By Ryan Jones

I was flipping through old SLAM issues recently when I skimmed over one of LeBron James’ Basketball Diairies. Ah, how young we all were: LeBron was wearing head-to-toe adidas and didn’t yet own a Hummer. The issue in question was SLAM 62 (Aug. 02), with LeBron and Sebastian Telfair on the cover. It was kind of audacious at the time — too much too soon for Bron, and maybe too much period for Bassy — especially given the uber-confident tone of the cover. The two high schoolers on the front page could not possibly have looked more cocky, and then there was the headline:

“The Takeover.”

It was a tone carried over in Bron’s diary that month. His opening line? “Well, you seen the cover, so you know what’s up.” Yes, I suppose we did.

Which brings me to… OJ Mayo. You seen the cover, so you know what’s up.

Too much, too soon? Too much, period? I imagine a few of you are having those thoughts right now, thoughts that are perhaps made more colorful by profanity and questions of our nerve, judgment and/or sanity. Maybe you’re disappointed but not surprised. And at least some of you (I hope) are actually feeling it, psyched about this kid’s potential and curious to hear more about who he is, where he came from and what makes him tick. For that, you’ll have to check the issue. This post qualifies as supplemental reading.

I’ll start with a question: Why is OJ Mayo on the cover? Well, we think he’s pretty good at basketball. We’re not the only ones who think that, of course, nor were we the first — if you listened close enough, kid’s name was buzzing nationally when he was in 7th grade — but we’ve been thinking it for a while, and have continued to think it even after some of the experts started swapping praise for criticism. As I’ve written on this site previously, we tend to think that criticism has been overblown, a reaction to the fact that OJ was so good so soon, he was only going to improve so much continuing to play against high school comp. So, all that love for his game (or a lot of it, at least) turned to hate, “amazing talent” became “overrated” and “underachieving,” and inevitably, the tide turned. For better or worse, we’ve stayed steady with ours. We thought he was exceptionally dope when we first saw him at ABCD Camp as an 8th grader, we think he’s exceptionally dope as an almost-20-year-old college freshman, and we think he’ll be pretty dope as an NBA rookie next year.

All that said, this cover is about more than oncourt ability. It’s no longer my call, as I hung up my Ed. hat (a fitted, of course) about nine months ago, but I don’t think this cover happens now if OJ’s story isn’t so interesting. Again, you’ll have to check the mag for details, but it’s enough to know that OJ Mayo’s story combines the all-too-familiar cliche of the young black ballplayer — poor, single-parent household, etc and so forth — with almost unparalleled levels of media hype and a run of image-shaping circumstances that’s almost too strange to believe. He’s made a couple of undeniably dumb choices along the way (raise your hand if you made it through high school without doing the same, or if ESPN and the New York Times were keeping track when you did), but credit and blame for much of what he’s dealt with goes to the people around him.

And boy, have there been some interesting people around him.

We’ve been cool with OJ since his sophomore year of high school, and being on the periphery of his circle and being friendly with many of the people who helped guide his prep career, we heard and saw a lot. We watched him bounce from his hometown in West Virginia to live with his “grandfather” in Cincinnati, and we heard the rumors that, although friend and teammate Bill Walker was living just around the block, OJ was essentially living by himself for stretches of his time in Ohio. What we heard what that a kid who had grown up without a father and never had a single consistent male role model; and whose mother, busy with work and raising her younger kids, was living over the state line; and who’d had the media jocking his every move since he was in junior high; and who had a multi-million dollar NBA career at stake; was occasionally fending for himself.

We heard other rumors, too, about bad habits, about getting in fights, general knucklehead behavior that generally wasn’t substantiated. We heard it all, much of it from people we trust, and then we compared it with what we knew, or at least what we’d observed first-hand: That OJ Mayo had never been anything less than polite and inquisitive and accomodating. And mostly, we’ve decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

All this is to say that, personally, I was excited about hanging out with OJ Mayo on a long Saturday afternoon back in August. Professionally, I was confident he’d make for a great interview, both because of the reasons stated above, and because he’d already made clear that he was eager to talk. He didn’t disappoint.

I made the PA to CA trip early on a Friday morning, landed at LAX, immediately hit the In N Out that sits at the foot of the LAX inbound runway — don’t know why, but the combination of jetfuel and deafness just makes a burger taste better — drove to my hotel in downtown L.A., and laid down for a nap. This was, like, 1 p.m.

I woke up at about 10 p.m.

Any hopes of getting acclimated to West Coast time during my 36-hour stay now totally shattered, I went for a late-night walk in downtown L.A. (which, if you’ve been there, you know is not all that fun), an experience highlighted by being hit up for loose change by the same homeless guy twice in about five minutes. Apparently, he was walking one way around the block, and I was walking the other, and so we passed each other twice. As socially awkward moments go, this is up there.

