There is a very large Texan who might be the best athlete in Australia. He’s down there outjumping kangaroos, outclimbing koalas, and outrunning emus. His name is Mason Cox, and he wasn’t all that good at basketball, but he’s perhaps the most interesting American export in the history of international sports.
Cox played basketball at Oklahoma State from 2011 to 2014, recording 57 total minutes and seven total points. Last week, in the victory that sent Collingwood FC to the Grand Final of the Australian Football League, he had 18 points. Here he is, skying above ground-bound Aussies to snag stunning catches and calmly booting the ball between goalposts like he’s been playing this sport for more than four years.
I’m no Aussie rules expert, but judging from the Australian announcer yelling, “WHAT HAS COLLINGWOOD UNLEASHED HERE? WE’RE SEEING THE FUTURE OF THE GAME PERHAPS!” Cox is special. (Note: Ever since watching this video, I’ve been walking around yelling, “WHAT HAS COLLINGWOOD UNLEASHED HERE?” in my thickest Australian accent.) This article refers to Cox as an “Australian national treasure.”
You’re probably wondering what’s going on here. Australian football isn’t the only sport they play in Australia, but it’s definitely the most Australian sport. In Aussie rules, a team scores by kicking the ball between two goal posts. If a player catches a long kick in the air, he is then awarded an unimpeded chance to kick the ball between the goal posts from the spot at which he caught it. This means a big part of Aussie rules is booting the ball toward the goal and hoping that a teammate settles under it. And so one of the most critical positions in the game is ruckman—a tall athlete skilled at getting airborne and highpointing these kicks.
There are only so many tall people in Australia. Kevin Sheehan, who’s in charge of international talent acquisition for the league, told Fox Sports in 2016 that the AFL has a “shortage of tall players in the competition.” In the same way American football teams have begun scouting Australian football players because they’re better at punting than our punters, Aussie rules teams have begun scouting our basketball players because they may be better at leaping than Australian ruckmen. The AFL worked with Jonathan Givony, a basketball scout who ran DraftExpress and is now with ESPN, to identify college players who were skilled at rebounding but not skilled enough at the rest of the sport to make the NBA. The AFL then tried to sell them on going Down Under to play a sport of which they’d likely never heard.
It seemed like the pipeline would dry up fast. Shae McNamara, who played basketball for Marist, signed with Collingwood in 2009 but never played in a senior-level game. Eric Wallace, who played for Ohio State, DePaul, and Seattle, signed with North Melbourne in 2012, impressing in the Victorian Football League (an AFL minor league), but also never playing at the senior level. Jason Holmes, who played for Morehead State, signed with St Kilda in 2013 and managed to play in a handful of AFL games in 2015 and 2016 before being cut last year.
Then came Cox, who’s single-handedly legitimized the hoops-to-footy leap. His journey has been odd: He didn’t even play basketball in high school—he was the goalie for his high school soccer team. He experienced a surprise growth spurt, sprouting from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-11, and went to Oklahoma State for mechanical engineering with no hopes of becoming an athlete.
When the school’s basketball coaches saw a 6-foot-10 guy fooling around on the intramural courts, though, they were intrigued. At first, Cox played on the women’s basketball scout team; the Cowgirls had to go against Baylor’s Brittney Griner twice a season, and Cox offered the best way to simulate her size during practice. Soon, the Cowboys’ men’s basketball coaches saw Cox and wondered if he could join the varsity team. He mainly rode the bench during his tenure—actually, as he describes it, “I was not even on the bench. I was behind the bench … the weights coach and assistant coach got a seat ahead of me.” He got some run when the roster suffered a string of injuries in 2014; per a teammate, the defining moment of Cox’s hoops career came when he briefly guarded Joel Embiid without getting embarrassed.
After college, Cox had a job lined up with ExxonMobil when the AFL came calling. “I had to Google it,” Cox told Sports Illustrated. He says the first Aussie rules video he watched was “dudes getting knocked unconscious,” and that he was eventually convinced to give it a shot by an Australian who happened to be a tennis coach at Oklahoma State. Cox was a perfect fit. He’d picked up hoops so late in life that he wasn’t skilled enough at it to pursue a pro level. And although he didn’t know it, he was uniquely qualified for Aussie rules: His goalie experience made his transition to kicking a football smoother than most basketball converts, and his late growth spurt meant that he was more coordinated than most big men.
So in 2014 Collingwood took a chance on him. That might not mean much to Americans, but to Australians, it’s like Cox signing with the Yankees or Cowboys—the big-pocketed team that every other team in the league hates. Collingwood is nicknamed the Magpies, so of course, Cox’s nickname was “American Pie.” In 2016 he made his debut, becoming the tallest player in AFL history and scoring a goal in his very first game.
Now, Cox is about to play on the sport’s biggest stage, the Grand Final, between Collingwood and the West Coast Eagles. The easiest way to explain the Grand Final to an American audience is to call it the Aussie rules Super Bowl. And the best way to explain Mason Cox is to call him a Southern Hemisphere Randy Moss:
Cox is just the beginning—thanks to his emergence, the hoops-to-footy transition has gained legitimacy. “Over the next five years, the focus will be on the USA,” Sheehan told Fox. Last week, Givony took a moment for some well-earned told-ya-so-ing, as his pipe dream has turned into a pipeline:
Incredible waking up to see Mason Cox dominating an AFL game and leading his team to the Grand Final. What a story. If I had a nickel for all of the team executives who told me an American can't play their sport... What a missed opportunity.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) September 21, 2018
I’m always fascinated by athletes who apply their talents in unlikely sports: sprinters turned bobsledders, basketball players turned tight ends, etc. Even then, Cox’s story stands apart. It’s notable largely because the international athletic pipeline usually works in reverse.
Typically, America views other nations’ best and brightest athletes as fodder for our leagues. NBA and NHL fans expect Europeans to play in America for the biggest contracts under the brightest lights. Japanese and Latin American baseball stars race to MLB’s auction block. Soccer’s biggest names come to America to play their final few seasons. Even the NFL, the top league of a sport virtually unplayed outside of North America, has taken to robbing other football codes. Jarryd Hayne was one of Australia’s best rugby league players, and Americans didn’t blink when he gave that up for a chance to become the 49ers backup running back. And, of course, there’s the Australian punter circuit. A specific type of American exceptionalism leads to this: the type that thinks that because America is so great, the rest of the globe should give up everything to participate in America’s greatness.
The rise of Cox displays a different type of American exceptionalism: The belief that the best use of American greatness is to help make other nations great. Cox leapt at that opportunity and seized it from the sky.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go back to practicing my Australian accent. Mason Cox is gonna do a lot more things that make Australian announcers yell, and I need to prepare to yell those things too.