For Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee, Time with Team USA is More Service Than Exploration

LOS ANGELES and SHANGHAI -- Mason Plumlee knew it was a special moment, but didn't expect to see it featured on CNN on Wednesday. But there it was: an article about his younger brother, Marshall, graduating from United States Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

"Everybody sent it to me, but when they sent me the CNN link, I was a little surprised," Mason tells CloseUp360 in Shanghai. "But I'm happy for him. I think it just showed [that] a lot of people go through that process and graduate Ranger School, but just because he played basketball, it brought a little more attention to it."

Mason, the Denver Nuggets center and middle of the three Plumlee brothers, didn't get to join his family at Marshall's graduation from Ranger School. Instead, he's serving his country in a different capacity: as a member of USA Basketball's 12-man roster at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China.

It's an honor,” he tells CloseUp360 after a recent Team USA practice in Los Angeles, “but it's a bigger responsibility to represent the country, and to go out there and leave it all on the floor.”

Mason, 29, may not be risking his life quite like Marshall, 27, will when the latter embarks as a Ranger in the field. Nor did qualifying for Team USA's roster require surviving quite the same rigors as Marshall's admittance into the Rangers, which saw him and his classmates spend 62 days training to work in the woods, mountains and swamplands with limited food and rest.

But amid the physicality of international basketball, under FIBA's rough-and-tumble rules, Mason's long limbs could be at stake to some degree. To that end, representing his country overseas again comes as a combination of service and sports for Mason in a family that's sustained a sense of duty through the generations.

Mason Plumlee Marcus Smart

Mason Plumlee (center) won gold with Team USA at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Basketball is practically a tradition in the Plumlee family. Their father, Perky, and mother, Leslie, both hooped in college, and first met at a summer basketball camp in 1979. Leslie’s father, Albert “Bud” Schultz, played basketball at Michigan Tech, and her brothers, William and Chad, played at Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Wisconsin Oshkosh, respectively. Mason and his two brothers have all played in the NBA, with Miles, the oldest at 31, moving to the Memphis Grizzlies via trade this past July.

A sense of duty also runs deep through the Plumlee family tree. Their grandfathers were both in the military, as were a number of their uncles. Pinpointing exactly how many of his relatives have served their country can be challenging for Mason since, well, “I’m from a big family,” he says.

Mason was never attracted to military service, though the family’s history therein made quite an impression on Marshall. During his time at Duke, the youngest Plumlee brother joined the school’s Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program and continued on with the Army Reserve after signing with the New York Knicks as an undrafted free agent in 2016.

After spending two seasons shuttling between the NBA and the G League, Marshall is now pursuing his future in the military more actively as a newly-minted Ranger. 

“I'm super proud of Marshall,” Mason says. “He's always had a serving mentality. He's doing it now for a career, so I couldn't be happier for him.”

Mason, meanwhile, is on his second tour of duty with USA Basketball's Senior squad. He last wore his country’s colors when he helped Team USA win gold at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup while playing for Mike Krzyzewski, his former coach at Duke University.

Back then, Mason's mom and aunts made the trip to Spain to support him. This year, his dad and sister took the opportunity to follow him to Australia, where the Americans played three exhibition games (two against the host country, one opposite Canada).

"They're great parents and they support highs and lows, and obviously a lot of interest in expeditions," Mason says. "They're just always there."

None of the other Plumlees will make the trek to China for this year's FIBA World Cup. After tagging along with Mason in Australia, his dad and sister doubled back to the U.S. for Marshall's graduation, during which his mom did the honor of pinning her youngest son's Ranger Tab to his uniform.

"She was proud. You could just see from the picture how excited she was," Mason says. "I was happy that she could be there for that. It was a special moment."

Now, the Plumlees will lend their support to Mason's pursuit of a medal, albeit from more than 7,000 miles away. The whole family has been glued to the TV in the wee hours of the morning to watch Mason take flight in red, white and blue again.

This year’s squad—led by Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, among others—doesn’t feature quite the same top-end talent as the 2014 edition with which Mason played. Back then, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Anthony Davis had all established themselves as All-Stars (and then some), with DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson and Andre Drummond soon to follow.

Mason, as it happens, is the only holdover from that group who secured a roster spot in China. The whole coaching staff turned over as well, though Gregg Popovich, like the West Point-trained Coach K before him, comes from a military background (he played while at the United States Air Force Academy).

“It's a whole new cast and I look forward to playing with good players and a great staff,” Mason says.

Before embarking on a six-week commitment to Team USA, Mason got to enjoy his offseason on his own terms. There was time for family, though Marshall’s military service made it difficult to involve the youngest of the siblings.

“It's hard to catch up with Marshall in person any more, but me and Miles see each other during the offseason and during the season,” Mason says. “We're just always in touch over the phone, so we're close. We're close family.”

During his time in Ranger School, Marshall had minimal access to his cell phone, which limited his communication with Mason to the occasional text exchange. Instead, the Plumlees got most of their intel on Marshall from Leslie, who went down to Fort Benning to visit her youngest son in between the parts of his training.

"I've been hearing about it second-hand, the training in there," Mason says, "but they take their phones, so I haven't talked to him."

Mason will have to wait until after Team USA's run at the FIBA World Cup ends before he can properly catch up with Marshall. For him, the trip to China is just the latest phase in what's been another summer spent in transit.

When he wasn’t hanging with other Plumlees or working out on his own, Mason was busy traveling the world, as he often is during the offseason. This year, he hopped around the Middle East, taking in the sights, sounds and tastes of Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

“Just an incredible amount of history and culture,” he says. “Considering our country is a couple hundred years old and those civilizations are thousands of years old is just different.”

There are plenty more ancient wonders for Mason to see in China. The country's rabid fascination with basketball has been a sight of its own for him to behold since the Americans arrived in Shanghai at the end of August.

"Man, they're super fans," he says. "We have passionate fans by cities. Out here, they're a little more passionate about players, which is really cool to see. I think every time we walk outside the hotel, Jayson and Kemba and these guys have people going nuts, which is really cool."

To that end, Mason has something in common with those legions of Chinese fans. For him, as for them, the game is what matters above all else, especially with another gold for his country on the line.

“That's about basketball,” he says. “I'm not going to be doing the tourism thing when I'm there. I'm going to be ready to play and focus on the goal.”

 

Additional reporting by CloseUp360 Founder and President Jared Zwerling.

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.