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Monday, January 28, 2008
Updated: February 4, 10:04 AM ET
WOULD THE REAL O.J. MAYO STAND UP?

By Luke Cyphers
ESPN The Magazine

With a flashy game, a string of off-the-floor incidents and a swervy career path, USC's O.J. Mayo has been a cyberspace pincushion since he was in seventh grade. (If you haven't heard it all before, just Google him.) Now add the usual vortex of half-truths, rumors and tall tales reserved for certain lightning-rod stars, not to mention that first name. The man couldn't possibly live up to the myth. And that's okay with O.J. "I don't listen to the talk," he says. "Gossip is for women in the hair salon."


Besides, if you can get past his breaking team-mate Daniel Hackett's jaw in a preseason pickup run—official version: accidental elbow—Mayo has made few waves this season (that ticket drama with Melo notwithstanding). But that won't erase what is already out there, and it's unlikely to change what many fans think of him. Studies show that people who believe damaging statements about political candidates never change their opinions, even after they've been told the information is false. Why should Bruins backers be different than Hillary haters?"For all I know, he could be a great guy," says Stanford fan Chase Grayson, one of many who rode Juice Deuce at a recent game. "I'm just going by what I've seen on TV." It might be human nature to think the worst about an opponent, but it's our job to find the truth and tell it to fans. And so &hellip


You heard HE'S A HOTHEAD.

"It seems like it's easy to get under his skin."
-Chase Grayson, Stanford fan
"The Next Michael Jordan Vick."
-sign in the Citadel student section

FOR THE RECORD: Mayo admits to getting into scuffles in junior high and high school, but he asks, "When will people realize that kids grow, learn from mistakes and become better people?" To his point, his temper has yet to flare this season. As for Hackett? Not much of a feud there. Mayo singles out his fellow Trojan for teaching him the nuances of the game. So all that taunting is a waste of breath. When Stanford students took their best shots in warmups, Mayo never looked up and showed a poker face. "I played basketball in the woods of eastern Kentucky," says Mayo. "It gets no worse than that."


You heard HIS HANDLERS TELL HIM WHAT TO DO.

"Reebok Big Time tourney organizer Sonny Vaccaro discussed the possibility of Mayo, [Derrick] Rose and others perhaps skipping college and joining him on a barnstorming tour of Europe &hellip "
-KUsports.com, July 24, 2006
"The biggest reason O.J. Mayo picked Los Angeles was that his 'mentor,' Rodney Guillory, lives in LA."
-Da KO King, Insidehoops.com forum, Dec. 5, 2007

FOR THE RECORD: Vaccaro floated the barnstorming idea, but the shoe don talks a lot—especially about getting kids out from under the NCAA's thumb. Clearly, though, it wasn't a serious option. "What's barnstorming?" Mayo asks. And though O.J. did use Guillory as a go-between with USC, even the former runner says he discouraged a move to a football school. Mayo's mom, Alisha, doesn't trust Guillory and wishes her son had gone elsewhere. Still, O.J. doesn't sound as if he's lying when he says it was his choice alone: "This is my life; I've worked hard. All of a sudden I'd let someone make decisions for me?"


You heard HE WENT TO USC FOR THE HOLLYWOOD LIFESTYLE.

"It's O.J. Mayo's final high school moments. There's a dunk, the hurling of the ball into the crowd, and a technical. You half expected the guy to take off his jersey, fling it into the crowd, grab his nuts, point at women and leave for the locker room, groupies in tow."
-TheBigLead.com, March 21, 2007
Mayo and Hackett
O.J. rises above rivals and rumors, like the one about his decking Hackett (left).

FOR THE RECORD: "There was all this talk about entourage," says coach Tim Floyd. "But I've never seen anyone around him other than his friends on the team. Of the top five players, he's probably the only one riding a bicycle." This guy is the face of a school at which a certain amount of playboy cachet is expected? "We hear rumors about players all the time," says John Chung, a frequent SC fan blogger. "When Matt Leinart was here, his times on fraternity row were folklore. But O.J. doesn't care about being big man on campus. You can almost say he's boring."

Almost. When asked what he likes best about LA, O.J. says, "The weather and the ladies." (Maybe he's just more discreet than Leinart.) Still, Mayo sounds as if he knows his place. "I can't endorse anything," he says. "I'm not a celebrity." Plus, with as much scrutiny as he's under, he's learned any misstep is bound to catch the eye of the NCAA cops.


You heard HE'S A COACH'S NIGHTMARE.

"A punk."
-Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption
"Mayo represents everything we've come to despise (showboating, selfishness, overhype)."
-Bill Simmons, ESPN.com, March 29, 2007

FOR THE RECORD: Mayo does play like a freshman sometimes, forcing shots and turning the ball over. Right before halftime at Stanford, he ran down the clock, drove the lane and got swatted, which led to a Cardinal hoop and a four-point swing in a tight loss. But even when his shot isn't falling, he's into the game: He makes hustle plays, and his defense is impressive; no one else has shut down Memphis' Derrick Rose the way Mayo did. "One of the ideas about me was that defense wasn't one of my strengths," O.J. says. "I just wanted to show I could keep between my man and the basket."

His coach is quick to say that Mayo has been more dream than nightmare. "He plays hard," Floyd says. "He doesn't separate himself from his teammates, and he scolds himself instead of glaring at me."


You heard THAT 29 ON THE ACT WAS BOGUS.

"I would like to know how much help and how long he got &hellip Not to say he isn't a smart kid, but everything I hear about him indicates otherwise."
-tauzreborn, on wildcatnation.net's forum, a Kentucky site

FOR THE RECORD: To those who think he didn't earn that ACT score, Mayo shakes his head. "Want me to take it again?" he asks. The kid speaks in complete paragraphs, looks elders in the eye and calls them sir or ma'am. And he takes school seriously. "People I know have him in class," says Andrew Steele, a sophomore at USC. "He participates." For much of the semester, Mayo was on pace for the honor roll and didn't hide his disappointment when he came up short. "The road trips got me," he says. He'll try again next semester. "I don't want to be a basketball player they have to give grades to."


You heard HE WILL CHANGE THE GAME.

"The next LeBron James is coming."
-thescoop, Sportsfilter.com, April 27, 2003
"The Next LeBron. The Next D-Wade. The Next Kobe."
-Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com, Oct. 29, 2007

FOR THE RECORD: Right now, Mayo is a great &hellip college freshman, averaging 19.9 ppg. "As good as advertised," says Washington State forward Daven Harmeling. "He does things you see at the next level." But let's not get carried away. He's not physically dominant, sometimes makes bad decisions and might not even get his team to the NCAA Tourney. Yes, his future is as a pro, but the next LeBron? With his throwback ethic and straight-up D, he's more likely the next Bruce Bowen. Says one scout: "His natural game allows him to be a tremendous role player on a very good team, but I don't think it allows him to be a star."

But unlike some of his big-name brethren, he has goals that extend beyond the court. Mayo plans to help develop impoverished areas in places like New Orleans, Cincinnati and his hometown of Huntington, W.Va. So maybe it's time to cut the kid some slack. And if you've got a problem with that, spill it on a message board.