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The Heartbreak of O.J. Mayo, Part I: Paradise Lost

O.J. Mayo was supposed to be a star. Then, everything went wrong. I caught up with him during his trip to Africa to ask him what happened.

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

Today’s soundtrack is: “Midnight Has Come and Gone” by Charlie Parr

O.J. Mayo was supposed to be a superstar.

After relocating to suburban Cincinnati early in his high school career, Mayo spent his sophomore and junior seasons doing his best impersonation of LeBron James, amassing accolades — two Mr. Basketball of Ohio awards, back-to-back Associated Press Division III Player of the Year awards, three consecutive AP poll titles — while attracting crowds so large his school was forced to find larger venues in which to play. February of his junior season, an Ohio-record 16,202 fans showed up to watch Mayo’s North College Hill team take on top-rated Oak Hill Academy of Virginia.

Mayo then moved back to his home state of West Virginia, where he put the exclamation point on his high school career: a 41 point, 10 rebound, 11 assist performance in the state championship game to give Huntington High School its third consecutive state title. The West Virginia Sports Writers Association rewarded him with the Bill Evans Award, an honor bestowed on the state’s best male basketball player.

Mayo was expected - again, like LeBron - to make the leap directly from high school to the NBA, but a change in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement forestalled that plan. Instead, the multi-state star and nation’s number one recruit took his talents to Southern California, where he spent the summer prior to the season playing pickup games against a list of NBA stars that included names like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Sam Cassell, and J.J. Redick.

In his lone season with the Trojans, Mayo appeared in 33 games, averaging 20.7 points, 4.5 boards, and 3.3 assists per game while shooting over 40% from behind the arc. He earned All-Pac-10 first team honors. Then, following a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament and amidst a cloud of accusations of NCAA violations, Mayo declared for the NBA draft.

Mayo was initially selected third overall by Minnesota, then shipped to Memphis in an eight-player deal. Memphis sent fifth overall pick Kevin Love, along with Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal, and Jason Collins. In exchange, the Grizzlies received Marko Jaric, Antoine Walker, and Greg Buckner in addition to Mayo.

At first, it appeared that Memphis had gotten the better of the trade. Mayo looked like the real deal. He started all 82 games as a rookie, averaging 18.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists in 38 minutes per game. He shot 38.4% from three with a true shooting percentage of 53.9%. He posted 30 or more points seven times.

Mayo also picked up right where he’d left off collecting awards. He was named to the All-Rookie First Team. Twice — October/November and April — he was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, directly behind Derrick Rose and two spots ahead of Russell Westbrook, both of whom would go on to win MVP awards. He finished ahead of Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon, and teammate/future Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.

The Grizzlies looked as if they’d hit the jackpot, as if they had set themselves up for the future by landing the type of superstar talent that they could build a championship contender around.

Then, slowly, steadily, everything began to fall apart.

For most players, performance follows a bell curve, rising into their athletic prime before tapering off as they age out. Mayo’s career numbers, on the other hand, formed more of a plateau, never significantly improving. In some statistical categories, Mayo’s rookie year represented his career high.

During his sophomore campaign, Mayo again started every game, and though his scoring average was down, he was more efficient. For the first time in his career, he eclipsed 40 points, though his next highest total was 28 points, and he scored in single digits 11 times, four more than the prior season.

Things took a dive the next year. Mayo started only 17 games. His minutes were slashed by a third, and his offense fell even harder. By the final year of his rookie deal, Mayo had been relieved of all starting duties. His scoring — per game and per 36 — never returned to the level of his rookie season, and his defense never improved enough to make up for the dropoff.

After what looked like such a promising start, the Grizzlies essentially gave up on Mayo. Amid salary cap concerns, Memphis opted against extending a qualifying offer that would’ve pushed $7.4 million.

Instead, Mayo headed south to Dallas, where he appeared to stumble into something of a renaissance. Once again he started every game and averaged over 15 points per. But Mayo's performance in Dallas faded in the second half of the season, kicking off a three-and-a-half-year downward spiral that would continue after he signed a 3-year, $24 million deal with the Bucks the next year.

