It is the first Friday of the school year, the night of the opening football game, and the students of North College Hill (Ohio) High will soon slip out of modest brick houses and long stucco apartment complexes and walk to the stadium. O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker will not be among them, at least not yet. They are stealing away in an SUV, heading east and then south, nine miles, to a shabby section of Cincinnati.
Mayo and Walker are juniors at NCH and two of the top five basketball players in their class in the country. As they ride, they work their cellphones, reviewing the latest text messages from college recruiters. They look up occasionally to narrate the route. "As you get closer to downtown, it's a whole new world," Mayo says when the SUV leaves Interstate 75. Walker adds, "When we were here last Friday, we saw one girl go at another with a razor blade."
Many of the 10,000 denizens of North College Hill would prefer that O.J. and Bill, as they are universally called, did not make this journey. O.J. is a 6'5" point guard and the only player other than LeBron James to be named to USA Today's All-USA first team as a sophomore. Mayo is a good shooter, rebounds well for his size and is an excellent ball handler and a willing passer. "He's the jayvee version of LeBron. He'll be a big-timer," says an NBA scout. "Is he the Number 1 pick in 2008? The conversation starts with him." Walker, a 6'6" shooting guard, is an "insane athlete who takes your breath away with tip dunks and explosive moves to the basket," says another NBA scout. Walker also has an improving outside shot.
But in North College Hill they are viewed as more than prodigious athletes. O.J. and Bill, who have been best friends since elementary school, are seen as saviors of a financially strapped school and its athletic department. More than a few locals--including the mayor--will tell you the two players have brought harmony and hope to a racially mixed town.
None of that is on the boys' minds, though, as the SUV pulls up in front of the Findlay Street Neighborhood House. O.J. and Bill empty their pockets. Wallets, keys and cellphones get tucked in the glove compartment or in a pouch behind a seat. "Folks here like to steal," Walker says, and then he and Mayo break from the car, spilling onto the cracked sidewalk of a neighborhood known as the West End. The few blocks surrounding the Findlay House are among the most dangerous in the city. Bright futures--even those of NBA stars in waiting--can disappear in places like this. But then that is exactly why O.J. and Bill are here.
No player has been anointed a future NBA superstar earlier than Ovington J'Anthony Mayo. The trinity that shapes perceptions in high school basketball (shoe companies, AAU coaches and the media) tabbed Mayo as the next LeBron when Mayo was in seventh grade and living in his hometown of Huntington, W.Va. He was so gifted, they said, it was only a matter of time before his high school games were televised on ESPN and a replica of his jersey was a must-have. Yet Joe Nickel, the athletic director at North College Hill High, had no idea who Mayo was when the school's basketball coach told him in December 2002 that Mayo was considering a transfer to NCH. Nickel thought, foolishly, "we were just getting a good player." But in April, when news of Mayo's impending registration made the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer sports section three days in a row, Nickel knew it was time to panic. "We had never been on the front page before," he says.
He called an emergency faculty meeting and told teachers and administrators, "We better prepare like Britney Spears is enrolling." He wasn't far off. On the Monday in April when Mayo arrived, near the end of his eighth-grade year, local news crews pulled satellite trucks onto campus to file reports. People tried to sneak into the school to get autographs; Nickel and staff kept them at bay. "But there was one thing we hadn't prepared for," he says. "Seventh-grade girls."
They sprinted into the halls of the grade 7--12 school and rushed the door to Mayo's first class. They screamed as if he were Justin Timberlake, yelling, "I see him! I see him!" It took nearly 15 minutes to quell the throng, after which an exhausted Nickel fell into the chair in his windowless office in the basement of NCH's gym and wondered, Why us? Why North College Hill?
Opposing coaches wonder the same thing.
Though its name suggests a tony prep school, North College Hill is a public school with public school problems. Classrooms are overcrowded. Of the 500 students almost half are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, reflecting the town's 46% poverty rate. When O.J. and Bill arrived, the school's financial picture was as bleak as it had been in decades. The school district hadn't passed an operating levy on property taxes in 16 years, and rising expenses had put the district in the red. Nickel was pondering drastic measures, including asking students to pay to play, which might have locked out athletes from the most impoverished families.
