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May 16, 2008
O.J. Mayo Saga: More Questions Than Answers
Torrance, Calif. -- The NBA playoffs are more competitive now than they've been in years, with the basketball gods possibly aligning a Lakers versus Celtics match up in the championship round only if Kobe Bryant's back holds up and Kevin Garnett can quickly learn to take over games down the stretch.
Something about a Lakers-Celtics final just fits right in the world of basketball.
What doesn't seem to fit right is a former prep sportswriter and a former prep basketball promoter having a public fallout over allegiances to one of the most highly publicized college freshman in the history of NCAA basketball.
The upcoming NBA Draft is going to yield what would seem a fertile crop of talented players, but the talk of the basketball world is Sunday's broadcast on ESPN's "Outside the Lines." It was alleged on the program that O.J. Mayo, the former USC guard who is expected to be a lottery choice in June' NBA Draft, was the beneficiary of cash and other gifts totaling upwards of 30,000 dollars from former Southern California prep basketball promoter Rodney Guillory according to former Southern California prep sportswriter Louis Johnson.
Johnson remarked that the 6-foot-4 Huntington, West Virginia native was compensated by Guillory throughout his high school years in Ohio and West Virginia and during his short stint at the University of Southern California on behalf of Bill Duffy Associates Sports Management. It is the agency Mayo announced he had singed with when he officially declared for the NBA Draft on April 17. Johnson proclaimed that the relationship between Guillory, BDA and Mayo was forged early in his prep career and that the main beneficiary of that relationship, material-wise, was Guillory himself.
Johnson claims that Guillory was provided with a sports utility vehicle and over 200,000 dollars from BDA, of which he shared the previously stated smaller sum with Mayo. Mayo's rebuttal to those accusations, as well as Duffy's retort that he will provide evidence to exonerate his agency from any wrongdoing, have been well-chronicled. There is no need to rehash the particulars here.
This basketball saga involving a young man from the Mountain State and two grown adults from Compton, California produces more questions than answers. Questions that relate to journalistic professionalism and responsibility, friendship, amateurism, money and loyalty to the game. We will attempt to answer those questions.
Watching the 15-minute segment on "Outside the Lines" and listening to Kelly Naqi's description of how Johnson and Guillory met some 10 years ago when Johnson covered many of Guillory's tournaments as a prep editor for the Long Beach Press Telegram reminded us of how we came into contact with Guillory five years ago. The one-time Centennial of Compton and Compton College basketball player was once referred to as the "Mayor" of Southern California prep basketball by the Los Angeles Sentinel for his success promoting prep basketball tournaments that often involved matchups of highly ranked teams.
Our relationship with Guillory continued on through Mayo's prep career and reached a small business level when Guillory hosted an event that brought Mayo to Southern California at roughly the same time we were in distribution mode of our sixth printed edition of the Cal-Hi Sports Record Book and Almanac for our mother site, CalHiSports.com. Guillory brought Mayo's North College Hill team out of Cincinnati to face Harvard-Westlake of North Hollywood and Dominguez of Compton, the school Johnson graduated from in 1989, at a two-day event at Cerritos College. We thought it would be a perfect opportunity to promote and sell our newly-printed record book.
"This is heartbreaking to me to find him in this situation," said former Press-Telegram sports editor Jim McCormack.
In the fall of 2005 and throughout 2006, we promoted and sold our record book at various prep sporting events, even a few others that Guillory promoted. Although the Rise and Fall Invitational's marquee attraction was a team from Ohio with two talented players originally from Huntington (the other being Kansas State forward and NBA hopeful Bill Walker), we were able to get off more copies of our 330-page book when the Trojans came through town than at any other venue, and it wasn't even close. There is some debate if Mayo can live up to the lofty NBA expectations placed on him when he was still a prep, and some basketball folks whose opinion we truly trust don't think he can, but there is no debating that wherever he played at during high school and college, Mayo put rear ends in the seats and dollars in pockets.
While it was known in basketball circles that Mayo associated with Guillory well before he left North College Hill for hometown Huntington High School, many mainstream sports fans based their perceptions of Mayo on a March 2007 New York Times article by Lee Jenkins that described how Mayo landed at USC. According to the article, Guillory walked into Tim Floyd's office unannounced and told the USC coach the Highlanders' star guard was interested in playing for the Trojans.
