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The O.J. Mayo story

(The Bag is back for its second decade -- god, we're feeling old -- and you know what to do. Send in your probing questions, quirky comments and any other subversive suggestions, crackpot theories or parlor games dealing with the world of college basketball. For the love of Alan Ogg and Aminu Timberlake, we're even back to taking Where Are They Now nominations. So get to it!)

To kick things off, though, we're taking only one question this week, and it happens to be our own:

What do you make of USC's O.J. Mayo?--The Bagman, Baltimore, Md. (That's right: we've changed cities. Time to make peace, Terps fans, the Bag loves it here.)

For starters, too many people wrote off Mayo and USC after their season-opening loss to Mercer. Tim Floyd's Trojans have a ways to go, but the return of Daniel Hackett (who had a triple-double in USC's rebound win at South Carolina) means Mayo and Taj Gibson won't be the only weapons at the Galen Center. The young Trojans will get clipped some more in the next month (Memphis and Kansas are on the schedule), but they'll win their share of games by season's end.

Anyway, we spent two hours talking to Mayo for our story on O.J. and UCLA's Kevin Love in Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue, and both players are extremely good interviews. In fact, after the negative rep he got in high school I'd say that Mayo is his own best advertisement, a thoughtful guy who was willing to talk at length about basketball, his own missteps and any number of topics, including:

His playing style. Some pundits have already tried to contrast Mayo's game to Love's in black-vs.-white terms. But Mayo isn't having any of it. "At the end of the day, as long as you perfect the game by winning then any style can work, he says. Magic Johnson didn't play the style that Larry Bird did, and Michael Jordan sure didn't play the style that Magic or Bird played."

His love of chess. He's no Garry Kasparov, but Mayo likes to compare his basketball moves to the think-three-moves-ahead strategy he employs on the chessboard. "In the barber shop you start playing checkers, and eventually you want to learn how to play chess," he says. "The pieces look a little more interesting. You're doing more things. I'm pretty good at it."

His journalism seminar. Mayo has been covered in the national media since the seventh grade, but now he's seeing things from the other side, taking Journalism 381, a weekly three-hour seminar. "It's interesting to be able to ask questions and try to get at what's going on," says Mayo, who could be a useful guest-speaker himself. "I got into a fight in my 10th-grade year, and it was on ESPN," he says. "It was a mistake, and you learn from it. Starting from the seventh grade, everything's been magnified like that. It's kind of like you have no childhood."

His post-hoops future. Mayo wants to follow in Magic Johnson's entrepreneurial footsteps someday in his hometown of Huntington, W.Va. "I'd like to redo housing," Mayo says. "That alone kind of makes you either want to be successful or it can just sour the mind to where you're like, 'This is all we've got, what else is it going to be?' That's why I'm here studying business-management and real-estate investment, so hopefully I can have the opportunity to rebuild my community back home."

His views on race. Mayo has taken two courses on race in America since he arrived on the USC campus last summer. "I did a paper on why is race so uncomfortable to discuss." he says. "Is it because you don't want to bring up bad history in America? You want to be conscious of whatever you say about that because it's a serious point. You want to feel like our society's over that, and just because it isn't that doesn't mean I don't want to push for that to happen one day."

I happen to think Mayo is the most fascinating story in college basketball, not least because his decision to attend USC came against the wishes of his loved ones back home in Huntington -- the same people he takes great pains to profess his respect and appreciation for.

Consider: the mentor Mayo calls "my grandfather" -- Dwaine Barnes, the man who steered him to three high-school programs and wanted him to play for Bob Huggins -- hasn't spoken to Mayo since he sent his Letter of Intent to USC. Mayo's single mother, Alisha, still talks to her son three times a week, even though she refused to sign his Letter of Intent last year and wishes he had gone to school "somewhere on the East Coast," she says. "Lord, we've got a three-hour time difference!"

