Adults, shoe companies joust over elite teens
O.J. Mayo is the latest "can't miss" prospect who is an untouchable product of the shoe company environment.
Editor's note: This is part of a four-day, seven-piece series on college basketball's biggest change agents in the past 20 years and what the future will bring.
CINCINNATI -- O.J. Mayo is walking by, just 30 feet away. Might as well be on the other side of a moat.
A few minutes later, Lamar Ziegler says there will be no interview this day. Ziegler identifies himself as O.J.'s uncle. The black Reeboks on his feet appear to have came out of the box five minutes ago.
I've come to North College Hill High School to talk to the latest Chosen Child in American youth basketball. Ovington J'Anthony Mayo is the next KG, the next Kobe, the next McGrady-Kwame-LeBron-Oden. The 17-year-old, 6-foot-4 junior guard is the next shoe baby-AAU tyro-teen king of a sport that simply cannot hype kids hard enough.
Or young enough.
Showing up at North College Hill, a modest public school on Cincy's northwest side, was the only option. Two days of phone conversations with the school's athletic director, Joe Nickel, had gone nowhere.
Nickel had passed the messages to coach Jamie Mahaffey, where they died in committee. On this warm fall afternoon, with ESPN.com no longer a voice on the phone but a loitering presence in the school office, Nickel is busily trying to locate Mahaffey.
"He's my assistant AD," Nickel says. "He's out lining the football field."
We walk out to the football field, but the assistant AD isn't there. Exasperated and flummoxed, Nickel calls Mahaffey on his two-way radio.
"Where are you?"
"At Dwaine's," is the response.
That would be Dwaine Barnes, Mayo's AAU basketball coach and, depending on which media report you read, O.J.'s guardian or grandfather. Barnes and Mayo live in an apartment across the street from the school, with Mayo's near-equally heralded teammate and classmate, Bill Walker.
In a true demographic miracle, Mayo and Walker, the top two players in America's Class of 2007, were born less than a month apart in Huntington, W.Va., in 1987. (That's Huntington, W.Va., not New York City. Think of the odds.) They've been inextricable just about ever since -- from their days playing on the varsity as seventh and eighth graders for tiny Rose Hill Academy in Ashland, Ky., to leading North College Hill to a 27-1 record and an Ohio state title last year, as sophomores.
The two arrived at North College Hill as freshmen -- unimaginable gifts in the lap of Mahaffey. But in exchange for the privilege of coaching Mayo and Walker, Mahaffey has had to grant wide latitude to Barnes and the rest of the inner circle.
"He's got no juice," a Division I college coach says of Mahaffey.
After being rousted by Nickel, Mahaffey hustles over from the apartment as fast as the pearly-white, uncreased Reeboks on his feet will carry him.
The coach is limply apologetic about the communication breakdown.
"I've been busy," he says.
So, I ask him. When can I talk to O.J.?
A dubious look crosses Mahaffey's face. He dials Barnes on his cell phone. The two talk for about a minute, and the answer comes back: No interview.
"You've got to let them do what they want," he says. "It's their kids."
That's when Lamar walks over from the apartment. He's been dispatched by Barnes, the leader of Team O.J., to meet -- and turn away -- the press.
"He's got a couple things lined up today," Lamar says, shortly after O.J. wanders unhurriedly by.
Lamar says that a good relationship with ESPN would be in the best interest of everyone -- unlike Sports Illustrated, which Lamar says the family had to cut out after one report it didn't like. But he mentions that nobody is paying O.J. for his life story. Why, he asks, should he be expected to give it?
"The kid didn't ask to be thrust upon the spotlight," says Lamar, who adds that he doesn't want to be interviewed anymore, either.
Just trying to protect the kid, of course. Practicing safe hype. Though it perhaps should be noted that Lamar Ziegler started the now-defunct Web site www.ojmayo.org when his nephew was in seventh grade.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is where we are today. Today we're looking at the game through fun house mirrors, in which everything has been thrown into completely different proportions and dimensions.
