Bedlam basketball: Remembering a great rivalry
In the last week, I’ve been reminded of one of the great rivalries in our state’s basketball history. Desmond Mason vs. Eduardo Najera.
Najera came through town last week with the Charlotte Bobcats — can you believe he’s still playing? — and was the same old Eddie. Knocking heads and clearing space. Najera doesn’t log many minutes anymore, but he’s still completely physical, just like in college, when he walked through the swinging doors and policed Kelvin Sampson’s saloon.
Then Thursday night, I spent some with Mason, the regal OSU Cowboy in the Eddie Sutton glory days. Mason, now a spokesman for First Fidelity Bank, and I did some NCAA Tournament webcasts (click to watch or just scroll down) during a watch party at RED Prime Steak. It always was great to chat with Mason, and remains so.
But we got to talking about the Najera-Mason rivalry. Najera came to OU in August 1995, sat out a season getting eligible, then was a freshman in August 1996. Mason came to OSU the same year, part of a ballyhooed recruiting class.
Mason smiled wide when talking about trying to cover the bigger Najera, who mostly was a power forward at OU. Najera would feign right while on the low block with his back to the basket, when wheel left, leading with his shoulder and his elbow. No one in their right mind would try to take that offensive foul. Mason showed the motion of how he would try to avoid Najera’s assault on the basket, which invariably would lead to a layup.
Both were solid freshmen, nothing spectacular, but they were team leaders and cornerstones by their sophomore seasons. Mason and Co. got a big win in Norman that sophomore season; Najera gained revenge with a victory in Stillwater in March 2000, in the final game of the old Gallagher-Iba Arena. Mason said it was the only game of his career that left him in tears.
But here’s what’s interesting. Each of the stars could have ended up in the other place. OSU had Najera, a Mexican who was going to high school in San Antonio, on its radar early. Najera visited OSU and some thought the Cowboys would land him. But Sampson won the day and signed Najera.
A year later, Mason was one of the nation’s top recruits, a fast, athletic, high-jumping swingman who didn’t yet have great skills but showed the athletic ability and the drive to become a great player.
Mason said he took only two official visits: Norman and Stillwater. Mason even attended an OU practice just before the Bedlam game, watching the Sooners prep for the Cowboys. Then Mason attended that very Bedlam game in Stillwater and watched the Cowboys beat the Sooners.
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