With the exception of a TMZ airport ambush and a handful of Instagram posts from the other side of the world, NBA fans haven’t heard a word from O.J. Mayo since last July, when the league announced his dismissal for an unspecified violation of its anti-drug program.
One year later, it seems no one in or around the NBA has heard from him, either.
That’s the takeaway from 10 months of reporting, in which attempts to reach nearly 40 of Mayo’s former teammates, coaches, agents, GMs and players union reps turned up little more than a parade of no comments—when they responded at all. Most of our dozens of calls, emails and Twitter messages were never returned.
While frustrating, the lack of replies—let alone answers—was in itself illuminating. It spoke to the strange cloud that has hovered over Mayo’s public life since long before he made it to the NBA. The product of a difficult upbringing, Mayo seemed to have a knack for finding—or putting—himself in difficult situations. His prep career featured stops at three high schools in three states, and though he was cleared, he saw that span tainted by allegations ranging from drug possession to assaulting a referee. His sole season at USC is remembered less for his first-team All-Pac 10 performance than for the murky recruitment process that eventually handcuffed the Trojans with self-imposed sanctions.
The No. 3 pick in the 2008 NBA draft, Mayo started every game for the Memphis Grizzlies his first season and averaged 18.5 points per contest, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting. It would be his best year as a pro: He put up comparable numbers in his second season but was relegated to the bench for most of his last two years in Memphis. That time included a 10-day suspension after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He later blamed it on an energy drink he bought at a gas station.
From there, he spent a season in Dallas that began with promise but ended with a thud and followed it with another free-agent move to Milwaukee, where he spent three relatively quiet years with the Bucks.
In 2015-16, he battled a variety of injuries and played just 41 games; when the offseason arrived, he was an eight-year journeyman coming off a career-worst season—but also just 28 years old and a career 13.8 points-per-game scorer capable of playing either guard spot in a pinch.
With a record free-agent season about to get underway, it was hardly absurd to think that some team looking for backcourt depth might hand Mayo a contract at least on par with, say, the three-year, $27-million deal that his draft classmate Jerryd Bayless earned from the Philadelphia Sixers.
And then, on July 1, 2016, he was gone.
Per league and National Basketball Players Association rules, the official statement was vague about the violation but specific about the punishment: Mayo was “dismissed and disqualified” from the NBA, and eligible to apply for reinstatement after two years. What was clear was that this wasn’t a case of accidentally ingesting a PED or getting caught with a joint; by definition, a suspension of that magnitude could only come from testing positive for “drugs of abuse,” anything from cocaine to opiates.
Anyone expecting an explanation from Mayo—a televised mea culpa, a first-person essay, even just a press release—quickly realized there would be no such thing. Six weeks went by without a word, the silence finally broken in a brief encounter with a TMZ cameraman at LAX. Asked whether he was appealing the suspension, Mayo smiled and said either “it’s in the works” or “it didn’t work.” A year later, the difference seems irrelevant, the outcome the same.
The extent of his public utterances since has been a handful of Instagram posts, most recently those from a New Year’s trip to Africa: In one, he wears what appear to be tribal robes at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya; in two others, he’s sitting on a rocky outcropping atop South Africa’s Table Mountain, with tiny buildings below and the South Atlantic reaching out to the horizon in the distance. That was mid-January. He hasn’t posted since.
All of this would be strange enough if Mayo were only keeping a low public profile; the fact that even recent teammates don’t have a clue what he’s up to is something else entirely. Michael Carter-Williams spent a season-and-a-half with Mayo in Milwaukee, including the 2015-16 campaign. When I caught up with him in Chicago this spring, I asked Carter-Williams if he’d spoken with his fellow former Buck. “I haven’t,” he said. “I haven’t even heard anything.”
When the same question was posed to Gerald Henderson, who crossed paths with Mayo on the AAU and USA Basketball circuits in high school, he flashed me a dubious look, grabbed my media credential and asked who I worked for. (This seemed less an implied threat than genuine surprise that a credentialed media member was trying to track down this story.)
Mayo’s college coach, Tim Floyd, sent a very polite text explaining that he would pass on an interview request. And multiple messages left with Mayo’s agency, Landmark Sports—run by Rob Pelinka until his recent move to the Lakers front office—went unreturned. As of this July, Mayo’s name and photo were still included on the client list on the agency’s website.
From these interactions and from the silence of a few dozen “no comments” and non-replies, the implication was clear: The basketball world doesn’t know what’s going on with Mayo, nor is it particularly interested in trying to find out. With his present a mystery and his basketball future in serious doubt, his past was the one thing it seemed possible to understand.
I have a clear memory of the first time I saw O.J. Mayo on television. It was the winter of 2002, and I was in Philadelphia for Slam magazine to cover LeBron James and his St. Vincent-St. Mary squad. Flipping through the channels at my hotel that night, I caught a short segment on one of the cable news channels asking whether a kid starring for a small high school in Kentucky might be “the next LeBron.” That kid was Mayo. He was in seventh grade.