His first season in Milwaukee, during which he set a career-low for games played, Mayo found himself the victim of conditioning issues and the butt of jokes. Former teammate, Rudy Gay, when asked about Mayo being out of shape, told the media, “[OJ] said he was hurt, and I guess when you’re hurt in Wisconsin, you eat.

Mayo’s performance only improved marginally in his second season. His third was marred by injuries. But even after the worst statistical season of his career, Mayo was set, like so many others last offseason, to cash in on the NBA’s cap spike.

Instead, his roller coaster ride of a career came to a sudden, crashing halt. On July 1, just as the moratorium kicked off, Mayo was suspended for two years for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Mayo had run afoul of the NBA before. In January of 2011, he was suspended 10 games for testing positive for a steroid. But the two-year ban implied something much worse. The NBA’s anti-drug policy only handed out suspensions of this magnitude for “drugs of abuse,” defined as “amphetamine and its analogs, cocaine, LSD, opiates (heroin, codeine, and morphine) and PCP.” This was no energy drink mix-up.

Nevertheless, Mayo refused to go down without a fight. Less than two months after his suspension, Mayo told TMZ in an airport interview that an appeal was “in the works” (or “didn’t work,” depending on who you ask) and that he’d soon tell his side of the story.

But if his side of the story was really forthcoming, it wasn’t happening soon. To fans and close family and friends alike, Mayo all but vanished, only reappearing intermittently on social media. His whereabouts became such a matter of mystery that it even prompted a search by Ryan Jones of Bleacher Report, who’d covered Mayo previously. Instead of answers, though, Jones only found shrugs and more questions.

Jones wrote that, after the TMZ video, “the extent of [Mayo’s] public appearances since has been a handful of Instagram posts, most recently those from a New Year’s trip to Africa.”

The photos were certainly no well-kept secret. The most infamous of them, in which Mayo can be seen, back to the camera, marching through arid Kenyan landscape with a spear clutched in his right hand, raised several eyebrows when it made the rounds on social media.

I'll C ya when I c ya! Hunting $eason

A post shared by OJ Mayo (@juicemayo3) on

[Caption: I’ll C ya when I c ya! Hunting $eason]

Those photos led many to speculate — some jokingly, some less so — that Mayo may have finally gone off the deep end. After the rapid rise and the massive expectations heaped on his shoulders, maybe, just maybe, Mayo had finally worn down.

But, as Jones can attest, even that simple conclusion leaves more questions. Where had things gone wrong? Could all of this have been prevented? And how did an NBA player who, as a rookie, appeared well on his way to stardom, wind up here, marching through empty desert?

As it turns out, though, there are answers out there. In fact, Mayo himself is happy to give them. He’ll gladly clear up the clouds of mystery that have shrouded his last year.

You simply have to be lucky enough to be traveling with him.

It’s the evening of January 7. In the western sky, the sun’s just taken its first cautionary step below the horizon, painting the sky the shade of a blood orange. Just outside of a makeshift tent of light canvas, hastily assembled only minutes earlier, Mayo crouches, sipping water from a canteen, spear across his knees, still clad in the red robe, now much dirtier, from the photo he had me take this morning.

Finished with the canteen, Mayo turns and fixes me with a stare. For a moment, the thought crosses my mind that I’ve crossed the line with the question, and that I’m going to be asked, when we break camp in the morning, to take a different trail.

Then, Mayo smiles. The massive gold Rolex glinting almost blindingly in the sunset, he holds his left hand up, palm forward, fingers spread wide. With his right index finger, he ticks off each of the fingers of his left hand. “They always tell you about the five stages of grief,” he says. He stops, sliding his right index finger into the purlicue of his left hand, squeezing it between thumb and forefinger. “They don’t tell you about those dark spaces in between where you can fall and never crawl out of.”

I’m left to puzzle over the meaning of those words as Mayo takes another deep gulp of water from the canteen. When he comes up for air again, he takes one look at the confusion on my face, as unmissable as his designer timepiece, and grins.

“This part of the journey started on New Year’s Eve, but the truth is, it really started long before that.”

Story continues tomorrow...