"Let me call him," Floyd reportedly remarked that fateful day in the summer of 2006. "O.J. doesn't give out his cell, he'll call you," Guillory reportedly replied.
The nature of that conversation didn't sit well with many hoop fans and media scribes, even prompting Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" to call Mayo a "punk" on air before ever meeting him. We're not sure if Jenkins realizes this, but that conversation between a head coach of a major university and a "stranger" as that well-read article referred to Guillory is not how the recruiting game works. People that saw Floyd at Cerritos College watching Mayo play some six months before that faithful meeting with "the mysterious man" also know that's not how basketball recruiting works.
Although many basketball folks and journalists were surprised, to say the least, at the sight of Johnson at the center of this basketball saga, as a former prep editor he knows how the recruiting game works. He's credible in that regards and according to those that know him best in this profession, he would have done his homework on a story such as the one about Mayo's recruitment.
The Mayo situation is ironic since Johnson had worked on the journalistic side of the game since Mayo was a mere child and had a falling out with someone from his same community that he met doing his job. Guillory and Johnson have also known each other well before either has known the soon-to-be multi-millionaire. Young players making more money in a few years than those covering them will make in twenty-five creates a unique situation where these athletes learn at a young age to distrust the media. You can't really blame them and Mayo's saga and the general public's perception of him will only heighten those concerns.
"I believe nowadays there is a disconnect with sportswriters and sports figures," remarked ESPN.com Recruiting Coordinator Antonio Williams. "Thirty or forty years ago, they were sort of peers and hung out together so athletes were often painted in a favorable light. They are not peers anymore."
With young men earning millions of dollars in the game and with the ability to spot prodigal talent in basketball at a much younger age than any other revenue sport, there will always be someone looking for a way to get close to these athletes. This ESPN report has highlighted a dynamic situation where young men have adults around them that they are not yet sure of their intentions, yet have to rely on many of those same adults to seek advice, especially if their family is not sure how the game works.
With Mayo's saga, you have a former journalist who is now being labeled a "runner" -- someone who steers a potential client towards a particular agent -- so he's been on both sides of the spectrum. A situation has now been created where players who can put rear ends in the seats and potentially money in people's pockets might not know where to turn because of the platform in which these allegations were brought to light and because of Mayo's notoriety among his playing peers.
"A few families, young families with high-end players, have already called me and said they are afraid to say 'yes' or 'no' to anything or anyone," remarked Sonny Vaccaro, a pioneer in the grassroots and national all-star game scene in which Mayo thrived. "It's a very uncomfortable situation nationally. These kids see one friendly face in the crowd and, trust me, they know you're around. But these kids don't think or expect that in the confines of a gym or event, anyone person is there to do them harm."
StudentSportsBasketball.com Senior Editor Mark Tennis, who often collaborated with and received insight from Johnson on players and teams many times over a 10-year period, has his own take on the situation. Eight years ago the co-founder of Cal-Hi Sports had Johnson write the cover story on fellow Dominguez alum Tyson Chandler for the April 2000 edition of Student Sports Magazine back when the New Orleans Hornets big man was dominating the SoCal basketball scene. Tennis always regarded Johnson as an outstanding writer and someone who seemed to carry on a great rapport with young athletes so assigning him the Chandler piece was a natural fit.
Tennis recalls after a Dominguez game seeing Chandler roll off in his Cadillac Escalade S.U.V. equipped with television sets. At that time, not that big of a deal was made of the situation since Chandler or his family could borrow money against his future NBA earnings if they desired. Johnson saw that situation first hand and it likely would have been a similar situation for Mayo had it not been for the NBA's 19-year old age limit rule implemented before the start of Mayo's junior season.
"This whole story is an off-shoot of kids not being allowed to go straight to the NBA out of high school," Tennis explained. "We could all see what kind of car he (Chandler) drove after a game. Right away you knew he was going to the NBA. Parents can get a loan because in a short time their kids are worth millions of dollars. I don't think it's illegal in that sense. Louis did a lot of stories on situations like this. He knew the system a long time before he got involved in it. It's the game that changed."
