Mayo maintains his decision to come to USC had nothing to do with Guillory. “He was like, ‘Why would you go to SC? That’s a football school,’” OJ laughs. He says he chose the Trojans because he didn’t want to be the latest cog in a dominant program; because he respected Tim Floyd’s ability to make the most of NBA coaching gigs that were preordained for failure; and because when you’ve spent all your life at the intersection of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, L.A. seems even more beautiful than it occasionally is. There’s another reason, as well.
“A lot of people who went to SC didn’t play ball—people who do films, lawyers and doctors, people who do things in real estate and business,” OJ says. “There’s a lot of people that make things happen out here.” He says he dreams of one day going back to Huntington and helping to redevelop it.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be done there,” he continues. “I’ve always had a goal to be mentioned in that category with Jordan, Magic, Bird, Isiah. But after that, then what? What’s the average time you live on earth? Like 60, 65 years? Basketball’s gonna take up half of it. I’d like to be successful in the other half, too.”
Mayo’s cynics will likely be unmoved. Those who know him won’t be surprised. “People focus on the negative too much,” says Kevin Love. “They think he’s a bad kid, but that’s not the case.”
The UCLA freshman has known OJ as a rival and friend since junior high. Love says Mayo was the only high schooler he faced who could match his competitiveness, a fact that makes their pending crosstown rivalry all the more compelling. “We’ve talked about dealing with all the negative stuff, and I totally respect how he’s handled it,” Kev says.
The role of postmodern high school phenom was originated by LeBron James, and as such, James is ideally placed to give Mayo advice. Sure enough, they speak often. “I never put it in the perspective of what people thought about me, so people wondering why he does some of the things he does—he’s his own man. He should make his own decisions,” LeBron says. “We just talk about making sure he maintains his focus, and making sure basketball is always fun. He’s done a great job of that.”
McClure could be excused for wanting to pass this particular story on to the folks in L.A., for whom it seems a more natural fit. But no. “If you’ve been with him, you’ve talked to him, you know how intelligent he is,” the Huntington sports editor says. “I think most people here are able to say, ‘Hey, he’s a kid, he’s gonna make mistakes,’ and I think he’s smart enough to know this is a big opportunity for him. If he screws it up, what’s left?”
Not “if,” you might be saying, but “when.” If the Internet postulating and sports-talk moralizing have you convinced, OJ Mayo’s self-constructed downfall is a matter of time.
But maybe you’re willing to risk getting burned, able to accept that he is who he says he is. If so, you might believe that “What’s left?” is a question he already knows the answer to, and that it’s not an answer he can live with.