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.”
“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?”
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.