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The Heartbreak of O.J. Mayo, Part V: The House with the Red Door

With all hope of redemption gone, Mayo makes peace with what he's lost.

This is the final installment in a five-part series. You can read previous installments here:

[Author’s Note: The following is a work of (mostly) fiction. It is dedicated to IKC.]

Today’s soundtrack is: “Louis Collins” by Charlie Parr and “Unknown Brother” by The Black Keys

January 13, 2017

North of Chalinze, Tanzania

The sun is already well above the horizon by the time Mayo steps out of his tent, canteen in hand, sunglasses pulled down over his eyes. Without so much as a glance at the guide, currently in the process of inspecting the Jeep, Mayo sits, cross-legged, opposite me by the gray remains of the cook fire. He drains the canteen in two gulps, then tosses it aside.

I'm beginning to wonder if he's even noticed my presence when he pulls the shades up. “I hope your search went better than mine,” he says.

“About the same,” I admit with a shrug. “Guess that Eat, Pray, Love book was full of s—.”

Mayo laughs, the first sign of joy I've seen from him in a while. “Never trust a Julia Roberts movie for life advice. I could've told you that.”

“I wish you would have. You could've saved me a lot of time and money.”

Mayo smiles before falling silent again. Finally, he says, “I guess it's time to pack it in. The witch doctor was right. I just thought, for just a few days, I finally had a chance to fix everything that went wrong in my career, ya know? Like, I finally found where everything went wrong — why everything went wrong — and this was my one shot to get something back. For the first time in a long time, I actually had a little bit of hope.”

I remind him that he'll still have another shot in the NBA. Next summer, he'll be eligible for reinstatement, and if things go right, he's still got a year or two left in his prime.

But, Mayo tells me, it just isn't the same.

“I was supposed to be a superstar,” he says. “Everything that I did, from high school through my rookie season, said I was gonna be one of the best in the league. One of the best in the history of the league. Then, just like that, it was gone, all because of some bad luck.” He shakes his head, reaching up to run a hand through his hair. “It's just… I wake up every morning and the only thing my mind wants to do is replay everything that happened to figure out what I could’ve done differently. Where am I going to find answers to those questions now?”

“To be honest,” I say, “I don’t think you will. I think the only way to deal with those sort of 'what if's is to just accept what happened and make the best of what's left. If you spend too much time worrying over everything you might've done wrong, you'll miss all the things that you've gotten right.”

"And that's supposed to make things easier?"

"I don't really think there's anything you can do to make it easier. I just think it's the only way to go on without wandering in circles."

“'If I look back, I am lost,'” Mayo says with a wry smile. “I guess Dany was right.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I guess she was.”

For a while, Mayo sits in silence, eyes scanning the horizon as he gathers his thoughts. When he spots the guide, still laboring over the Jeep, he sighs before collecting his canteen and pushing himself to his feet. “Well, I guess it’s time to get out of this hellhole.” As he heads to his tent, he calls back to me over his shoulder. “Pack your s—-. I’ve got one more place I want to visit before we head home.”

January 15, 2017

Table Mountain

When the Jeep was finally loaded, Mayo instructed the guide to drive us the two hours to Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city, and drop us off at the airport. Once there, Mayo, now dressed in jeans and a plain tee, paid the guide, including a generous tip for any trouble we’d caused him, and purchased a pair of tickets. Some seven hours and a layover at Johannesburg later, we stepped out in Cape Town, way down at the southern tip of the continent.

The majority of our first day there was spent sleeping off the physical exhaustion brought on by the long hours of travel and the emotional toil of laying to rest the last vestiges of Mayo’s hopes.

Today, though, Mayo has decided he wants one last long hike. So, that morning, accompanied by a friend who’d met us at the hotel the previous day — the same friend who, just two weeks ago, had spent New Year’s Eve with Mayo at the Burj Khalifa — we set out south from the city, into Table Mountain National Park, and up Platteklip Gorge. The climb is over two hours long and insufferably hot, and more than once draws obscenities from all parties involved, but, once completed, seems an inadequate toll for the reward that is the splendorous view.

Looking north, the entire city of Cape Town is laid out, low houses and skyscrapers crushed together like a crowded parking lot, broken by patches of green. Behind it, running on and on until it fades imperceptibly into an azure sky, lays the vast expanse of the Atlantic.

They wanted me to JUMP!! ♠️Eagles-eye VIEWS

A post shared by OJ Mayo (@juicemayo3) on

Living Life on Top!! Me and Mine!!! @travelawsome

A post shared by OJ Mayo (@juicemayo3) on

For a few minutes, we stand in awe-induced silence, drinking in the view and listening to the sea, its usual roar diminished to endless whispers by distance. Mayo pulls out his phone to snap a selfie, then has me take another picture with his friend. Eventually, the three of us settle into a spot by the edge and sit. Mayo’s friend asks about the trip to Tanzania, and Mayo recounts, truthfully for the most part, embellished in some places, the events of the last week.

“You know,” Mayo says, when he’s finished the tale, “I think the worst part about it is the helplessness. I think back on what I had, and what should have been, and I just know that, no matter how hard I work, no matter how hard I wish, I’ll never be able to get it back. I think that's the most painful part.”

But Mayo says that he’s determined to finally let go of the past, to look for the silver linings and focus on the future. He still has a chance to salvage something; next July, he’ll be allowed to apply for reinstatement and take one more shot at making it big in the NBA. Even if it’s not the superstar life that he once envisioned, it’s still the opportunity to play the game he loves on the biggest stage.

There will still be good days and bad, and the road back will not be an easy one, but Mayo’s one of the lucky ones. After all, not everyone gets second chances with what they’ve lost. And maybe Mayo will hold tighter to what he has because of what’s slipped through his fingers before.

Maybe his next taste of NBA success will be made all the sweeter by this bitter episode. And maybe the lights of the big stage will shine brighter because of the two years he’s spent wandering in darkness.