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The Heartbreak of O.J. Mayo, Part III: Blood in the Water

In search of the curse that's destroyed his career, Mayo finds a lead.

This is the third 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: “Death’s Black Train” by Charlie Parr and the Black Twig Pickers

January 8, 2017

Masai Mara Reserve


The sun’s barely begun hauling itself out of bed, leaving the eastern horizon an island of yellow in a black, star-strewn ocean, but Mayo is already stirring. He’s packed his tent and stowed it into the back of a Jeep, and he’s thrown together a plate of leftover rice, beans, and chapati, a Kenyan flatbread. When he spies me coming out of my tent, he waves me over, offering a share of his makeshift breakfast.

“So,” I say between bites, “let me make sure I’ve got this straight. According to the coffee reading, Hasheem Thabeet put a curse on you and your basketball career?”

“Not quite,” Mayo says. “See, I think Hasheem was just the carrier. So when Memphis drafted him, it didn’t just infect him. It infected every draft pick they made after him.” Holding up a hand, Mayo ticks off the list of Grizzlies post-Thabeet draft picks. “Sam Young, Xavier Henry, Dominique Jones, Josh Selby, Tony Wroten, Jamaal Franklin, Janis Timma, Jordan Adams, Jarell Martin, Wade Baldwin, Wang Zhelin...”

There’s a pause as Mayo finishes his list. “You’re forgetting two picks, though,” I say. “There’s—”

“Demarre and Greivis,” says Mayo. “I didn’t forget about them. Those two were the lucky ones. They got out fast enough, before the curse really sunk in.”

“What about Xavier?” I ask. “He left after one season. Why didn’t that save him?”

Mayo shrugs. “It’s not all about the curse. Sometimes guys just ain’t good at basketball.”

“You know,” I say, “I think your fortune teller got it wrong. That sounds more like a Chris Wallace curse than a Hasheem Thabeet curse.”

Mayo laughs.

I continued on. “There’s one thing I don’t understand, though. You say that the curse infected you because you were young and going into your second year. But what about Marc and Mike? Marc was drafted the same year as you. And Mike’s the same age as you. Why didn’t it affect them?”

“You know, I’ve thought about that a lot. I don’t know that I’ve really got a good answer. Best I can come up was that I got the worst of it, so they didn’t suffer as much.”

“So you took a bullet for them?”

“Something like that.” Mayo wipes the last of his beans with the last of his chapati, then stows the plate into his backpack. “So, what brings you here? What are you searching for?”

The question is asked offhandedly, not pointed at all, but it catches me off-guard nonetheless. I shove a mouthful of beans into my mouth to buy myself some time, but even after that, the best I can offer by way of an answer is a weak shrug and “Peace of mind, I guess.”

“Huh,” Mayo says. “And I thought I had my work cut out for me.” He stands and starts walking back towards the rest of his party, in the midst of making final preparations. “Well, we’ve got an open seat in the Jeep. If you want some company while you try to find your peace, you’re welcome to ride with us.”

An hour later, Mayo and I occupy the back seats of his Jeep. In the two front seats are a pair of guides. The one behind the wheel is a local, a tour guide who Mayo has paid to help him navigate the area and serve as an interpreter. The other is, to use his own word, a Babu, a village medicine man who, if he is to be believed — as Mayo obviously has — is also an expert on spirits, an aficionado of omens, and a connoisseur of curses.

Between the pair of guides, front paws on the headrests, nose held high into the rush of air, sits the last member of our party: a massive bloodhound named Eris.

Just before we’d climbed into the Jeep, as I added my single stone to the mountain of equipment in the back, I saw Mayo reach beneath his robe and pull out a scrap of Beale Street Blue cloth, jagged along the edges as if it had been forcefully ripped from its parent, and held it to the nose of the bloodhound.

I didn’t ask where Mayo had gotten the jersey. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.

Mayo, his spirits buoyed by the natural stimulant of hope, is in a talkative mood, and we spend the ride talking about a list of topics so varied that they seem as if they must’ve been drawn at random from a hat: the current landscape of the NBA; the best old video games; favorite music; George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series; whether or not pineapple belongs on pizza. Mayo bounces from topic to topic effortlessly, seemingly happy just to have someone to talk to.

We’ve been riding along for a couple of hours, heading south-by-southeast, past the border into Tanzania, when the Jeep makes it first stop in what looks, as far as I can tell, no different than any of the other landscape we’ve passed along the way. Mayo, noticing my confusion, says, “Gotta let the dog out. See if he’s picked anything up yet.”

As soon as we’re out, Mayo produces the cloth from his robe again, cups it gently to the hound’s nostrils, and lets the animal fill its lungs with the scent of a second overall pick wasted. Once keyed on the scent, the dog sticks his nose to the ground. The four of us stand there, waiting for the dog to give some sign — a bark, a howl, anything — that he’s found something. But a quarter of an hour later, the dog has found nothing.

I expect Mayo’s smile to be gone, for the failure to have taken at least some of the wind out of his sails. But as we settle back into the Jeep, his smile is as big as ever. “We’re searching for a needle in a haystack,” he says, answering my unasked question. “You can’t expect everything to happen on the first try.”

As the Jeep winds its way further south, zigging and zagging a path around the southern edge of Lake Natron, we keep this routine, stopping every hour or so to let the dog make another go at finding something to follow. Through the morning, into the afternoon, the results are the same as the initial stop: The dog sniffs around, scratches at the dirt, and marks territory before scampering back into its seat.

Then, with the sun at the edge of the horizon, threatening to plunge the sky into darkness at any moment, the Jeep pulls to a stop outside Arusha, a city of just over 400,000. The dog accepts another whiff of Mayo’s bouquet, then sets his nose to the ground.

Thirty feet in front of the Jeep, the dog freezes. When his head snaps to attention, his lip is curled into a snarl. He growls.

Mayo claps his hands. “Looks like we have a winner,” he says, laughing. “Alright, Eris, lead the way.”

One of the guides climbs into the Jeep to follow. The other, along with Mayo and me, chase after the dog as it gives chase after whatever smell had raised his ire. Thirty minutes later, he comes to a stop. The angry look is gone, replaced with a look of confusion. At Mayo’s command, he sniffs around once more, but there’s nothing. The trail has gone cold.

Mayo curses, but his frustration disappears quickly. “It’s not much,” he says, “but it’s a start.”

The last minutes of daylight are spent setting up camp. Over dinner, Mayo revels in the day’s success, confident that tomorrow will only be better.

Story continues tomorrow...