such as those that tell Mason he has struck a nerve.
"I don't see him shooting to miss," Mason said. "Is that a play, shoot to miss and get the rebound?"
He is the product of an environment in which he says he was given nothing, except by his mother, Mary. Mason has rewarded her by moving her to suburban White Plains.
"She would work late hours, come home on the train or the bus, in a bad neighborhood," he remembered. "By the time I was playing college ball, there was a mutual respect. You would hear people say, 'Here comes Anthony Mason's mother, cut the noise, stop the cursing, step out of the way.' I bless the day I got her out of Queens."
And he hasn't forgotten the days he spent in other countries, or in the minor leagues.
"There wasn't time to think about the NBA then," he said. "I was thinking about taking one step at a time. If anybody had told me then that I'd be playing in the NBA Finals now, I'd have said they were crazy."
But that's where he is, trying to confound Olajuwon and the Rockets. And everybody else who thought he'd never come as far as he has.
N.Y. KNICKS vs. HOUSTON
(Series tied, 2-2)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Gm. 2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Rockets 93, Knicks 89
Gm. 4: Knicks 91, Rockets 82
Gm. 5: Rockets at Knicks
Date Site Time
Tomorrow at Houston 7
Wednesday* at Houston 9
-! TV: All games on chs. 2 and 4