Who is Zach Mason?
I suppose that depends on who you ask.
To my family, I’m an antisocial extrovert with a kind heart and too much ambition for my own good.
To my friends, I’m either a comedian specializing in dry humor and my own nagging misfortunes, or a failed philosopher who contemplates rotating existential crises on a weekly basis.
To my colleagues, I’m a semi-talented, upbeat-worker who celebrates his shockingly low income because of the freedom it affords.
To the homeless youth I play basketball with four days per week, I’m a coach who claims he’s never missed a shot, but then blames the wind whenever I do.
To the Summer Moon baristas, I’m the guy who shows up four days a week to work on his laptop in the back corner of the coffee shop, usually after ordering a half-wintermoon or a green tea.
But to me, I’m just an average guy who likes to read science fiction, watch comedies, and organize Spotify playlists that feature a range of artists from Lauryn Hill and Bryson Tiller to Clara Benin and Phil Wickham.
I love sports, but more importantly how they can be used to unite people from disparate backgrounds, empower underserved communities, and advance diplomatic relationships between different countries and cultures.
Where am I from?
That, too, isn’t so easy to answer.
I was born at a hospital in downtown Austin, Texas, but spent my first decade on this earth in Pflugerville, Texas.
A thriving suburb of Austin today, back in the early 90s, it was mostly farmland and cheap houses. I was part of the last generation that actually played outside, and every day after school I’d spend two or three hours at Moose Park, where I learned to play basketball against guys twice my age and three times my size. The older kids called me “Little Steve Nash,” which I hated, because I always liked Jason Williams much better. Either way, this was the place I found my first love—basketball.
Before I started middle school, my family moved to Northwest Austin, where I attended Canyon Vista Middle School. This was the social peak of my life. I was on the A-Team in football (I played receiver on an option-run offense and never recorded a single catch), A-team in basketball, and a district champion in track and cross country. I’ve since lost 99 percent of the stamina I had during these years and 100 percent of the ability to socialize with strangers.
At this time, my parents had started a trophy business, and I was spending most of my weekends in the back of the shop, screwing plastic trophies into plastic marble bases for zero compensation other than the roof on my head, the clothes on my backs, and maybe a few slices of pizza from Yaghi’s, my all-time favorite pizza chain in central Texas.
My parents sold the business and moved us out to Cedar Park, a growing suburb just northwest of where we previously lived. Starting from scratch again was less than ideal, and when I got cut from the basketball team during my sophomore year (I didn’t hit my growth spurt until I was a freshman in college), I was disconsolate and devoid of any direction in my life. My older sister was really into journalism at that time, and, since I always looked up to her, I decided to follow suit and try out for the newspaper staff.
I had always been good at writing—my mother, a former sports writer and humor columnist for the Pflugerville Pflag, likes to claim credit for passing her talents down to me—but I never planned on making a career out of it. I was one of those disillusioned high school kids who thought he was going to play college basketball despite being half the size of everyone else, and planning for a career beyond professional athletics was a foreign concept and absolutely unnecessary.
But then something happened.
I liked writing for the newspaper.
And when I won second, third, and third place in feature, editorial, and headline writing, respectively, at the regional U.I.L. competition in 2008, I was rolling with confidence and fully convinced my future could be spelled out in four letters: E.S.P.N.
Where did I go to college?
I enrolled at the University of Missouri in 2010, ready to ignite an illustrious journalist career at the No. 1 journalism school in the nation. I started covering volleyball for the school newspaper, The Maneater, and the pieces were in place for me to achieve my dream of making it big in the journalism field.
But life rarely goes the way we plan, and after I totally botched my academic responsibilities during my freshman year in Columbia, I was faced with the tough decision of either staying at Mizzou and hopefully getting my grades up to meet the minimum threshold for the journalism school, or go back to my hometown, enroll in the local community college, work on my GPA, and then apply for my original dream school, the University of Texas at Austin.
