“I’ve put myself in some bad situations,” OJ says, “but at the same time, where I was was a bad situation, you know? But I couldn’t do nothing about that. I was born where I was born.”
These are OJ Mayo’s roots: Huntington; a single mother, Alisha, supporting OJ and his siblings on the salary of a nurse’s assistant; a father OJ describes as “in and out of jail” and with whom he tries to maintain some semblance of a relationship, “because you only have one dad”; a “grandfather,” Dwaine Barnes, the man who helped raise OJ’s dad and stepped in to fill that void in OJ’s life. Barnes was his AAU coach, the man who took Mayo and his friend and teammate, Bill Walker, up to Cincinnati’s North College Hill High School and had both players fast-tracked for delivery to Bob Huggins. Mayo says Barnes taught him discipline and the importance of making good decisions, but says he eventually felt constrained by Barnes’ reluctance to deal with the media or broaden OJ’s college options. “He’s a great coach and a great father figure, but sometimes you can’t be so hard on people,” Mayo says. “He did a great job, but after a while, you gotta release from that… We’re not really on speaking terms, but it’s cool. He brought me into this game. I know he’s rooting for me.”
Mayo can be forgiven the family he was born to, but not so easily his choice in friends. Like the dude whose car he was sitting in on a Friday night in March, a Caddy that, OJ says, happened to be near a house that was being raided by the county sheriff. Deputies pulled over the car, found small amounts of marijuana in the vehicle and on another passenger. Mayo caught a misdemeanor possession charge, which was dropped within days. The fact that he was a high school kid with access to weed on a weekend night last spring seems too absurd to bother anyone; the valid issue, if one exists, is why he’d risk his future hanging with dudes who might bring him down.
“I came back to Huntington after three years,” he says, “and they’re the only guys I know. They were on my midget league football team. We played baseball together. You don’t know how deep they are into the game. Then you catch yourself on the wrong street, they’re raiding a house next door, and bam—you get a headline news story.”
Even if you haven’t assumed the worst, it’s difficult not to criticize OJ’s decision making. As in: Don’t hang with the murky dudes you grew up with, even if they’re the only ones you feel you can trust. Don’t brush that ref, even if the YouTube clip of his dive has been “favorited” by guys named Divac and Manu. Don’t chuck the ball into the stands at the end of the state title game, even if the frustration and joy of everything you’ve dealt with and overcome bubbles up in that moment and demands release. And please, whatever you do, don’t mock the mockery that is the standard NCAA superstar recruiting process, proactively pick a college based on your own criteria and research, and have a guy with an NCAA wrist-slap on his record deliver the news to your dumbstruck future coach.
This is paradise for the presumptuous. Before choosing the Trojans, OJ’s only connection to the L.A. area was Guillory, a local high school tournament promoter whose previous claim to infamy was being implicated as a “runner” who funneled money from an agent to college players. Where the NCAA is concerned, Guillory might as well be Ebola—come in contact with him, and the quick, bloody death of your eligibility is bound to follow. And then OJ Mayo from Huntington, WV, ends up at a school 2,300 miles from home, a school that didn’t even recruit him, in a town where the only guy he really knows is…yeah.
Guillory spends the day with us, rolls from the photo studio back toward the heart of the city, to the legendary Shrine Auditorium, next door to USC’s downtown campus. Mayo and Guillory met at ABCD Camp, back when Mayo was a junior high prodigy; they acknowledge a mutual trust, built over time. Today, Guillory positions himself as the caretaker of Mayo’s reputation and eligibility. He asks if the Bentley we rented for the photo shoot is a good idea. “Too Hollywood,” Rodney says. “This ain’t Hollywood. This is the hood.” He makes sure no one tries to pay for OJ’s Double-Double when we stop at In-N-Out after the last shoot of the day. “Extra benefits,” he says. The irony is remarkable.
Guillory doesn’t want to talk on the record. He figures there’s nothing he can say to convince anyone he’s not dirty, that he’s not pulling strings, that he’s anything other than a hustler and a leech. But OJ won’t let it stand.
“When people say that, I take it as an insult, like I have no mind,” Mayo says. “Rodney, just because he’s messed up, doesn’t mean he’s not a good guy. I’ve been through negative things, where it’s like, ‘This kid’s bad, he’s probably not going to make it,’ and he was there, like, mentoring me through different problems. I didn’t have a father, I moved away from my mom, my grandfather was doing his thing. I’m 15, 16. What, I’m supposed to just do it on my own?”