We met a year or so later, by which time Mayo was settled with his childhood friend Bill Walker at North College Hill High School outside Cincinnati. A native of Huntington, West Virginia, Mayo had first found fame as a middle schooler at Rose Hill Christian School, about 15 miles northwest in Ashland, Kentucky. The move to North College Hill was aimed at furthering his (and Walker’s) basketball development.
I remember being struck by Mayo’s intelligence—not just that he was smart but inquisitively so. You don’t expect star high school athletes to be actively curious, but Mayo was, asking me what I thought made Kobe Bryant tick and pressing me for a scouting report on a Chicago point guard in his class named Derrick Rose, whom he’d heard about but hadn’t yet faced on the court. He smiled easily. He was a likable, even charming, kid.
Still, the vibe around him was hard to read. Over those two days in Cincinnati, I only briefly met Mayo’s mother, Alisha, who seemed shy and not interested in talking to a reporter. Then there was Dwaine Barnes, the man Mayo called his grandfather, though they weren’t related; it was Barnes who coached Mayo and Walker on his D1 Greyhounds AAU team and who was reportedly Mayo’s legal guardian. Barnes didn’t do interviews.
Mayo’s father, Kenny Ziegler, was himself a former basketball star in Huntington and along with Barnes was instrumental in his son’s move to Ohio. But Ziegler was barely present: He had spent much of his adult life in and out of jail on drug and weapons charges, and in 2012, he would be sentenced to 130 months in federal prison  .
This was the foundation on which O.J. Mayo was trying to build his future.
On the court, that process seemed to be going just fine. Playing together in the summers and during the high school season, he and Walker were a daunting tandem. Where Walker’s game was a carbon copy of a young Vince Carter, Mayo at his best was somewhere between Jason Kidd and his role model, Kobe—a savvy, intensely competitive guard who could score or create with equal effectiveness. A pair of Ohio Mr. Basketball awards as a sophomore and junior seemed to confirm that potential—and made the “next LeBron” comparisons of a few years earlier seem prescient.
Mayo’s budding reputation brought with it a budding confidence. As the only high schooler among a crew of college counselors at Michael Jordan’s Flight School, he was matched up on the recently retired legend in a pickup game and decided to verbally engage. Jordan responded to Mayo’s impudence by dominating him the rest of the way. The script was flipped at the 2005 ABCD Camp, where a Brooklyn eighth-grader named Lance Stephenson challenged Mayo, then the camp’s most prominent player. Mayo owned the matchup from that point on, jawing at both his opponent and a sizable contingent of Brooklyn-based Stephenson supporters in the stands as he drained a flurry of jumpers in Stephenson’s face.
And then, unexpectedly, Mayo went back home, choosing to play his senior year at Huntington High School. Playing alongside big man Patrick Patterson, Mayo eventually led his hometown program to a West Virginia state title. But that dream ending to his prep career was not without its blemishes. Midway through the season, he was ejected from a game and, in the process of arguing the call, bumped and appeared to knock down the official. Video of the incident showed that the referee in question appeared to exaggerate the contact and had taken a dive, but Mayo nonetheless served a three-game suspension.
Two months later, and barely a week before the state title game, Mayo was in a car with a couple of childhood friends when they were pulled over by police; marijuana was found in the car. Mayo was cleared when one of the other passengers claimed the drugs, but as he finished a long, fascinating high school playing career, it was hard for many to shake the sense that he was a young man always on the verge of trouble.
Four months later, I drove a rental car down the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles as Mayo, in the passenger seat, tried to offer perspective for his choices and own up to his mistakes. We had connected this time for a Slam cover story timed with his arrival in Los Angeles. There was a photo shoot with a rented Bentley in front of the Shrine Auditorium, with a cover line that read “The Fresh Prince of L.A.”
Among the decisions Mayo tried to explain that day was the one that brought him to USC, whose coaches hadn’t seriously planned to recruit him until Mayo contacted them. It was a strange, perhaps unprecedented situation for a player ranked among the best in his class, but he justified it convincingly: Why wouldn’t a kid from small-town, rundown West Virginia want to go to Hollywood? Why wouldn’t a guy who so admired Bryant’s game and mindset want a chance to develop in his shadow?
“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,” he said at the time. “There’s a lot of people that make things happen out here.”
One such person was Rodney Guillory, a local tournament promoter whose affiliation with player agents had already run him afoul of the NCAA. Guillory had gotten tight with Mayo over the previous few years, and he was Mayo’s only connection to Los Angeles. Later, when Mayo’s brief college career was over and USC was forced to vacate the wins he was largely responsible for, it was Guillory who was implicated as the villain, the guy running the cash and gifts between Mayo and prospective agents.
In the meantime, there was one impressive season of college ball, in which Mayo averaged 20.7 points per game and made the All-Pac 10 first team alongside fellow freshmen Kevin Love and James Harden. His season ended with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to a Kansas State team led by Michael Beasley and Mayo’s old running mate Bill Walker. And then, inevitably, Mayo was off to the draft, leaving the Trojans to sort out the mess.
