OJ Mayo is Alright

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The formerly controversial high school phenom is now a mature-beyond-his-years NBA rookie star

According to ESPN.com’s David Thorp, Mayo is the top NBA rookie so far. He’s averaging about 20 points a game and here’s how Thorp describes his play:

“Composure is one of Mayo’s biggest strengths. And most of the time, composure in a player results from genuine confidence. Genuine confidence, as opposed to the type of confidence that is merely a shell covering insecurities, is born of hard work and successful practices and games.”

Referring to a recent game in which Mayo shot the ball poorly, Thorp observed:

“I saw a player still locked into the total game. He didn’t allow his off night from the field to deter him from finding ways to help the team win, or keep him from taking good shots. He looked like a veteran, and has been playing like one all season.”

These are nice qualities in a rookie who played only one year of college basketball (at USC). But they’re especially noteworthy for a player who, just eighteen months ago and then a high-school phenom from West Virginia, was at the center of a storm of controversy. In the Spring of 2007, Mayo was being demonized across the sports blogosphere, most notably by ESPN’s superstar writer, Bill Simmons. Simmons wrote a widely circulated article, aptly titled “Down with the OJ Mayo Era.” Simmons criticized Mayo’s “appalling play” in the jut-completed McDonald’s High School All America game and compared Mayo unfavorably to another top high school player, Kevin Love (who, after one year at UCLA, is now also in the NBA):

With Mayo joining a loaded USC team and Love playing 20 minutes away for a Final Four team, that’s looming as a dynamite rivalry and the most intriguing media subplot for the 2007-08 season. After all, Love represents everything good about basketball (unselfishness, teamwork, professionalism) and Mayo represents everything we’ve come to despise (showboating, selfishness, over-hype). If Love were black, this would be a much easier topic to discuss. But he’s white. So even though there’s a natural inclination to embrace Love’s game and disparage Mayo’s game — you know, assuming you give a crap about basketball and care about where it’s headed as a sport — there’s also a natural inclination to hold back because nobody wants to sound like the white media guy supporting the Great White Hope over the Black Superstar Du Jour.

It wasn’t just white sports commentators piling on Mayo. On Pardon the interruption, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon also decried Mayo at the time:

I wouldn’t even let this kids’ plane, and it might be a private jet land in the city where my school is, because what’s next for Coach Floyd (the USC coach, for whom Mayo decided to play without visiting the school), is OJ gonna say “coach, run out and get me a samich (sic),” is he gonna say coach “I’ll take care of the timeouts,” “coach I don’t want to practice today.” [Floyd] has turned himself over to some kid, he’s turned his whole program over to a kid who says, “no, I don’t want you to be able to call me,” it is insane.

These are just a small sampling, but you get the idea.

So, what horrible things had the teenage Mayo done to warrant such vituperation?

1) at the end of the West Virginia state championship game in 2007, Mayo heaved the ball skyward in what was regarded as an unacceptable show of disdain for his opponents.

2) he was the subject of a highly unusual recruiting process, in which he chose to go to USC without having visited the campus.

3) he once bumped a referee. (Mayo was eventually suspended for three games, but almost all observers now agree that there was only incidental contact and that the ref took a dive worthy of a pro wrestler).

I, and others, wrote about the controversy surrounding Mayo at the time, and I won’t rehash all of that discussion.

But a few points are worth recounting:

A) Concerning that McDonald’s all America game, stopmikelupica went hard after Simmons:

Yeah, you’re right. Mayo should care more about winning an ALL-STAR GAME. What a selfish prick. Oh, you might want to fail to mention that on March 17, 2007, Mayo led Huntington High School to its third consecutive Class AAA basketball championship in the state of West Virginia with 103-61 rout of South Charleston. Mayo finished with a triple-double: 41 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists. You might want to leave that out, because the winning three championships in a row thing might make it seem to ignorant people like me like Mayo cares about winning somewhat (Mayo was only part of the final championship team, but SML’s point still stands). Or those 11 assists in the championship game might make him seem like an odd choice to criticize as selfish.

