It has been 698 days since Makai Mason ’18 appeared in a game for the Yale men’s basketball team. The star point guard — who nearly led the Bulldogs past Duke two years ago in the school’s first March Madness appearance in 54 years — said Tuesday that his status for finally returning to action on the 700th day of his absence is “questionable to probable.”
The issue is still Mason’s foot, which he reaggravated with a stress fracture in November, just as he was set to return from a broken bone and dislocated toe he suffered before last season. He has been rehabilitating ever since, with his return date pushed back multiple times this winter. Given the susceptibility of reinjury — especially when dealing with foot ailments — the team and doctors have been cautious, not committing themselves to a specific return date.
“I’m not trying to be aloof about Makai, I just don’t know what he’s going to be doing,” head coach James Jones said. “I don’t know how his health is going to be. We’ve had plans for him to come back three weeks ago, and it didn’t happen, so I’m cautiously optimistic. We’ll see what happens.
Mason is now practicing with the team, but his status remains uncertain. In an interview with Ivy Hoops Online, Jones said Mason’s status was “day-to-day” for last weekend’s pair of home games against Columbia and Cornell, though Mason did not end up dressing for either game.
Jones said that Mason “looked fine” in practice on Monday; the team did not practice on Tuesday.
“It’s definitely a great feeling to be back out there [practicing],” Mason said. “Your limbs are trying to catch up to your mind at the beginning, so I’m just kind of working through that stage right now, but I’m hoping to come back pretty quick.”
In the back of Jones’s mind are the similar foot woes of first-year guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21. After rehabilitating from a stress fracture over the summer, he broke the same foot just days into his return to game action. Gabbidon has not played this season.
Mason said he has been trying to strengthen the areas around the injury to help avoid yet another setback.
In 2016, Mason became just the fourth Yale sophomore to be named to the All-Ivy First Team, after averaging 16 points per game, good for fifth best in the conference, and 3.8 assists per contest. But Mason’s standout play turned into mythology on March 17.
The Bulldogs had not appeared in March Madness since 1962. The team had never won a game in the NCAA Tournament. And outside of Ivy League diehards, no one knew who Makai Mason was.
That all changed when the point guard scored 31 points on 11–11 free-throw shooting, carrying the Elis past No. 5 Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 79–75. He appeared on Dan Patrick’s national radio show the next day. Chris Webber, an NBA all-star and CBS commentator, called Mason a “bad little man.”
Two days later, Yale fell to Duke in the second round, and Mason has not played a collegiate game of basketball since.
“It’s definitely been tough for me,” Mason said. “We’ve had decent success over the last two years, so that’s made it a little easier. But coming off of my sophomore year, all of our success … it was definitely a bit of a blow.”
After the season, Mason declared for the NBA Draft, taking advantage of a new rule that allowed him to subsequently withdraw and return to Yale for his junior season after not being invited to the NBA Combine. Mason said that the injury has not affected his goal of playing professional basketball down the road.
On Nov. 8, 2016, Yale took on Boston University — coached by Jones’s brother, Joe Jones — in a closed scrimmage that would be the team’s final tuneup before starting the season at Washington on Nov. 13. In that game, Mason dislocated his big toe, broke his sesamoid bone and tore his plantar plate in his right foot. The team announced that he would be sidelined for the whole season.
Without Mason, the Blue made it past Harvard in the Ivy Tournament, but fell to undefeated-Princeton in the Ivy League championship game the next day. In May, Mason announced that, following his senior year at Yale, he would use his final year of eligibility to play as a graduate transfer at Baylor — the victim of his heroics in the game that launched him into national relevance.
On Nov. 7, in an interview with the News previewing the upcoming season, Jones said “all signs point … that he is good.” That day, though, Mason had an MRI and was diagnosed with a stress fracture. The New Haven Register reported that Mason initially began feeling pain two weeks prior; it speculated that the stress fracture was caused by a device he wore that was intended to relieve pressure off the foot in wake of the prior injury.
Three days later, the Bulldogs opened their season at Creighton — for the second straight year, without Mason.
The Elis have certainly made the most of their situation, as they currently find themselves tied for third place with a 4–4 conference record. Four teams qualify for the season-end Ivy League Tournament, with a March Madness berth on the line. But what Mason provides, as a playmaker and steady ball-handler on the court, is irreplaceable.
“Not having Makai is a blow to us in a lot of ways,” Jones said. “The steadiness of the guard on the floor [is key to our success]. Eric Monroe is doing a great job for us, but he’s a sophomore — you’d rather have upperclassmen in that spot. That being said, we have to point guard by committee.”
Mason’s presence would likely also alleviate pressure from other players on the roster, such as All-Ivy guard Miye Oni ’20. Like Mason in his own sophomore season, Oni was entrusted this winter with the task of leading Yale, particularly on the offensive end.
With the race for the four Ivy Tournament spots still ongoing, a Mason return could catapult the Bulldogs into title contention. Penn and Harvard have a clear stranglehold on the top two spots at the midway point of the conference season, as they are both three games clear of third place.
Mason will have a chance to return this weekend when the Bulldogs take on Dartmouth and Harvard on the road.
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