I ended up finally going back to sleep at about 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, psyched for a 9 a.m. wake-up call. Only the promise of more In N Out in my near future got me out of bed. Also, I had that interview to do. So, bleery eyed but motivated, I rolled out to the photo studio in West L.A., where we’d begin our work day. SLAM’s go-to gunner, photographer Atiba Jefferson (who’s good at taking pictures, and also claims to be good with his thumbs) was there with his crew getting set up, while SLAM creative director Melissa Brennan was doing the glamorous work that big-time magazine creative directors do: She was ironing t-shirts.

OJ ran about 45 minutes late, tardiness blamed on a relatively believable streetname mix-up. (It is L.A., after all). He finally rolled in with Rodney Guillory, his L.A. lifeline, advisor and sounding board. Catching up was as easy as I’d expected: OJ was his usual charismatic self, making small talk, asking questions, seeming at ease with the attention but not caught up in it. A local barber that OJ and Rodney are cool with came through to give him a pre-photo shoot shape-up, so while we waited, we bullsh*tted about L.A. food, women and weather, about his first impressions of college life, about Mike Vick, about Kobe, about whatever.

My interview approach for this story was a little different than most. Guillory, whose name you should know by now, was our go-between on this process, and he’d asked me more than once what my “angle” was on this story. I usually try not to approach an interview with an angle per se, but I understood why he was asking; when you’ve had well-known cats in national newspapers and on the Worldwide Follower calling you names and questioning your character before high school graduation, it figures you’d be at least a little cautious with your interviews. What helped, in our case, was that OJ felt comfortable with SLAM in general, and with me in particular. Our own history with him, and this magazine’s tendency to give ballplayers the benefit of the doubt, definitely played a role.

Here’s the thing about that: I’m not naive. I may have been once, and more recently than I’d like to admit, but I know enough to understand that a guy in OJ Mayo’s position — a kid with an image to repair — would see SLAM as the most likely media outlet to be sympathetic to his side of the story. I also know that athletes, like other humans, are capable of bullsh*tting, and I’m aware that OJ, charismatic and personable as he is, could probably bullsh*t better than most. (I’ve been conned by intelligent and immensely talented L.A.-based ballplayers before, but that’s a story for another time). I could assume that OJ is everything his most vehement critics insist he is: A bully, a punk, a fraud. But I haven’t, both because it’s not what I’ve seen first hand, and because, again, I feel like a kid who’s dealt with the things he’s dealt with, and overcome the things he’s trying to overcome, should have a chance to prove conclusively who they are and what they’re about.

Anyway, back to L.A. We ran through a couple of photo set ups at the studio, then rolled to some old high school a few miles away — where, apparently, they used to shoot some of the exterior scenes at this old TV show called Beverly Hills 90210 (kids, ask your parents if they’ve heard of it) — and did some more dope set-ups. The theme was OJ as the regular Joe on campus, and it’s a role he says he embraces. He doesn’t front like he’s going to spend the next four years in college, but he also insists he’s taking school seriously. This is not because he’s a book worm necessarily, but because he’s got big plans for his post-basketball future. He wants to learn business, marketing, real estate. If he follows through on the things he’s talking about now, OJ’s gonna be giving Magic a run for his mogul title in 15 or 20 years.

After more pictures and a little more interview time at the high school, it was back on to the freeway, back toward downtown. We rolled up to the empty parking lot at the Shrine Auditorium, the historic hall that’s played host to the Oscars and pretty much every other awards show over the years. That’s where we shot the set-up with the Bentley, and it was also a chance to see how OJ knows he’s isn’t there yet — the way dude’s eyes lit up when he saw the ride said a lot about how far he still feels he has to go. It still seems like a dream to him — and it is, at the moment; the Bentley was a rental — something he’s chasing but has yet to grab.

One other thing that stuck with me about the car: I asked him if he liked it (duh), and then asked if that’d be the first dope car he’d buy with his NBA money. He thought about it for a second, then said, “Nah. A Maserati.” Not bad, but also not expected. I could be reaching here, but I loved the metaphor: This is the kid who chose the football school because he wanted to shine on his own terms, help put USC hoops on the map. Not, in other words, the kid who wanted to go to UNC or UConn or any other established power. Just like he didn’t want the car that every other baller would roll in.

After that, we wrapped things up and rolled to Inglewood, home to the nearest In N Out. OJ was still rocking the USC t-shirt and hat he wore at the shoot, and maybe because it was too obvious — five miles from the USC campus, rocking the school colors head to toe, could that really be him? — OJ wasn’t recognized by anyone. It was strange. Here’s guessing it won’t last long.