Meanwhile, the man who did sign Mayo's LOI-- his father, Kenny Ziegler -- has spent at least 20 months in jail for various offenses and has a less-developed relationship with O.J. than Rodney Guillory, the L.A.-based hoops promoter whom Mayo now considers his most-trusted confidant. (Guillory has his own dodgy past: In 2000 the NCAA labeled him an agent's rep and suspended two basketball players, including USC's Jeff Trepagnier, for nine games of the 2000-01 season after they accepted plane tickets from Guillory.)

Ziegler showed up unexpectedly at USC's first public practice and has been living in the L.A. area, raising concerns that trouble is brewing between Mayo's West Virginia family and his new California-based support system.

Sound complicated enough? Try being O.J. Mayo, who has been stuck in the middle for as long as he can remember. Now he's attempting to walk the knife-edge of breaking away from his hometown influences without burning his family ties entirely. Keeping everybody happy is no small task, which means it's the one thing he would prefer not to discuss in detail, even though it's the most interesting thing about him.

"You can probably write about it better than what I can say," Mayo says of his angst-ridden decision to defy his family and head west. "I just know it wasn't easy."

He will say this about his decision to break from Barnes, who often kept Mayo from talking to the media in high school: "I made some mistakes in high school that hurt what people thought of me, and with my grandfather being real protective, it was hard for me to show the person I really am. He was one the greatest people ever in my life besides my mom, but I thought it was time for me to mature and be alone so I can make the right decisions and grow up."

None of Mayo's closest male influences over the years (Guillory, Barnes or Ziegler) would comment, but Alisha Mayo -- a medical assistant who's raising O.J.'s six siblings and half-siblings in Huntington -- had plenty to say.

"You can support the warrior without supporting the war," Mayo's mother explained during a recent interview. "I say the last five years have probably been the worst five years of my life, just because I worry over [O.J.] so much. Your image is everything if this is what you want to do. You can't be an adult and make childish decisions and expect not to have repercussions, because it doesn't work like that."

"What sort of decisions are you talking about?" I asked.

"Where do you want me to start?" she replied. "When [O.J.] came and told me he wanted to move to Cincinnati [for high school]. Then he came back home and chose USC. When he chose his new circle of friends [in L.A.]. Just decisions he made that should have been more thought-out. I don't know. You can't feed temporary fetishes when there's long-term repercussions."

Alisha still communicates with Ziegler, O.J.'s father, and says part of the reason Ziegler is in L.A. is to have someone she trusts keeping tabs on the situation. "He's out there to let me know what's really going on," she says. "His dad keeps me in on a lot of things that I need to know or that I missed in articles I read on the Internet."

When it comes to trust, Mayo's mother says she doesn't have any for Guillory, her son's L.A. mentor. "Rodney kind of came in when O.J. was living in Cincinnati and I was back here," she says. "Lo and behold, there he was. I don't really know that much about him. I know what I hear, I know what I read and I know what O.J. tells me. But [Guillory] knows where I stand with him, too, because I've talked to him. You can't trust people you don't know. But if that's what O.J. wants to do, I don't want to put any extra stress on him."

One group Alisha Mayo says she has gained some trust for, however, is the USC coaches, which is why she has reluctantly come on-board with her son's decision. "Lord knows, I tried to find every negativity in USC," she says, "and I couldn't find anything negative about the school at all. Nor the program."

Welcome to basketball in the 21st century. The best young players spend their summers and winters traveling to games across the country. They receive national attention from the time they're in middle school, and when they get to college -- for no more than one season, they hope -- they want to win, of course, but they're also angling for the NBA draft and an eight-figure shoe contract. The potential rewards are spectacular, but so are the pressures, and sometimes the players get trapped between all the adults, well-meaning and otherwise.

It's a lot to deal with if you're 19 years old. That's why I'll be rooting for O.J. Mayo this season.

Have a great Thanksgiving, and make sure to send in a question for next week's Bag ...

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