People always thought he was afraid. Jamal Mashburn felt they
were wrong, but he was never so sure of that as he was now that
he knew what real fear was. It was October, just after the start
of his first training camp with the Charlotte Hornets, and the
phone rang in his new apartment. His mother, Helen, was on the
other end, and before she even spoke, Mashburn had a feeling of
dread. She tried to break the news to him gently, but soon she
was sobbing, and the only two words he could make out were colon
cancer. "I couldn't even cry," Mashburn says. "That's how great
the shock was. I couldn't cry until the next day."
This was fear, and it had nothing to do with playoff pressure or
the last-second shots Mashburn was supposedly afraid to take.
Fear was the feeling in the pit of his stomach when he thought
about losing the woman who as a divorced mother in Harlem had
raised him, who had given him the kind of education he couldn't
get in a classroom. Helen Mashburn had wanted her only child to
be independent and sophisticated, so she made sure that nearly
every day contained a lesson for him. She taught Jamal how to
ride the subway at age seven and which fork to use in fine
restaurants. She took him to museums to learn about art and to
Washington, D.C., to absorb some of his country's history.
"She's always wanted me to know that there was a world beyond
Eighth Avenue, where I grew up," Mashburn says. "Whatever I
needed, whether it was someone to talk to or someone to give me
a little push, she provided it."
When her cancer was diagnosed, however, it was Helen who needed
the push. "She wasn't exactly giving up, but she wasn't herself
either," Mashburn says. "After a while I had to get on the phone
and dig into her a bit, talk to her like a coach. I told her it
was time for her to start fighting." The mother took the son's
advice. Helen, 58, has had two surgeries and faces chemotherapy,
but she is fighting, and on Feb. 16 she felt well enough to
travel to Charlotte from her home in Fort Lee, N.J., to watch a
Hornets game in person for the first time all season.
For Mashburn, a 6'8" small forward, that visit was the highlight
of what has been the most satisfying season of his eight-year
NBA career. He has played so well while dealing with his
mother's illness that the idea that he withers as the game clock
ticks down seems absurd. Mashburn's ability to perform in the
clutch has been a matter of debate for most of his career,
especially the 3 1/2 seasons he spent with the Miami Heat before
being traded to Charlotte last August. But with the help of an
offensive system that makes better use of his improvisational
talents, and with teammates and coaches who pump up his
confidence at every opportunity, he is peeling off his label as
a player who crumbles at crunch time.
Mashburn's 20.1 scoring average through Sunday is his best since
he averaged 23.4 for the Dallas Mavericks in his third season,
and his averages in rebounding (7.8) and assists (5.0) make him
one of only three NBA players in the top 30 in those three
categories. (Kevin Garnett and Antoine Walker are the other
two.) Mashburn's all-around game has also propelled Charlotte
into contention for the Central Division title. The Hornets'
100-90 win in a showdown with the first-place Milwaukee Bucks
last Saturday was their ninth victory in 10 games and improved
their record to 36-27, three games behind Milwaukee. Against the
Bucks, Mashburn contributed 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven
assists, but the Hornets took control early for a change and
didn't need any late-game heroics from him.
"I think Mash is driven to prove that he's not afraid to take
the last shot, that he can be depended on to take over a game
down the stretch on a consistent basis," says forward P.J.
Brown, who came to the Hornets with Mashburn and Otis Thorpe in
a nine-player deal for Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason. "He's
playing with a focus and a fire that I haven't seen in him
The Hornets are counting on Mashburn to blaze a trail for them
through the postseason. Although they have the league's most
underrated backcourt in Baron Davis and David Wesley, and their
big front line, led by the 6'11" Brown and 7-foot center Elden
Campbell, has helped them lead the league in rebounding, they
won't cause much buzz in the playoffs unless Mashburn displays
his star quality at critical moments. They are sure he will.
The team expressed its belief in Mashburn by signing him to a
six-year, $54 million contract extension in November, and the
early returns on the investment have been encouraging. Mashburn
had 14 fourth-quarter points in an 82-72 victory over the Indiana
Pacers on Feb. 26 and scored 10 points in the final 1:51 of a
91-88 win over the New Jersey Nets two nights later. Against the
Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 24 the Hornets were trailing 85-80
with 42.9 seconds to go when Mashburn drilled a three-pointer,
setting up the game-winning trey by Wesley 5.9 seconds later.