Teenagers have "inner circles," national name recognition and their high school games televised on ESPN. AAU programs and shoe camps, rife with sketchy characters and influence peddlers, have outflanked high school programs and coaches for primacy and importance. Recruiting analysts and reporters -- many of them thinly disguised fans working for Web sites -- breathlessly report on kids from shortly after puberty. (Or, in some cases, before: Clark Francis of The Hoop Scoop will proudly tell you that he once ranked Sebastian Telfair the No. 1 fifth-grader in the country.)
Teenagers rule, and adults fight feverishly for the chance to do one of two things: manipulate their futures or kiss their behinds. Sometimes both at the same time.
College basketball and college coaches are viewed largely as necessary evils (they were even less important than that before the NBA mandated that players must wait one year after leaving high school before entering the draft). The game and its mentors are to be endured less than revered. For so many elite young players, basketball has been a money game and a fame game for years before they even get to the way station that is college.
"It's the antithesis of the precious present," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "They're all living in the future. They're all dialed ahead to going to the league."
How different is it from 25 years ago? Let Florida coach Billy Donovan answer that.
"Ralph Sampson played four years of college," Donovan said with an incredulous laugh last summer. "How sick is that?"
If he'd been a high school senior in 2004, then Sampson would have been the No. 1 pick in the draft. One day, many people swear, that No. 1 spot will belong to Mayo.
By all accounts, Mayo is not deluded. He's the goods. He's reputed to be plenty talented and determined enough to get to the league.
"He's brilliant," said one longtime basketball observer. "Absolutely brilliant. He and Bill Walker are both going to sell shoes and tickets for many years to come."
That observer's name: Sonny Vaccaro.
If anyone can lay claim to the dubious title of the modern game's Dr. Frankenstein, then it's Vaccaro. As a consultant to Reebok, he's now on his third major shoe allegiance. Along the way, he changed basketball, literally from the ground up.
It was Sonny Vaccaro, 66, who teamed with Phil Knight and started the shoe revolution. It was Vaccaro who performed a bloodless coup in college ball, deposing Converse as the most important shoe in the game by paying coaches to outfit their teams in Nikes. By the mid-1980s, the swoosh was well on its way to hegemony.
"It was so easy," Vaccaro crowed. "Converse had the world by the balls and never thought they had to pay anybody anything or give anybody anything. Converse never should have lost what they had, but they did. We did a sneak attack and there was no competition."
It was around that time when Vaccaro and Nike made the move that transformed everything. They signed a kid named Michael Jordan and turned him into an athletic icon, a marketing monolith and the single greatest agent of change in basketball history.
His talents on the court were matched only by his marketability off it. Jordan's bald-headed, baggy-shorts style trickled down to Michigan's Fab Five, who triggered a collegiate revolution. Suddenly, you didn't have to wait for playing time -- and, correspondingly, the wait for the NBA payday decreased.
The lineage traces directly from the Fab Five to Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant and beyond. Precocity gained velocity. And along the way, an athlete's earning potential morphed from prodigious to preposterous -- thanks in large part to the shoes.
"If Converse had been smart with Magic Johnson, he could have been Jordan before Jordan," Vaccaro said.
Instead, there was no Jordan before Jordan. And truth is, there's been no Jordan after Jordan. But that relentless search for The Next Jordan has fueled the shoe wars which have warped non-professional basketball into the strange shape it's in today.
When Vaccaro left Nike for Adidas, a turf battle exploded. Which company was going to get the best young players in its all-star camps -- and in its shoes? And how early? Was there anything wrong with two international giants slobbering over who could do the biggest favors for talented 16 year olds?
"The convergence of two power companies, Nike and Adidas, and the beginning of the media acceleration on the Internet, that started it," Vaccaro said. "... No one ever paid AAU coaches before I did in '91. High school coaches were never paid before '96.
"I got Kobe [away from Nike]. I never should've gotten Kobe. Then Tracy [McGrady], then Jermaine [O'Neal]. Then the escalation, the paying money to AAU coaches, stepped up."