The town of North College Hill was mired in its own economic slump, but the most pressing issue facing Mayor Daniel Brooks was a sociological one. Mixing long-time residents (most of whom are white) with an influx of newcomers (most of whom are black) had proved difficult. Also, a large number of rental properties had created a transient population that wasn't vested in the town. "How do you bring together people who are very different?" Brooks asks. "How do you create pride for a city that convinces people to put down roots?"
The answer to both questions, it turns out, was O.J. and Bill.
Last May, a little over a month after the two players led NCH to its first Division III state title, 55% of North College Hill residents agreed to a $564,000 annual levy. No one denies what got it done. The previous operating levy passed in 1989--the last time the Trojans made the state final.
Boys' basketball--the only sport at NCH to turn a profit--went from netting $8,000 the season before O.J. and Bill arrived to $60,000 last season, when three home games were moved from the school's 1,256-seat gym to a 3,400-seat one in a neighboring town. In addition, Reebok now gives the team uniforms and shoes, allowing Nickel to shift funds to other sports.
As alumni and former residents returned for games, as neighbors who'd never spoken found common ground in a basketball team, a community was reborn. "Everyone is talking about O.J. and Bill. Everyone has rallied around them and the team," says Macy Goldberg, the manager of Fricker's, a sports-themed restaurant near the school. "There's been a real change."
Adds Brooks, "It's made us look a lot closer at what we've got. It showed people that we should be proud of what we are."
O.J. and Bill were raised by single moms in the Cabell County (W.Va.) School District and might have gone to Huntington High if not for a state high school rule that forbids students from playing varsity before ninth grade. Dwaine Barnes, who has coached O.J. and Bill since fourth grade and is a father figure to both, wanted tougher competition for Mayo as a seventh-grader, so he enrolled him at Rose Hill Christian, a private school 15 miles west in Ashland, Ky. Walker soon followed, and it seemed a perfect union. Rose Hill went 55--10 in Mayo's two seasons, and he was the first eighth-grader to be named all-state. But the school's size (371 students) and proximity to Huntington discouraged O.J. and Bill from staying for their high school years. "Rose Hill was just too small," Walker says. "We didn't fit in. I wouldn't say it was racism, but it seemed like we were the first black people they'd seen. We were like aliens to them." Living in Huntington became a problem too, as Mayo's fame grew. "People were knocking on my windows in the middle of the night, asking for autographs, bothering my family," says Mayo. "It got to be too much."
Mayo calls Barnes his "grandfather," and Barnes, 43, refers to himself as such, even though they are not related. Barnes is Mayo's legal guardian. He applied for that designation--and moved to North College Hill--for the purpose of enrolling Mayo at NCH. An elusive figure despite having coached AAU basketball for years, Barnes confirmed details for this story but asked not to be quoted extensively. He also handles interview requests for the boys' mothers and said that neither would comment. "The story is not me and not their mamas. The story is about the boys," he says. While some in the basketball world have questioned Barnes's motives, O.J.'s and Bill's faith in him is unwavering. "He's grooming me so I can make my own decisions, so I can stand on my own and be a man," Walker says.
Brooks has received letters accusing the town of paying Barnes so the boys would attend NCH. Nickel and other school officials have faced similar accusations. "I've had a ton of parents say it's not fair," says Walt McBride, coach at Summit Country Day, which plays in the Miami Valley Conference with NCH. "But they did nothing illegal, so what can you say?"
