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Choosing a different path | Sports

With the game clock racing down, the basketball bounced off the rim into Mason Small’s hands for one last opportunity to defeat the Lenoir City High School Panthers in a heated rivalry.

His instincts immediately kicked in and he tipped the ball into the hoop at the buzzer as fellow teammates and fans rushed the court to hug him and celebrate.

“That was one of the craziest moments of my life,” Small said. “I knew that was the last chance for us to win that game and it all just happened so quick. I knew I had to score there and, thankfully, it went in.”

Small scored a season-high 37 points that game and has been the leading scorer for the Redskins so far this season.

It’s no surprise, though, since basketball runs in the family.

Mason’s mother, Macy, and sister, Mariah, both played basketball at Loudon and had successful careers as Lady Redskins. It was a sport all three grew up on and bonded over.

“My mom played basketball here in high school and we always would play outside on the court at our house,” Mason said. “Every day, me, Mom and Mariah would play against each other. I just fell in love with it and just played it every single day growing up.”

However, basketball is not the only sport that runs in the bloodline. His father, Aaron Small, spent nearly two decades playing professional baseball, including stints with six Major League Baseball teams.

Aaron was practically born with a baseball in his hands in Los Angeles. He grew up watching baseball and cheering on the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels.

“Anytime they were on television, I’d want to watch them,” Aaron said in an interview in 2017. “I was just 4 years old. I didn’t play organized baseball until I was about 8. It became a passion and I loved it from that moment on.”

Aaron attended South Hills High School in West Covina, Calif., and was a first-team all-conference selection. After graduating in 1989, Aaron finally realized his dream of playing in the majors when he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 22nd round of the MLB Draft.

“I didn’t have any major universities interested in me and my only other option was to go to junior college to try and raise my draft stock,” Aaron said. “However, Toronto was decent enough and they gave me 10th-round money, but it wasn’t really about that. I just felt God had a plan for me and I felt that it was time to just start my career.”

After Aaron’s final season with the Blue Jays in 1994, he continued his career playing for four other teams — the Florida Marlins, Oakland Athletics, Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves — before landing with the New York Yankees organization in 2005.

With teammates in Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Alex Rodriguez, and Mariano Rivera, Small went on to record the best season of his career when he went 10-0 as a pitcher with the Yankees.

Despite the bright lights of New York City, standing ovations inside Yankee Stadium and barrage of ESPN interviews, Aaron’s heart was still back in Loudon with his family.

“I loved playing baseball and that was my dream, but there came a time when it felt like God was calling me back home,” Aaron said. “I was on the road all the time, doing workouts, practicing and playing in games all over the country, so it was hard to be away from my family.”

There were times, though, that the rest of the family was able to see Aaron and visit with him on the road.

“I was young, but I remembered we traveled all the time,” Mason said. “We’d always move and stuff, and I enjoyed watching him play. I really enjoyed going to the locker room and meeting all of his teammates. It was a pretty cool experience to meet some of those players because they were celebrities, but, ultimately, I think we all wanted to settle back down in Loudon.”

Growing up, Mason played several sports, including baseball and football.

As with many father-son relationships, especially in the sports world, there tends to be a sense of pressure for the son to follow in the footsteps of their father’s athletic career.

“There was absolutely pressure on me and I felt that,” Aaron said. “I made sure I let him know that, ‘Hey, if you really don’t like the game or you don’t want to play, don’t feel like you have to play because I did.’ I never wanted him to have to live up to what I did in baseball, so I really tried to stress that to him as he grew up and got older. I know there is that pressure that if your dad played a sport at that level, I could see him possibly feeling that pressure, especially once he got into his teenage years and on.”

No matter what his kids did in life, whether sports or school, Aaron wanted them to do their best and give it their all.

“It would’ve been nice if Mason had continued baseball, but I never really wanted him to play just because Daddy did,” Aaron said. “I’ve always trusted him and Mariah. If you have a passion for something, go work as hard as you can and be the best that you can be at it with the ability that God has given you. People ask me all the time, ‘Did it bother when Mason gave up baseball?’ No, it didn’t bother me. I think he could’ve been a good baseball player, but I’m excited he chose basketball and that he’s doing well at it.”

Once Mason entered middle school at Philadelphia Elementary School, he decided to pursue only basketball.

“I still hear the jokes every now and then about how I could be a good baseball player because of my dad and that I’m left-handed,” Mason said. “It doesn’t bother me, though. I like baseball, but it’s too slow for me. I like the fast pace of basketball. When I played at Philadelphia, that took up all my focus and that’s all I wanted to play from there on out.”

Once Mason transitioned to LHS, he coaches quickly took notice of his talent. He received valuable playing time on the varsity squad as a freshman point guard.

“Freshman year I was a lot shorter and I ran more at the point guard,” Mason said. “I played some varsity time and then coach (Wiley) Brakebill took over. That was a change and I had to get used to that. I started running more at the two and three positions.”

Last season, Mason completed a full transition into a post player and has excelled. This year, Loudon hired Josh Graves as the new head coach, which has been a fun experience for Small in his senior season.

“Last year and this year, I’ve been more of a post and that was big change for me because I had never been a post in my life,” Mason said. “I had to adapt to that, but I like it and enjoy running it. I like what coach Graves is doing, but all in all, every year’s been different but good in its own way.”

Graves knew he had a special talent in Mason.

“I knew that, offensively and defensively, that we’d go through him,” Graves said. “He’s 6-foot-3 and a lefty, so that makes him hard to guard. He’s got a quick first step for his size and I knew that I wanted him to be the focal point. I knew he was a good leader. I had him in AAU as a freshman and I was an assistant coach for him in middle school. I knew what kind of caliber player he was.”

The Redskins are off to their best start in school history and Mason has played a large role in that.

“I had a conversation with him when I got the job and told him that we’re going to go how you go,” Graves said. “You’ve got to say, ‘I’m going to be guy that leads and carries this team nine out of 10 nights.’ He’s done that and he’s bought into that fully, whether it be scoring 37 against Lenoir City or 15 against Kingston. He’s made a lot of big buckets and he’s bought in 100 percent on my challenge.”

As the season wears on, Mason is focused on helping the team win a district championship in his final season as a Redskin. As far as his future is concerned, he would like to continue basketball at the collegiate level.

“I’m just focused on this season and helping my team win as much as possible,” Mason said. “This is my senior year and I’d like to go out with a bang. As far as my future, I’m considering playing in college. I don’t know where or anything, but I’m keeping my options open.”

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