It's not hard to see why Charlotte coach Paul Silas felt Mashburn
could be the leading man in his offense. Mashburn has three-point
range, the quickness and ball handling ability to beat defenders
one-on-one and, at 241 pounds, the power to overwhelm most
opponents around the basket. The Hornets take advantage of this
package by using Mashburn in the post at times and as a point
guard to orchestrate fast breaks at others. "He's doing things
now, like getting to the basket and creating for other people,
that I almost forgot he could do," says Orlando Magic forward Bo
Still, it is Mashburn's endgame that has stood out the most. He
has been so effective in the clutch that the other Hornets can't
agree on which late-game performance was his best. Brown votes
for the three-pointer against the Sixers. "We were down five, and
I got an offensive rebound," he says. "Mash called for the ball.
All he said was, 'P.J.,' but the way he said it, it was like a
command. From the second I passed him the ball, I had no doubt
his shot was going in."
Silas thinks Mashburn's breakthrough came during a 103-93 win in
Milwaukee on Feb. 17. "Mash took over in the second half and just
demolished those guys," Silas says. "I turned to my assistants
and said, 'Mash has made it. He's there now.'"
But Mashburn's body of work in the clutch won't convince
everybody until he rises to the occasion in the playoffs. It
was, after all, in the postseason last year that those who
doubted his ability to perform under pressure felt they had
their suspicions confirmed. With Miami trailing the New York
Knicks 83-82 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals,
Mashburn passed up a 16-foot jump shot in the closing seconds,
dishing the ball to Clarence Weatherspoon, who missed a
difficult shot, and the Heat was eliminated.
"In that system, with the way I was asked to play, that was the
right play," Mashburn says. "Coach Riley always stressed he
wanted us to make the extra pass. If Spoon makes that shot, I'm a
hero for being unselfish, and maybe things work out differently
for me in Miami." Instead, Mashburn took lacerating criticism
from fans and media. One columnist described him as "looking
somewhere between timid and terrified" on that last possession.
"I sat in the locker room after that game pretty much knowing I
had played my last game for Miami, and I was actually happy,"
Mashburn says. "It always seemed like whatever I did, it wasn't
enough. I had some good games and made some big shots against
Detroit in the first round last year, but after the Knicks series
it was like no one had any memory of that. I learned some things
from Coach Riley, and I'm glad I played for him, but I was just
as glad to get out of there."
He didn't get the impression that all his Miami teammates were
sorry to see him go, either. Mashburn remembers attending 'Zo's
Summer Groove, an annual charity event held by Heat center Alonzo
Mourning last July, and hearing Miami point guard Tim Hardaway
lead the fans at American Airlines Arena in chanting, "Ed-die!
Ed-die!"--an indication of how much they wanted the trade for
Jones to go through. "There was always a little friction between
Hardaway and me," Mashburn says. "He said and did some things
that I didn't appreciate, things that showed he wasn't really
committed to me as a teammate."
Hardaway thinks Mashburn is blaming the wrong person for his
problems in Miami. "Eddie Jones is a shooting guard, and
Mashburn's a small forward," Hardaway says. "If he felt Eddie
Jones was coming in to take his position, that tells you he was
lacking confidence in himself."
Even the adversity he faced in Miami had its benefits. "It
toughened me and made me a professional," says Mashburn. "Hearing
all the criticism, seeing my name thrown around in trade rumors
all the time, it all helped me learn how to put other issues
aside when I step on the court. That really helped me in dealing
with my mother's cancer."
When Mashburn arrived in Charlotte, Silas addressed his
self-confidence immediately, and the coach has diligently
massaged his new forward's psyche. "I told him it doesn't take a
lot of guts to take the last shot, when you think about it,"
Silas says. "I've told him stories about when I was playing with
the Celtics back in the '70s and Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and
Jo Jo White almost used to fight over who was going to take the
big shot. They knew that if you make it, you're a hero, and if
you don't, you at least get credit for having guts enough to take
it. I think that eased Mash's mind a little bit."
Mashburn's mind won't fully be at ease until his mother gets a
clean bill of health, but his game and his resolve are stronger
than ever. He could hear the crowd noises coming down the hall
as he sat at a table near the Hornets' locker room last
Thursday. His teammates were hard at work out on the court
against the Magic, but Mashburn was taking the evening off
because of a bruised sternum he had suffered against the
Minnesota Timberwolves two nights earlier, when he was
accidentally hit by an elbow and felt a popping in his chest.
"It scared me at first," Mashburn said, patting the area near
his heart, "but they took some X-rays. Internally, I'm fine."
For the first time in several years, no one would disagree with
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SACHA WALDMAN
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Baron fruit The emergence of point guard Davis, which allowed Wesley to move to two guard, has been a key for the Hornets.
COLOR PHOTO: KENT SMITH/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Bending spoons Mashburn has worked his magic inside and out, scoring 20.1 points a game.
"Mash is driven to prove he's not afraid to take the last shot,"
says Brown. "He's playing with a focus and fire I haven't seen
The Hornets take advantage of Mashburn by using him in the low
post at times and as a point guard orchestrating breaks at others.