The events that led to O.J.'s and Bill's arrivals seem more curious than scandalous. In December 2002 Jamie Mahaffey, NCH's basketball coach, heard from a friend of Barnes's that the AAU coach was shopping for a school for his two young stars. Mahaffey had met Barnes two years earlier, when an AAU team he was coaching scrimmaged Barnes's team, the D-1 Greyhounds. He never thought Barnes would consider NCH. In fact, he told the friend that Barnes should look at Princeton High, a school 10 miles northeast. But a short time later Barnes showed up at an NCH practice. "We're thinking about North College Hill," Barnes told a speechless Mahaffey. Barnes was more than thinking about it: He had already persuaded Walker's mother, Nancy, to move with Bill and had lined up an apartment across the street from the gym for Mayo and himself.
Mahaffey, 33, says he learned later that Barnes wanted an ethnically diverse school (NCH is 60% black, 35% white) and a small-town environment (every student lives within two miles of campus). Barnes was trying, it seemed, to replicate some of what the boys had in Huntington. He also wanted the two to have access to the gym at all times, wanted all media requests run through him and asked for input on future schedules. (Nickel and Mahaffey complied.)
"Dwaine is smart. He had a plan for these boys and wasn't going to go anywhere that didn't fit that plan," says longtime grassroots basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro of Reebok, which also sponsors the D-1 Greyhounds. "But I wouldn't be surprised if part of his plan was picking a school that would be helped by O.J. and Bill coming there."
The people of North College Hill would love to believe that Barnes turned the oft-criticized practice of shuffling basketball talent into an altruistic enterprise, but that's hard to fathom. Barnes says only, "When you put your kids in school, do you think about those things?"
More eyebrows were raised last fall when 6'11" center Keenen Ellis, ranked among the top 50 players in the class of '07, transferred to NCH from Cathedral High in Indianapolis, moving in with Mayo and Barnes, who became Ellis's guardian as well. "People complain about it, but it's just a reality today with the influence of AAU ball and kids' wanting to play together," says Mark Schlabach, whose Loudonville High team lost to NCH in the state semifinals. (Schlabach now coaches Hiland High in Berlin, Ohio.) "Fair or unfair, you have to deal with it."
Says Mahaffey, "Dwaine wanted certain things for the boys, and he found it here. They love the small community, love that they can walk to anywhere. They love that everyone is like a family."
They love it, yet when no one is looking, they leave.
In front of the Findlay Street Neighborhood House, O.J. and Bill greet friends and others lingering outside. Mayo, age 18, is more gregarious--slapping hands, hugging people. He has big dimples and a huge smile. When he walks, he swings his arms too much, like a speedskater in full glide. Eventually he joins Walker, also 18, who is sitting on a brick wall fronting a flower bed devoid of flowers, waiting for the gym to be unlocked.
For the record, O.J. and Bill come to the West End to play in the Midnight Madness league. Created to keep kids off the streets, it is made up mostly of former college players and provides good competition for O.J. and Bill while they wait for their high school season to start. But when they get frisked by a female police officer upon entering the community center, when they walk onto the blue concrete slab that passes for the court, when they slip on the team "jersey," a faded purple T-shirt with KAISER PICKLES across the front, it is clear they aren't here for the basketball.
"We come because this place is more like where Bill and I are from," Mayo says. "Here, no one cares who we are."
That is not always the case at NCH. Recently, O.J. and Bill were involved in a fight with at least one other student that led to suspensions for Mayo and Walker, and speculation that the boys would be on the move again. One school district employee called the fight a "jealousy thing," and people close to Barnes wondered if the walls were closing in on them at North College Hill. Truth be told, though O.J. and Bill have no plans to leave NCH, the walls have always felt a little snug, necessitating their journeys to the West End.
When the game finally begins, O.J. and Bill play carefree--trying to entertain more than compete--and their team soon trails by 15. There is an edge to the fans. "People here, they don't give you anything," Mayo says. The crowd seems to love that O.J. and Bill are losing. When they make a mistake, the hoots come in droves. "He is supposed to be a lottery pick?" one fan shouts when Mayo turns the ball over. But then O.J. and Bill come alive. They cut the lead to nine and then five and then three. As Mayo threads a pass from half-court past three defenders, as Walker catches it in stride and throws down a monstrous dunk, the gym goes silent. The crowd is awed.