When it comes to discussing Mayo's amateurism, the situation at USC is far from over and really, is just getting started. Johnson has stated through his lawyer that he will cooperate with NCAA investigators. Mayo has proclaimed his innocence and his mentor Guillory has not responded to the allegations brought forth against him by one of Mayo's former confidants.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association has already announced the state titles won by North College Hill in 2005 and 2006 will remain intact. OHSAA bylaws state that eligibility issues must be raised within 42 days following the date of the state title game in question. OHSAA commissioner Dan Ross told the Cincinnati Enquirer, "At this point we're not looking into it. None of us believe that North College Hill was complicit in any of that."
In Mayo's home state of West Virginia, the allegations don't come as a complete shock but the Secondary School Activities Commission and West Virginia Sportswriters Association are taking a wait-and-see-approach.
"People here are not totally surprised something like this would come out, but there is not much credence yet to the allegations," remarked StudentSportsBasketball.com Senior Rankings Editor Doug Huff, who collaborates with Tennis on the Rivals.com FAB 50 and also serves as the secretary/treasurer for the state's sportswriters association. "It's hard to know what to put stock in what has been said so far. We can't rush to judgment and take away team titles or individual awards without waiting to see how it plays out."
"It's all preliminary right now," SSAC executive director Gary Ray recently told the Huntington Herald Dispatch.
So where does this basketball bombshell leave leave Johnson, Guillory and Mayo? Our relationship with Guillory and Johnson after the Rise or Fall Invitational paints a clearer picture.
As Mayo played out his senior season at Huntington, a friend of ours not affiliated with journalism nor the game remarked how Mayo settled for too many jumpers. Against prep players, it probably didn't matter much, but it was a critique of his game that we told Guillory about and that negative observation was still a sticking point to critics this past season. We also told Guillory than Mayo was a much better on-ball defender that he ever would get credit for in an AAU setting or with his high school team. Again, those abilities were one of the positive aspects of his game pointed out down the stretch during a season that came to an end in a 80-67 loss to Kansas State in a made-for-TV game that pitted Mayo against touted freshman Michael Beasley and Walker.
"It's all about the money," Mayo told his best friend from Huntington moments before the matchup was officially announced.
For us, the relationship with Guillory wasn't about the money, but building up a positive rapport in order to get meaningful comments from Mayo after a game or simply put, strictly business. Without passing judgment on his character since we still don't know him personally (unlike Wilbon who now states was a mistake), we always got the sense Mayo knew the faces in the crowd in a game he's gotten to learn very well since the seventh-grade.
On a hot and tiring road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the summer of 2006, which is around the same time Johnson became a close member of Mayo's inner-circle, we couldn't wait to crash in our room when we pulled up to the Excalibur Hotel on the Strip to begin what would be a five-day basketball grind. As we lugged up to the elevator, who was the first person that came out of the elevator? Mayo, of course.
As people gawked and asked him about his whereabouts, he told this face in the crowd, "You staying in this hotel?"
"Yup, I'll catch you around," we said trying not to be tiredly rude nor too giddy about the encounter at the same time. "Ok, man," Mayo said as he entered the lobby to go about his day and undoubtedly answer the same question five times over before getting to his unknown destination.
Mayo doesn't know our name, but is smart enough to know we don't want anything from him. His comments to us after the 2007 McDonald's All-American game sums up the current situation for Guillory, Johnson and Mayo, who is expected to be a top seven pick in next month's NBA Draft.
"That's how it goes sometimes," Mayo remarked about his four for 17 shooting performance and his last second miss that would have won the game. "That lets me know I have to put in a lot of work because with the St. Patrick's game, I'm now 0-for-2."
That other game he was referring to was another nationally televised by ESPN and similar to the McDonald's game, Mayo missed a potential game winning three-pointer. It came in a 47-point performance during an overtime loss to the No. 2 team in the FAB 50 rankings behind top-ranked Oak Hill Academy. Huntington finished No. 3.
"Hopefully I can bounce back in life and whenever the opportunity arises I have to be ready," Mayo said at the time.
Is Mayo now 0-for-3? Time will reveal, but as Mayo denied the allegations on Wednesday before he left the USC campus in a Porsche Cayenne GTS, something he has the luxury of doing after declaring for the draft, it's clear he'll have more than three at-bats to make it right.
The other two players in this saga, whether it be bad luck or bad intentions, probably won't get three at-bats in this game.