Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Alternative Chapters: OJ Mayo

Once or twice before, I’ve mentioned my yet-to-be-published (or even started) Choose Your Own Adventure, NBA-style doorstop of a book based on trades or signings that didn’t quite happen (Chris Paul to Lakers is and will continue to be the Mount Everest of What-Ifs based on circumstance alone). Well, today is the first extension of that concept; what I’ll refer to as an Alternative Chapter. It’s nothing more than me channeling my imagination to come up with a (somewhat plausible) scenario for a team or player that strays away from reality. Today’s Alternative Chapter features the pride of Huntington, West Virginia, O.J. Mayo.

Mayo’s only in his fourth season in the NBA, but it feels like we’re all old friends because his name has been plastered across prep headlines since he was named to the all-state first-team in Kentucky … as an eighth grader.

At this point, I’ll stop and posit a theory about O.J. Mayo. Scouts, high school beat writers, opponents, fans and junkies (of the hoop variety) accelerated the Mayo hype-wagon in part (large, small, medium part?) because of his name. O.J. Mayo is not a name we easily forget. Oh-jay-may-oh (or you could say it like this). Say it enough and it will stick to your mind like bugs splattered across your windshield. Had he been named Jeff Ridges, the likelihood of his rapid rise through the prep rankings may have taken a longer, more traditional and healthy route. Instead, Mayo’s been ingrained in the basketball zeitgeist since 2002. Great exposure brings great expectations and that’s where the reality of Mayo has fallen short. This whole concept is applicable beyond the basketball court and should likely be addressed by Malcolm Gladwell if someone else hasn’t cracked the code already.

Onto the Alternative Chapter …

Every few weeks, O.J. Mayo’s name is mentioned in trade rumors … to the Bulls, to the Pacers, to the Nets. There’s the consoling, “Well someone wants me,” but after multiple failed trades, even a basketball vagabond like Mayo wonders, “Am I really wanted … by anyone?” These doubts are human (and potentially canine), but they make any of us feel unwanted and unloved. And since we the fans have been reading about the great O.J. Mayo for years already, maybe we’re tired of his undersized two-guardness, his catchy name, the constant trade rumors and the confusion of his game not living up to the hype (“I thought he was supposed to be better?”). Maybe we don’t want him either.

Fast forward to May 2012 when the sixth seed Grizzlies are bounced in game six against the Lakers in Memphis. After suffering a sprained ankle in game five, Tony Allen is forced to sit out the next game which means Mayo draws the start and gets the luxury of guarding Kobe Bryant. Between games five and six, reporters bait Mayo into a headline-making comment and he sadly takes the hook; cracking a joke about the time he “locked Kobe up” in a game of one-on-one. Not that Kobe needed more motivation for an elimination game, but he attacks Mayo inside and out, abusing the smaller guard without mercy. After Bryant scores 16 in the first quarter, Mayo’s confidence is shaken and it shows on offense where his performance brings up Starksian memories from the early 90s—just another small shooting guard lining up the sights for a soon-to-be-Hall of Famer. He shoots 1-14 from the field. His coach, Lionel Hollins ends his misery with two minutes left in the third quarter and benches Mayo in favor of the rangy Quincy Pondexter. Mayo exits to a cold chorus of boos from the hometown fans; his last time in a Grizzlies jersey.

The season over, a team option on his fifth year, Mayo gets out of Memphis as soon as he’s able. Bags packed, he ventures to the Caribbean for a couple weeks of quiet, uninterrupted reflection. His beard grows unkempt, his hair ‘fros out, unbrushed. Despite the images of a black Castaway, his mind is clear and upon return stateside, he meets with his agent Rob Pelinka. While the Grizzlies have rejected the team option, Pelinka excitedly rattles off teams that have contacted him regarding his client’s services. The refreshed Mayo cuts him off. He’s done, he says. Tired of the games and politics. Tired of the unfair expectations (“Don’t they know Kobe’s 6’7” … at least 6’7”!?!?”). He demands Pelinka look into Spanish opportunities (“I’ve already talked to Marc (Gasol) about it.”).

The first hint that Spain offered refuge

And that’s how O.J. Mayo came to join FCB Regal (aka, FC Barcelona) of the Spanish top division. He signed for one year to “get your confidence back” as Pelinka put it. Mayo didn’t disagree. He arrived in September and played for about a third of the money he would’ve made in the NBA. Sadly, Euro legend Pete Mickeal retired due to a degenerative knee condition, but close one man’s window and another man often hurls a basketball through it, then climbs in and that’s what Mayo did.

Like so many expats before him, Mayo was revived by a new culture and new people. The passion of the fans brought back nostalgia for the high school crowds he played to nearly a decade before and his game thrived. In his first season alone, Barcelona won the rare treble: the domestic Copa del Rey, the ACB Championship and the Euro League title. This wasn’t any indictment of the quality of Spanish league basketball; just the realization of O.J. Mayo’s potential.

The record books and tales of Mayo’s long stay in the Spanish league are much too long for the meager space allotted here. Just know that the acceptance and sense of inclusion that was so hard to come by in the Association was made readily available by his teammates and fans in Barcelona.

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