Though their comeback falls short, O.J. and Bill leave the court jovial and rejuvenated. On the way home Walker is told that the league's organizer has credited him and Mayo with boosting attendance and thus keeping more kids out of trouble on this Friday night. "Really?" Walker says. "That's cool, but I don't really think about that kinda stuff."
Brooks, the Mayor of North College Hill, thinks about that kind of stuff all the time. Sitting in his office, he unrolls architectural drawings that illustrate his grand vision for the town. A few blocks from the school, Brooks wants to erect a $13 million community center with pools and gyms, offices and classrooms. "Imagine how people would feel having something like that in their town," he says. He has raised $100,000 and hopes that the presence of O.J. and Bill will attract more money. "Reebok and Nike, we plan on hitting them up," Brooks says. "If they want to put their name on it, that is fine with us."
Brooks isn't the only one eyeing bigger things. Nickel called the athletic director at St. Vincent--St. Mary, LeBron James's former school, for tips on how to handle the offers pouring in. During James's senior season, 2002--03, the basketball team reportedly made $400,000. The school got appearance fees upward of $10,000 for games in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, North Carolina and New Jersey. Two games were televised on ESPN2.
Following that season, the Ohio High School Athletic Association passed the LeBron Rule, which limits schools to one game per season beyond the five states bordering Ohio. Still, Nickel persuaded the members of the Miami Valley Conference--a collection of small schools now greatly overmatched--to allow NCH to reduce its status to associate member. This will enable the Trojans, whose season opens on Friday, to play 12 nonconference games, some in arenas at the University of Cincinnati and Xavier. The team will play two games in Huntington and one in Charleston, W.Va. Its one big trip will be to Southern California. Nickel estimates the team will net $75,000 this season and, if all goes well, $100,000 during the boys' senior year, when some games could be nationally televised. "If we manage the money right, we are set for a decade," he says.
But the boys' most lasting legacy, Brooks believes, will be as a unifying force within the town. To illustrate this, he tells a story about a middle-aged white woman upset with her young black neighbors. They played their music too loud, she told the mayor, and borrowed her lawn chairs without asking. Brooks says the young family and the woman are now the sort of friendly multiracial neighbors that he envisions filling every tree-lined street in North College Hill. "When we had a ceremony to give the team the keys to the city, that woman put her arms around Bill and O.J. and said. 'Don't you ever leave North College Hill.'"
It is a tale so corny, so allegorical, that one can't help but believe it's the concoction of a small-town politico. "But that kind of stuff happens to us all the time around here," Mayo says. "Sometimes you get tired of it."
Back in the SUV, returning to North College Hill, O.J. and Bill recall the highlights from the game and scan the new text messages on their phones. Walker calls a friend to get the score of that night's Huntington High football game.
Mayo occasionally returns to Huntington to see his mother, Alisha, and other relatives, but he still misses the place, as does Walker. "Sometimes you just want to be around people like you," Mayo explains.
The SUV approaches Mayo's apartment, from which O.J. and Bill can see the football field, its stands full. The two teens leap from the car, cross a swath of grass and pass through the stadium's chain-link gate.
Their schoolmates are standing in front of the snack bar, on the dirt track that rings the field. The oval will soon be replaced by rubberized asphalt, thanks to revenue brought in by the basketball team. Walker wades into the crowd. He teases a cheerleader, then talks to his English teacher. She mentions a slam poem he wrote for her class titled Please Understand, about a former girlfriend. "It was really good," the teacher says, and Walker blushes.
Mayo is all over the place, talking to parents and teachers in the stands and students on the track. He even goes onto the field to slap hands with the football players as they return from the locker room for the second half.
"It's a big difference," Mayo says when asked how this compares with his visit to the West End. "People treat you differently here." He then spots a group of kids he wants to greet. Before he moves toward them in his speedskater walk, he pauses. "But this is a good place. A good place. And we like it here." He smiles, showing off those cavernous dimples.
Then he adds, with unintended irony, "The people here, you know, they do a lot for us."
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