Minnesota chose Mayo third overall in June 2008 behind Rose and Beasley, and just ahead of the UCLA tandem of Russell Westbrook and Love—for whom Mayo was immediately traded to Memphis. The Grizzlies initially appeared to have gotten the better of the deal: Mayo averaged 18 points per contest over his first two seasons, starting every game. But as the team increasingly built around Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Mayo’s role was diminished; in his fourth season, he didn’t start a single game.
His 2012 free-agent move to Dallas seemed to make sense for all involved, particularly in a season that would see Dirk Nowitzki miss 29 games due to injury. Mayo was terrific in the season’s opening weeks, averaging nearly 21 points a game and hitting better than 50 percent from three. Rick Carlisle, the Mavs‘ famously hard-to-please head coach, had nothing but praise for his new addition. “He listens, he learns, he watches film, and when he gets challenged, he responds,” Carlisle told me then. “We’re still early in our relationship, but we really like him.”
It didn’t last. Mayo’s production dropped in the second half of the season, and things bottomed out that April in a home loss to the Grizzlies. Carlisle grew so frustrated with Mayo’s apparent lack of effort against his old team that he screamed for a timeout for the sole purpose of pulling him out. “He didn’t compete tonight,” Carlisle told a group of reporters afterward. “For him to show up like he did, I was shocked.”
His welcome in Dallas quickly worn out, Mayo once again went the free-agent route and signed a three-year deal with Milwaukee. He spent three mostly quiet seasons as a part-time starter with the Bucks, averaging 10.6 points per game and largely existing out of the spotlight. He missed most of the first month of the 2015-16 season with a hamstring injury; then in March, he went down with an ankle injury that, according to the official Bucks press release, occurred when he “tripped descending his stairs at home.” He underwent season-ending surgery that month. He hasn’t been seen on a basketball court since.
In nearly a year of asking questions—about why OJ was suspended, what he’s up to and whether we might ever see him play basketball again—the closest we got to an answer came from Arkell Bruce. Now the head coach at powerhouse Huntington Prep, Bruce was an assistant at Huntington High—and Mayo’s personal basketball trainer—when Mayo returned for his senior year. More to the point, Bruce said, “I’ve known him his whole life. He’s like family.”
Ten years Mayo’s senior, Bruce is a product of the same neighborhood, the same community: He counts Walker as a cousin, says Mayo’s’ mother is “like a big sister to me” and coached O.J.’s younger brother, Todd, in AAU ball. When we spoke last fall, Bruce said he hadn’t heard from Mayo since the suspension was announced—”I’m out of the loop, pretty much,” he said—and he was reluctant to speculate. But he wanted to say something.
“He needed the right people around him growing up,” Bruce said. “O.J. was basically abused growing up—not physically, but… people just took advantage.”
It’s just one perspective, a voice amplified by the silence that surrounds it. But others saw it, too. In 2008, as his time at USC wrapped up and the recruiting scandal was emerging, a columnist for the hometown Herald-Dispatch, Chuck Landon, wrote empathetically about Mayo, defending not his decisions, but the motivations of a kid who had grown up “hungry for a father figure. Hungry for a positive male role model. Hungry for a dad.”
For those who cared to pay attention, the conflict was never hard to see, nor was it terribly unique: A child in a man’s body, blessed with physical talent and a sharp mind, surrounded by all the usual traps of those growing up poor and black in America. A kid with a rare ticket out, held back by a lifetime of bad examples and a knack for self-sabotage.
When I spoke to Bruce, I mentioned how I’d always been struck by how smart Mayo was and wondered if that intelligence ever worked against him. “I know what you mean—like he’s too smart for his own good. In a sense, yeah,” Bruce said. “He’s very smart, and he’s surrounded himself with a lot of the wrong people, just kind of yes-men. He’s gonna do what he wants.”
I asked if he thought Mayo had anyone with pure intentions looking out for him today.
“No,” he said. “No. He’s stubborn. He’s hard to look after.”
We’re no longer talking about a child, of course. O.J. Mayo will be 30 in November. He will have earned about $45 million in eight NBA seasons. At this point, there is no measure by which he is not an adult, responsible for his choices, good and bad. The stakes now go beyond trivialities like academic eligibility and mere reputation. This is about his career. His life.
Thinking about all this brought me back to something Mayo said 10 years ago, on that summer afternoon in Los Angeles. “What’s the average time you live on earth—like 60, 65 years?” he asked. “Basketball’s gonna take up half of it. I’d like to be successful in the other half, too.”
Presumably it’s not too late.
Ryan Jones is a writer living in Pennsylvania. He’s the former editor-in-chief of Slam magazine and has written about sports and culture for XXL, Spin, Vibe and Esquire.com. Reach him on Twitter @thefarmerjones.
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