I handled my business, earned a 4.0 during my sophomore year at Austin Community College, and applied for admission to UT. Unfortunately, I was rejected for a second time, and then forced to choose between my two backup options, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
Tech was willing to offer more money, plus one of my best childhood friends played baseball for the Red Raiders and needed a roommate. So, without having so much as looked in the direction of Lubbock, I packed my bags and headed west.
I was on a mission in those two years at Tech. I immediately joined the newspaper staff, The Daily Toreador, and within two months was promoted to sports editor. I made some incredible memories during that year and built invaluable real-world experience, which complimented a journalism education I’d put up against any other university in the country, led by the late Dr. Robert Wernsman—a man I cannot begin to credit enough for elevating my writing, editing, and general journalism skills.
In my senior year, I left the student newspaper for an internship with Red Raider Sports, the Rivals/Yahoo! Sports affiliate for Texas Tech athletics. I continued to improve my writing, publishing my first magazine feature while learning how to cater to a subscriber-based audience, which is immeasurably different from writing for the general public. I gained insights on what counts as valuable information to a paying subscriber and was blown away by how much money recruiting websites make.
What was post-grad life like?
Not what I expected.
With the accolades and experience I’d accumulated during my college years, I naively expected newspapers and media companies to be fighting over the right to offer me a job.
Then I interviewed for a sports reporter job for a tiny newspaper in a tiny town in southeast Texas and opened my eyes to the reality of the sports journalism business—it’s unbelievably competitive, you probably have to live somewhere you’d never consider living before, and you’re going to make a dollar more than whatever the poverty line is at that time. I spent three days traversing through grueling interviews just to be told I was the runner-up, and an epiphany followed:
If I can’t get a sports writer job in this wretched town in the armpit of Texas, how am I going to ever write for ESPN, let alone the Austin American-Statesman?
Thus began what would amount to a 7-year journey to discovering my identity and purpose on this earth.
Where did I go next?
My girlfriend at the time was a student at the University of Oklahoma, so I, having no sense of direction in where I wanted to go or who I wanted to be, decided to follow her up there and get a job working as a retail sales consultant at AT&T in Oklahoma City. Yep, all that valuable journalism education and experience just to sell phones with a bunch of high school students as my coworkers.
After one year and a failed relationship, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. I met with the sport management program director at Dallas Baptist University, applied for admission, got accepted, and enrolled. I even signed a lease to stay with a family who lived near the campus.
A week before classes began, I changed my mind.
I wasn’t sure why I was going to grad school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, so why was I going to add another $20,000 in student loans? I backed out of my lease, I dropped out of my classes, and moved onto my parents’ couch in an apartment in central Austin.
Back into journalism, and the founding of Texas Top 100
In the modern media landscape, most newspapers are owned by a few massive media companies. Because newspapers aren’t exactly the wildly profitable business they once were, budgets are limited and instead of having a large staff that you have to provide health insurance and benefits to, there’s a lot of outsourcing going on in the industry. From contracting freelancers and stringers to outsourcing the designing of the newspaper’s pages, these media companies try to keep the full-time staffers to a minimum.
One of these companies, GateHouse Media, opened up a design center in Austin. I didn’t have a ton of experience laying out newspapers, but I was familiar with InDesign, and because GateHouse was looking for cheap labor, I accepted a copy editor/page designer position for roughly $25,000 a year. Needless to say, that wasn’t quite enough money to move me out of my parents’ living room and into an apartment in Austin.
So, I co-founded a high school basketball rankings website called TexasTop100.com, and spent an inordinate amount of time growing the site’s following. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments, because I didn’t spend a single penny on advertising or partnerships and organically grew that site from nothing to, at one point in time, the top rankings site in Texas.
I spent a significant portion of my free time driving around the state, watching AAU basketball tournaments and high school games, talking to coaches, interviewing players, creating content and learning to accurately and effectively evaluate talent. I started making a name for myself in the prep basketball scene, cultivating relationships with college coaches and recruiters, and soon began running camps and combines that brought in hundreds of participants on the strength of the Texas Top 100 brand alone. I even hired interns and freelancers to continue growing the site, and it was on a path to becoming a real force in the recruiting coverage scene.
I’d work on Texas Top 100 for several years before lowering it to the bottom of my priority list, which I’ll explain later.