B) About Mayo’s unusual recruiting process – that he essentially chose USC rather than allowing himself to be wooed by the major programs, the Big Lead (TBL) wrote:

It’s incredibly sickening, and we truly wish Tim Floyd the best in this endeavor …Why Floyd would want anything to do with someone who lives by this credo, “O. J. doesn’t give out his cell … He’ll call you” is beyond us. Mayo is the anti-Kevin Durant, and exemplifies everything that is wrong with American youth basketball. Increasingly, it’s trickling up to the NBA.”

Mayo’s crime, in addition to failing to visit USC, was that, according to the lengthy New York Times piece about his recruiting process, he apparently refused to give out his cell phone number and told Coach Floyd that he, Mayo, would initiate contact.

In response, I wrote at the time:

That TBL regards Mayo’s “attitude toward college basketball” as “incredibly sickening” is fascinating, for two reasons. One, the Jenkins article isn’t really about Mayo’s attitude toward college basketball per se – it’s about his decision to come to USC. And, according to that article, Mayo chose USC over UCLA because he wanted to make a mark by helping establish a new tradition. What’s so objectionable about that particular desire is unclear. Furthermore, according to the Jenkins piece, as noted above, Mayo was only interested in USC or a historically Black college. It’s not clear how this shows greater contempt for college basketball than any other blue chip recruit – almost none of whom can really be said to basing their school choice on the quality of education they might receive or any other consideration outside of how it might affect their basketball careers. That Mayo is more up front about that appears to be his most serious transgression.

As a footnote to that discussion, I had an exchange with TBL about Mayo and their complaint that he never even visited USC. I noted that I had never visited Ann Arbor before I decided to go to Michigan as undergraduate. More importantly, Michigan’s new basketball coach, John Beilein, accepted the job there in the Spring of 2007 having never visited to Ann Arbor. Needless to say, neither TBL nor anyone else of note complained about Beilein’s irresponsible and reckless behavior.

C) Finally, in response to Simmons’ self-conscious concerns about the racial aspects of his Mayo/Love comparison, I said:

To be clear, liking Kevin Love and disliking OJ Mayo is not, in itself, racist. The problem is not with preferences for individual players… The problem is with representations. We no longer live in an era in America where direct, overt expressions of racism are acceptable in mainstream discourse. You can’t any longer say that Black people are inferior, or less intelligent, or whatever, without being condemned by most Americans (see Michael Richards)…. [But] wittingly or not (I personally would argue for the latter), [Simmons] is trading in highly charged representations that have inescapable racial content. Simmons has managed to attach Mayo to everything scary about American culture today for many (white) Americans: rap music, disrespectful teenagers, contempt for tradition and proper structures of authority. And, that’s why this conversation isn’t really about the state of basketball, as Simmons puts it. It’s deeper than that. It’s about America – the kind of society we live in, the values we hold, the prospects for our future well-being – those things are all implicitly at stake in this hand-wringing about OJ Mayo who, incredibly, is already symbolic of an entire era.

Now, Mayo’s decision to choose college rather than wait for colleges to choose him and the reaction to that fact is also not inherently racial. There are all sorts of examples of athletes, Black and White, getting slammed for refusing to play for the team that drafted them (JD Drew being a classic example), and part of that has to do with the expectations that fans of American team sports have about how athletes should show their gratitude for their great good fortune.

But, the problem with branding an entire era the Mayo era, in addition to its obviously absurd, over-the-top character, is that it plays on still simmering racial resentments felt across the length and breadth of this land, wherein a better, more orderly past is giving way to a more uncertain and dangerous future and the face of that future is, for many, a menacing face that looks different from the faces we associate with tradition, order and the good in America. It’s easy to stir people’s racial and ethnic animus when one preys upon their anxiety and uncertainty in this way, even if one doesn’t mean to.

Simmons has since backed off his views of Mayo. By the middle of Mayo’s freshman year in college, the 2007-08 season, Simmons was describing in glowing terms Mayo’s abilities as a basketball player, including his court awareness and all around strong play. So what changed? Simmons has never been a fan of Tim Floyd, so he’d be hard-pressed to argue that Floyd was somehow responsible for Mayo’s maturation during his one season under Floyd’s tutelage. The truth is this: there’s was never any serious basis for hating on Mayo to the degree that Simmons, Wilbon and their many brethren in the sports commentariat did? The “appalling” and “sickening” behaviors to which they referred were, in truth, utter trivialities. But athlete demonization remains a fixture of sports commentary. And more often than not, Black athletes are its targets.


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