With college basketball season tipping off this week, we’ll be running a number of previously published features that documented a current NBA player during his NCAA come-up. Below you can read an OJ Mayo piece—originally published in SLAM 112—penned right before he began his first and last season as a Trojan. (Note: Read the entire Q+A with the then-freshman here.) You can find links to the other articles we’ve ran in this series at end of Page 3.—Ed.
words Ryan Jones | portraits Atiba Jefferson
You already assume the worst. This isn’t your fault, really. The assumptions have been forced on you, fitted like accessories to your mental frame. What do you know about OJ Mayo? What have you been told? Nothing good. Lots of stories with one side, told by people who’ve never met him. That doesn’t mean those people are wrong, necessarily. It’s just that they don’t know. They assume. And so, it follows, do you.
OJ says he understands all of this. You spend a day with him, Mapquesting around L.A. on a classic SoCal summer afternoon, and he owns up to just about everything: the fights, the arrest, the flashes of temper and ego on the court. He cops to lapses in judgment and a knack for the occasional wrong-place, wrong-time episode. He explains his friends, his family, his choice of schools. He explains everything. He is more forthcoming than you’d have any right to expect, from which a cynic might assume he’s like every other kid from a dead-end town who’s ever chased a dream to L.A.—an actor, in other words, a bullshit artist spinning a new personal history because the reality only disappoints.
But you would have to be a really committed cynic, and Mayo an exceptionally gifted 19-year-old actor, to spend that day with him and not come away convinced. Of what? Of guilt being relative. Of perception being everything. Of assumption being, generally speaking, a bad idea. You’d have to be awfully cynical to hear him explain his life, and especially his plans for it, and not see this kid—this young man—as he presents himself: a product of unforgiving social and economic realities, blessed with precocious talent, saddled with absurd expectations and propped up by a family, real and extended, that pushes him forward just as it pulls him back. He may not even be the best freshman lead guard in the country this year, but he is undoubtedly the most compelling story in college basketball.
And that, he tells you, is what matters right now. Mayo is a 19-year-old kid getting settled in on a new campus, in a new town, taking a couple of summer electives, playing a little ball, feeling things out. It’s early August. OJ Mayo landed in Los Angeles six weeks ago. The fall semester starts in 23 days.
Our day starts at noon, when Ovinton J’Anthony (you see why they went with OJ, don’t you?) arrives at a photo studio in West L.A. Entrance low key, greetings warm like the weather. We’ve known OJ for a minute, going back to his early, buzz-building runs at ABCD Camp and through time spent on a cold weekend in Cincinnati a few years back, when he and fellow transplant Bill Walker were in the midst of demolishing the Ohio prep ranks. Today, he is accompanied only by Rodney Guillory, an advisor of sorts and the closest thing to family OJ has out here.
OJ sits for a quick shape-up, and conversation sparks. He says he’s been running with NBA and college cats since he landed. Says he’s playing well, inspired by the level of competition. Admits the best-case scenario for his freshman season involves a Durant-like impact, a deep Tourney run and a very early trip to that podium at MSG next June. “That could be a goal,” he smiles, “but you never know.” Then, a shift in the flow. “What do you think about Michael Vick?” Opinions fly. OJ offers an anecdote; people fight dogs where he’s from, too. He’s seen the aftermath, pits with half their faces torn off. He’s not condoning, just saying. This is part of the story of where he comes from.
Huntington, WV, sits tight against the Ohio River, squeezed into a spot where the borders of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky intersect. A former railroad hub and home to Marshall University, Huntington hosts the annual state chili cook-off and the West Virginia Hot Dog Festival; according to the city’s website, the mayor holds an open house at Hillbilly Hotdogs downtown the first Tuesday of every month. A prominent bridge and a wing of the local hospital are named for Robert C. Byrd, the long-serving senator and former leader in the Ku Klux Klan. The most recent census shows a dwindling population of about 50,000, nearly 90 percent white and about 7 percent black. As of 2000, nearly a quarter of Huntington residents lived below the poverty line.
This is not to pick on Huntington—it could be anywhere, really—but Huntington is OJ Mayo’s hometown. And he’s proud of it. He shouts out Hal Greer Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares, named after the NBA Hall of Famer and Huntington native; when OJ talks about returning to Huntington High School for his senior year, he smiles at how the city re-embraced him, how the pride of a state title run and national ranking reflected on its people. But the fact that a city, or a significant part of it, needs a successful high school basketball team to feel good about itself…well, that says something, too.
“A lot of people there, it’s the same old thing: You graduate from high school, you flip a few burgers, or you don’t,” OJ says. “There’s really no opportunity. Everybody’s kind of in survival mode. It’s a lot of single-parent homes, father’s either in jail, smoked out or trying to hustle. If anything good’s going on, it’s going toward people who already have a set life. So me moving back where I started from, having nothing, I think I gave a lot of kids the opportunity to say, ‘Man, if I get a hold of a sport, or whatever I like to do, if I take it seriously, maybe something can happen.’”
You might read this and assume OJ Mayo has an inflated opinion of himself. Or, you could assume he’s right.
“That team captured the community, and the youngsters here idolize him,” says Rick McClure, sports editor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. “To them, he’s a king. He’s a god.” McClure has lived in Huntington for 30 years. He describes the city’s south side, home to the majority of Huntington’s black residents, as “literally the other side of the tracks. There’s a lot of dilapidated housing.” McClure goes back long enough to have seen OJ’s father, Kenny Ziegler, play ball in Huntington. “He was a good player,” McClure says, “but he had a lot of troubles.”