The Zelma George Recreation Center is located just south of Buckeye Avenue near East 110th Street in Cleveland, Ohio. On Saturday, July 12, it was home to a free inner-city youth basketball camp organized by an area star named Chet Mason.
Over 200 students of all ages poured through the doors for the eighth annual installment of Mason’s free camp. One day after LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the energy inside the building was palpable.
“LeBron to these kids is like Michael Jordan for us,” Mason said, as we talked along the baseline while watching a team of volunteers run campers through a series of basketball drills. “LeBron is everything for these kids. If they don’t know anything, they know who LeBron James is. So they’re excited, and it’s electric in here right now.”
Mason has been a professional basketball player since 2005. He was named Most Valuable Player of the Adriatic League in 2010 and spent this past season as a standout-guard for Novosibirsk in Russia. Each summer, he returns home to quietly organize a series of volunteer efforts designed to inspire and support the urban youth of Cleveland. He knows first-hand what James’ return means to the area well beyond the basketball court.
“With LeBron, it’s not just about the basketball,” Mason explained. “He’s so powerful. He inspires these kids and he also impacts the economy so significantly. There wasn’t as much money being generated around here when he left. While he was with the Cavs, people were flying in from Vegas and California and Chicago, bringing the money they spent with them to Northeast Ohio. When that was happening, you’re creating more jobs for our inner-city kids. The businesses around the arena are hiring more people. The Q is going to be hiring more people. The wing spots, the restaurants, they’re all going to be giving these inner-city kids jobs again now that he’s back. It’s amazing to think about the overall impact he’ll have on so many levels.”
Mason’s relationship with James dates back to junior high school. In 2000, Chet “The Jet” Mason was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Ohio as a senior guard from Cleveland South. The following season, a sophomore from St. Vincent-St. Mary would be named to the same honor.
“I’ve known LeBron since he was in sixth grade,” Mason said. “They’d be coming up to Cleveland to play and I’ve known him on a personal level ever since. He’s always been a great guy and I can’t tell you how much it means to this area for him to come home. You can feel it in this gym. You can see it with these kids and you can see it on the street. He means so much. We always joked about the Akron / Cleveland thing growing up and still do to this day. But really, Akron is part of Cleveland and Cleveland is part of Akron. We’re all together and we always have been. And like he said in that letter, nothing is given around here. Everything is earned. The kids in this community, they understand that and they’re excited to have him back.”
After Mason became the first Senate League player to ever be named Mr. Basketball in Ohio, he played for the legendary Charlie Coles at Miami University for four seasons. He went undrafted out of college before spending time with his hometown team in 2007. Over a decade after they first met, it was James who suggested to team officials that they give his friend from Cleveland a long look.
“During that summer in ‘07, I was working out with the Cavs. I’d go down to the facility to play in pickup games, open gyms, things like that. I was playing really hard during the pickups, trying to get every rebound, playing hard on defense. And it was ‘Bron who spoke up for me. He said we gotta have Chet around, and they went on to invite me to camp.”
After spending summer league with the team, Mason was added to the Cavaliers preseason roster. He was once an inner-city kid just like the ones who flood his camps every year, and now he’d step onto an NBA court with Cleveland across his chest.
“It meant the world to play that first game with the Cavs,” he recalls with a smile. “I grew up in the inner-city of Cleveland. Everything in Cleveland sports, I bleed it. I love everything about Cleveland. So that was a surreal moment, it was a dream. Once I actually stepped out there, we’re playing against the Pistons, and when I stepped out for the warm-ups it was just like—wow. It was so surreal. It was something that I dreamed about, worked hard for, but it was something that you never really think will happen.”
That night in ‘07, the Cavaliers game program featured one former Mr. Basketball from Northeast Ohio pictured directly next to another. Mason kept the program [pictured above] and fondly remembers his time with James and the Cavs that year.
“LeBron is hilarious,” he said. “He’s got a great sense of humor. He likes to joke around and have fun. He’s a normal person. With all the pressure put on him back then—the weight of the world on his shoulders—he was just a normal kid at the time. He’s always cared about Northeast Ohio. Him speaking up for a Cleveland guy like me was part of the reason I was there. Those are things he always did and it means so much to everyone in the community to have him back.”
Community and Family
Mason would go on to earn enough money through basketball to comfortably support his wife and four children. He also expects to return to Europe to continue his career next season. But he’d never officially play for the Cavaliers again after ‘07. Despite that, the relationship he built with the organization while chasing his dreams in Cleveland helped fuel his mission to give back.
“I built a great relationship with the team during my time with the Cavs,” Mason said. “People might think it’s cliché to say, but they really are a family. No matter who the GM has been, they’ve always left the door open for me. I work out with the team every summer to stay prepared for my career overseas. Danny Ferry was amazing in giving me that opportunity. Chris Grant is a great guy and Griff [David Griffin] is really amazing too. I’ve been through all those eras and I see how the organization works. They really care about the community. The young guys coming up back in the day like Mike Gansey and Trent Redden, and even Griff, they’re all in high-profile positions now and they still treat people the same. They support people doing positive things for the city and they’ve helped put me in a position to give back.”
Mason never played a regular season game in the NBA. But he has stamped his children’s passports for trips all over the world to watch their father play professional basketball. There are other ways for inner-city youth to use basketball to improve their lives outside of the NBA, and that is Mason’s ultimate message.
“The Cavs helped put me in a position to give back to the city and that’s where my passion is,” he said. “I want to give back, and developing the relationships with the Cavaliers for all these years has helped me do that. I still don’t have NBA money. I don’t have the NBA name. But I do have over 200 kids here today that I’m trying to show that you don’t have to go to the NBA to be successful. If you get there, that’s great. I’d love for everybody to get there. But if you use basketball to learn how to work hard and apply yourself, you can be a banker or a doctor, or a lawyer and create a better life for yourself.”
Daring to dream and finding the inspiration to believe is especially difficult when faced with the challenges that growing up in the inner city present. On this particular day, however, with Mason working among them—and the momentum created by the news of James return—everything feels a bit more possible.
“There are a lot of negative things going on in our community,” Mason added. “I feel like I can reach out to those kids and try to help. I’m from the same situation as them. I’m from the same schools. Hopefully other people in the community will see what we’re trying to do and put on a camp or a clinic and continue to volunteer in other ways. And I think that energy we all feel right now with the commitment LeBron made to our area will combine with those efforts to help all these kids believe just a little bit more.”
LeBron James Photo: Via Getty Images