It stepped up to insane levels. How insane?
"Millions," Vaccaro said. "Nike and Adidas are both spending millions. You're safe with that figure."
And you wonder how the words "jaded" and "entitled" became tattooed to America's best young ballers.
In the late '90s, Nike honcho George Raveling and Adidas' Vaccaro went after each other mercilessly in pursuit of a big man from Huntsville, Ala., who was considered the best player in the country.
Raveling won the battle. Got the kid to jilt his Adidas-sponsored AAU team for a Nike outfit. The kid changed high schools, too, and his new school was outfitted by Nike. He was flown to Michael Jordan's camp and got to play on Jordan's teams in pickup games. His AAU team, the Alabama Lasers, traveled the country, and pulled in ringers from Kentucky and Michigan to buttress their roster for some tournaments.
And when it was time to go to college, he signed with a flagship Nike school: Kentucky.
The kid's name was Marvin Stone. Turned out to be one of the biggest busts in shoe baby history.
That's the danger of deciding the Next Jordan shortly after puberty. Things change. Some players develop -- and some rot when spoiled.
Call the names: Lenny Cooke, Omar Cook, Felipe Lopez, Harold Miner, Sean Higgins, Marcus Liberty, Schea Cotton, Korleone Young, JaRon Rush ... just a partial roll call of shoe babies who busted. There are dozens more out there, in the most fickle futures market of them all.
Nobody believes O.J. Mayo will ever be part of the busted list. Most put him on the can't-miss roster. Some say he's right behind LeBron James among the most skilled and advanced anyone has ever seen at this age.
"At least he's good enough to put up with the other stuff," said one college coach, who asked not to be identified. "Try dealing with this stuff from the kids who can't play."
Funny thing: On the day O.J. Mayo is being shielded from ESPN.com, a girl two years younger is making international news for becoming a pro athlete.
Michelle Wie is announcing that she's turning pro. Nike and other sponsors are immediately throwing piles of cash at her. The LPGA will commence doling out prize money shortly.
"I just watched Michelle Wie stand up at a goddamned podium and say she's going pro," Vaccaro said, indignation rising. "And everyone's applauding, saying, 'Go Michelle!' But O.J. can't go get a dime?"
His dimes will come. And the first ones will come from Reebok. Vaccaro, who says he first heard about Mayo when he was in sixth grade, will make sure of that.
The question is how soon. Virtually everyone agrees that Mayo and sidekick Walker don't need a year of college to prove themselves ready for the NBA -- so what do they do during their now-mandatory one-year purgatory?
Do they play college ball? Or do they go ahead and sign a Reebok contract and play for a prep school while accepting shoe money?
"I told them, 'Get your damn grades, you're not going to prep school,' " Vaccaro said. "'You're going to get your damn grades and go to one year of college.'
"They go to these prep schools, and you and I both know they cheat. They get kids eligible by cheating. They get five F's one semester and five A's the next. They change the grades."
The NBA's developmental league is not an option either, Vaccaro said.
"I think it's the silliest thing David Stern has ever done," he said.
So what about the latest rumor in Hoopsworld? Mayo, Walker and others spend their purgatory year not in college, not in the D League, not in a prep school ... but traveling the county with Sonny's Reebok Globetrotters, earning millions and playing against hand-selected competition guaranteed not to hurt their draft status?
"There is talk about that," Vaccaro said. "But tomorrow morning it is not happening.
"I don't think it'll happen. I qualify that. If they have trouble getting into school -- they might not get in -- they've got to have an escape hatch. And it's not the NBDL."
O.J. Mayo has some time left to weigh his options, of course. And in the meantime, his people are apologetic about not doing that interview.
Uncle Lamar is trying to sound conciliatory. Maybe they can work out a teleconference with ESPN.com. Or arrange an in-person interview on a more fortuitous date.
They'll be in touch, Lamar says, naming a date.
The date comes and goes without word from the adults who hover around the Chosen Child. O.J. Mayo remains behind the moat, protected by the walls adults have erected around him.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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