But after six awful months working in that modern rendition of a sweatshop GateHouse Media, I landed a job in corporate communications for a large nonprofit in Austin.
I remember thinking I was asking for way too much money when I wrote $40,000 as my minimum desired salary, and when they offered me the job, they actually said they couldn’t pay me that low of a salary because the position they requested and budgeted for started at a minimum of $43,000.
I couldn’t believe it! I was rich, by my standards. I didn’t know most other professionals with my position and title were making at least $60,000, but I didn’t care. It was enough for me to be out on my own, and I was more than content with that small victory.
Why did I leave corporate communications?
After I accepted that job, I went to sleep that night and woke up three years later.
It was incomprehensible how fast time moved at that job. Every day, the same routine. When I “woke up” three years later, I realized if I went back to sleep again, it’d be another 30 years before I woke up again.
Something had to change. There had to be more to life than sending out newsletters and editing websites for content I never cared about.
I wanted to do something meaningful with my brief time on this earth. I wanted to impact peoples’ lives for the better. I just wasn’t sure how.
How did I find my purpose?
In late 2019, my best friend and I snuck into my work’s offices on a Saturday to use one of their oversized whiteboards. We were going to figure out what I was going to do with my life if it took the whole weekend.
We listed out all my interests and started writing out potential careers I could pursue, regardless of whether I had experience in those fields. It was a clean slate, and it was all over the place.
I wrote down NCAA compliance investigator, marine biologist, sports journalist (again), college athletic director, pizza shop owner and a host of other completely unrelated career paths.
After much intense discussion, I settled on becoming a college athletic director. The only issue was I had zero experience working in college athletic departments, and rarely do universities offer jobs in their athletic departments to people who’ve never stepped foot in one.
The solution: become a graduate assistant. This idea would potentially kill two birds with one stone, allowing me to get a master’s degree without increasing my student loan debt while gaining experience in an athletic department.
I quickly began searching for open G.A. positions all over the country. I applied at prestigious sport management institutions like West Virginia University and the University of Florida, but it was slow moving and I had to apply for admission into the universities first before interviewing for any G.A. jobs.
During that time, I noticed the University of the Incarnate Word football team had just won a conference championship under new head coach Eric Morris. Morris was the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech when I was in Lubbock, and I thought it might be worth sending a fellow Red Raider (who had no idea who I was) in a position of great authority an email to inquire about any openings.
To my surprise, Morris wrote back, CC’d the head sports information director, and within a week I was offered a G.A. position in her department. I hadn’t even applied for admission into the university yet.
“We’ll take care of that. We’ll get you admitted,” the SID said.
I was originally planning to wait until the fall of 2019, but they had an immediate need for some help in the SID department, so in one month’s time, I told my bosses I wanted to work remotely or I’d just quit (I still needed money), and they capitulated. In January of 2019, I moved to San Antonio.
It took me two weeks to realize I made the wrong career decision.
The area for graduate assistant workers was just outside the door of the athletic director’s office, so I was afforded the opportunity to eavesdrop and see firsthand what the daily duties of the job entail.
I left corporate communications because I didn’t want to sit at a desk from 9-5, staring at a computer screen, and wasting my time in never-ending meetings.
That is literally all athletic directors do.
In fact, it really seemed like a glorified salesman. He was on the phone all day soliciting donations and funds for various projects. Hard pass.
Time for another existential crisis.
March 28, 2019. Arguably the most important day of my life.
I’m walking on campus, heading to the cafeteria for lunch. I happen to run into my sport management professor, the head of the whole program. He stops me and asks, “Hey Zach, are you coming to the symposium tonight?”
At first, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Then I vaguely recall an email from him earlier in the week to the whole class about attending this South Texas Sport Management Symposium thing. Remember, I’m pretty antisocial and I don’t like going to functions in general.
But this was the guy in control of my grades, so I nodded and agreed to attend the symposium.
That night at Trinity University, I walked into a room with several different tables, a bunch of college students 10 years younger than me, and what looked like distinguished adults and professors. My professor approaches and starts identifying the guests at each table.
