WHEN Desmond Mason was a rookie in the NBA during the 2000-2001 season, he was summoned to the league’s Midtown office for a sudden meeting with then-commissioner David Stern.
Nervously, the 198cm player for the Seattle SuperSonics headed into the boss’s office.
Turns out, Stern was interested in the baller’s burgeoning art career — and had read a Sports Illustrated article about Mason that ran while he was a senior at Oklahoma State, where he played small forward and studied studio art.
“I was really the only artist-athlete at the time. He thought it was interesting,” says the Texas native, who went on to win the league’s Slam Dunk contest in 2001.
Stern asked to buy one of his drawings featured in the magazine — a portrait of Al Pacino in the film Carlito’s Way.
“Is he the consigliere of the Gambino family? What is going on?” Mason recalls thinking at the time.
Stern paid $500 for the work, though Mason now admits he was so flattered, he would have given it to him for free.
The unconventional exchange between commish and first-year player was just the tipoff for Mason’s not-so-average life off the court.
While many monied hoopsters are amassing art, the 37-year-old is creating it.
In the years since, Mason has sold his work to notables such as movie star George Clooney, sportscaster Joe Buck, nightlife honcho Rande Gerber and Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz.
His colorful abstract art has been shown at Art Basel in Miami, and the married father of two just sold a painting to Chicago businessman David Gupta for $60,000.
On Thursday, his work will be on display in New York for the first time in the Athletes for Art Renaissance show in Chelsea.
Not bad for a kid growing up outside of Dallas who saw his pad and pen as an escape rather than a calling.
“When I was growing up in a bad neighborhood with drugs and violence, art was my getaway,” says Mason, who took ceramics in school and used the brown paper bags that covered his textbooks as his cheap canvases.
And when he enrolled at Oklahoma State, he didn’t settle for a slacker liberal arts major favored by other student athletes.
Already stretched by a grueling schedule, Mason opted to study studio art, which required traveling to road games with sculpting tools, a portfolio and even an easel.
“Some of my teammates who roomed with me didn’t really like it. They always gave me s***. Either that, or they wanted me to draw them something for their dorms. They were like, ‘Man, can you draw Barry Sanders?’,” Mason laughs, recalling the request for a picture of the football player.
The kid with the 213cm wingspan was picked by Seattle in the first round of the 2000 draft and continued lugging his portfolio on road games.
While on the Sonics, he threw his first art show in 2002, which drew praise from out-of-town critics.
“That’s when I knew this was something I could do for a living,” he says, though he continued to play hoops.
After seeing “Pollock,” the biopic about the great American abstract painter Jackson Pollock, he changed his focus from realism to abstract expressionism.
“I went out and bought a roll of canvas, paint and destroyed my lawn,” says Mason, who set up his easel in front of his house. “I painted for three hours and that changed me. I went from realism in black and white to massive scale abstract painting.”
While playing for Milwaukee in 2006, he bought a home in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he hobnobbed with his A-list neighbors, like George Clooney and baseballer Alex Rodriguez, many of whom bought his art.
In fact, it was A-Rod who Mason says influenced him to show work at Art Basel Miami for the past two years.
“A-Rod blew me away. I was so impressed by his knowledge of art. It caught me off-guard a little bit,” Mason said.
After 10 years in the league, Mason retired from hoops and these days, he’s passionately focused on his craft in his Oklahoma City studio, where he paints everything from Céline bags to oversize canvases.
“I’m not a Hall of Famer and I’m not an All-Star either,” says Mason. “I won a dunk contest once. With art, I feel like I am working really hard and getting better.”
AS the former owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, Schultz and Mason have a history. When he was playing for Schultz, the then-24-year-old went to the mogul’s home and told the Starbucks chief executive that, while his coffee was good, his pastries were terrible.
“I walked out of there thinking, ‘What did I just do?’,” recalls Mason with a laugh. Their relationship became strained when, after two seasons, Mason was traded to Milwaukee. “I took it personally. I was so emotional,” he said.
They later made up, and in the fall of 2014, Schultz attended Mason’s show in Seattle, where he bought a 152cm-by-203cm piece done in oil, acrylic and latex paint — a “dream come true” according to Mason.
“I was in a phase of doing faces. They were selling well on a (summer 2013) tour in Asia, and people were commissioning them,” says Mason.
After the show, the artist went back to Schultz’s house. But instead of assessing pastries, they looked at Schultz’s art collection and talked about life. “He told me he was proud of me.”
The golf GURU
IN 2012, Mason lined up four 102cm-by-102cm canvases and live-painted them as one piece during an Oklahoma City festival, which drew A-Rod and Hank Haney, who coached Tiger Woods.
Mason used paint rollers, acrylics, oil paint and spray paint to create this large-scale work.
“It was too colourful, so I took a half-gallon can of white latex paint and slowly used rollers over the canvases. It was really hot outside, so the paint dried fast and caked on thick and crackled,” says Mason, who likened the effect to confetti.
He broke up the canvases and sold them separately. Golf maestro Haney scooped one up.
THE HOLLYWOOD STAR
NINE years ago, Mason bought a vacation home in Cabo San Lucas in the same development as Clooney, nightlife guru Gerber and mogul Mike Meldman.
“They’re friends and neighbours,” says Mason of his pals, who all live in a complex called El Dorado. The trio (Clooney, Gerber and Meldman) launched Casamigos tequila in 2013.
Mason collaborated with his artist pal Paul Snyder to create an ode to their booze — a replica of the bottle against one of Mason’s colorful backgrounds. The former hoopster designed it, while Snyder, a hyper-realist, painted part of the bottle.
The 76cm-by-102cm piece took roughly 25 hours to create. The original is hanging in Meldman’s home office, while Clooney has a reproduction in his Cabo home and Gerber has a copy in his LA office.
A 76cm-by-102cm work, entitled “Who,” caught the eye of the sportscaster during one of Mason’s exhibits in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
“It was an emotional piece. It was just asking the hard questions that kids and adults ask themselves,” says Mason, who let the layers of paint half dry before writing questions like “Who has the right to judge?” and “Who loves me?” with the handle of his brush. “I had to nail it on the first try.”