There are representatives from upper management in the San Antonio Spurs organization, the Alliance of American Football (which has since folded), the local minor league baseball and soccer teams, and a few other sports teams and organizations. I’m not particularly impressed with the lineup. I’ve never really liked the Spurs, and I never wanted to work in professional sports. The only jobs ever available are for sales positions, and they’re extremely labor-intensive and low-paying. Again, hard pass.
But then my professor pointed to this tall guy at the last table and said “That guy over there, his name is Chris, he runs a nonprofit called The Basketball Embassy. It’s like sports diplomacy. He goes to other countries and runs exchange programs with foreign embassies, using basketball as a universal language to promote mutual understanding between different cultures and stuff. It’s really cool.”
Finally, something different and refreshing. My professor asked if I wanted to meet the guy, and we walked over there and began our introductions.
My professor said, “This is Zach Mason. He runs a basketball recruiting site called Texas Top 100…” and Chris cuts him off, “Yeah, I know about that. I think I follow you on Twitter.”
It was a layup from there. We talked briefly before the event started, and after it ended, I made sure to track Chris down once more.
“Anything you need,” I said, “I’m great with communications, websites, social media. If there’s any way I can be a part of your organization, let me know.”
The next day, Chris invited me and a few of his coaches to his house for a barbecue. We talked more, and I met some cool people like the organization’s co-founder, James, who told me that Chris told him “this Zach guy is going to be running this organization in the future.”
I couldn’t believe it. I finally found a home.
How did The Basketball Embassy change my outlook?
Working for The Basketball Embassy at the same time I was going through UIW’s sport management program was just incredible for my development as a human being. It widened my horizons well beyond my limited imagination. The primary things I learned were:
- Sports are infinitely more powerful than what happens inside the lines.
- I first came to this realization when I flew to Washington D.C. for an exchange program with 12 Tunisian basketball coaches, players and administrators. When they first stepped off that bus from the airport, setting their feet on American soil for the first and likely last time in their entire lives, I began to understand the gravity of how sport can truly change lives. These wonderful people would’ve never in a million, billion years been given an opportunity to come to America if it weren’t for sport. And they got to learn about American culture, entrepreneurship, and charity through this two-week program that I helped plan and execute. This was a massive turning point in my life. I no longer cared about who won the New York Giants game, or if my Red Raiders beat Oklahoma State. It all seemed so insignificant.
- Exposure to people from other geographical, political, and religious backgrounds leads to perspective, humility and empathy
- For the longest time, I was a typical American ignorant to the world beyond our borders. It’s a massive country largely isolated from the rest of the world, why did I need to concern myself with whatever’s going on overseas? I was clearly hanging in the wrong circles. But when I started spending time around Chris and his colleagues, and then traveling and meeting people from all over the world, I truly began to understand: it’s not about me. This is a big, beautiful planet with amazing people on every patch of grass and grain of sand. I’m wasting my life if I’m focused solely on my own desires and ambitions, and I should be using whatever talents and abilities the good Lord blessed me with to build a more connected, empathetic, and collaborative world. If I can do that, then I believe I’ve fulfilled my purpose in this life.
Where am I today?
I spent the summer of 2022 traveling with The Basketball Embassy around Stockholm, Sweden; Edinburgh, Scotland; and London, U.K; for various basketball camps and meetings. I was promoted from director of communications to chief operating officer, and have been working diligently to continue to grow and scale our programming so we can positively impact as many people across as many countries as possible.
Currently back in San Antonio, I’m usually working out of coffee shops or my office at a local homeless shelter. I’m still playing basketball with the youth at these shelters four days per week. And I’ve still never missed a shot.
And on Friday nights and Saturdays this fall, I’ll be entering into my fourth year of freelancing for the San Antonio Express-News. I still laugh to this day about how hard I tried to get my foot in the door of sports journalism at that small-town newspaper nearly eight years ago, and how now I’m just casually freelancing for one of the biggest newspapers in the state, and have bylines in the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle. It’s cliché, but the things that are truly meant to be will eventually materialize.