O.J. Mayo (6-5, 185) lives in South Point, Ohio, but plays at Rose Hill Christian School in Ashland, Ky., a state that allows junior high players to play on the varsity.
SOMMERS JOHN Enlarge
ASHLAND, Ky. - The 50 or so people fanning themselves in the gymnasium at Lima Senior High School last summer knew nothing about the player warming up for the opening-round game in an AAU tournament.
It was just another team, just another kid - until the game started.
The opening tip went his way, and with three dribbles and rocket-like levitation, he crammed the ball into the hoop from well above the rim. The dunk was stunning enough, but when the dunker is not even in the eighth grade yet, some people might have to be resuscitated in order to be stunned by it.
Ovinton J'Anthony Mayo is the next LeBron James - just ask anyone who has seen him play. As soon as James clears the high school radar screen and starts pulling a paycheck from the NBA, expect the spotlight to find Mayo and remain fixed on him for the next four years.
O.J. Mayo is 15, is in the eighth grade, and is in his second year on the varsity at Rose Hill Christian School in Ashland, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Ironton, Ohio. Kentucky allows junior high students to play on the varsity. Mayo had 27 points (he hit 13 of 18 shots), seven rebounds and seven assists in his first game with the high school team. This season he has led Rose Hill to the state tournament.
Mayo, playing point guard, averaged 21.8 points and led Rose Hill, a private school with only about 425 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, to a 20-2 record last season. The team is 26-8 so far this year. There is no divisional play in Kentucky, so Rose Hill has played big schools and small.
Mayo's coach at Rose Hill knows a little bit about big-time basketball. Jeff Hall was considered the best player ever to come out of the West Virginia-Ohio-Kentucky tri-state area when he headed for Louisville. Hall started at guard on the 1986 national-championship team for the Cardinals, and was drafted by the Indiana Pacers.
“A lot of people considered me to be a great player, but this kid is way better than I ever was,” Hall says. “When I was a seventh-grader I wouldn't have been able to even walk onto the floor in a high school game in front of several thousand people. O.J. Mayo was taking over high school games as a seventh-grader. He's unbelievable. He's a major Division I prospect - he just has four more years of high school ball ahead of him.”
Mayo was born in Huntington, W.Va., and now lives just across the Ohio River in tiny South Point, Ohio. He is chiseled and has grown to 6-5 and 185 pounds, and Hall is constantly fending off questions about his age.
“He can easily be mistaken for an 18-year-old because he is so mature physically,” Hall says. “O.J. is 15 years old. He was born on Nov. 5, 1987, so he will turn 19 during his senior year. There is nothing out of line there, but people always assume he is much older because his game is impossible to comprehend for a 15-year-old.”
His family decided to move Mayo to the varsity when it was clear that junior high competition was no competition at all - he was scoring more than 30 points per game and playing less than a half.
Mayo, who wears size-14 shoes, has had college coaches drooling for two years. Just about everyone has him ranked as the No. 1 player nationally in the Class of 2007. Mayo's team beat Ashland over the weekend and moves on to Kentucky's Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. Rose Hill plays tomorrow night in Rupp Arena.
Mayo handles the ball with aplomb, is a scary 3-point shooter and can embarrass his opponents with his ability to slash to the basket and play above the rim. He says his highlight-reel plays are neither rehearsed nor choreographed.
“I never know what will happen in certain situations,” Mayo told a Huntington newspaper. “I just work on my game all the time, and whatever happens out on the floor just happens. This is all just a gift from God. He's blessed me with a gift.”
Hall upgraded the schedule considerably this season in order to challenge Mayo and his strong supporting cast. Mayo is averaging 21 points per game, along with six rebounds, four assists and three steals. As word of Mayo's prowess and potential spread throughout the amateur ranks, his parents sought the protection they hoped the small, private school would provide.
“I worry about him getting pressure and getting on a bigger stage,” says Mayo's father, Kenny Ziegler. “That's why it's good for him to be in a good Christian atmosphere like Rose Hill. He'll keep his feet on the ground there.”
It has become increasingly difficult to deflect the spotlight. Mayo's AAU team won the national tournament, so everybody who is somebody in the amateur ranks got a good look at him last summer. Coaches from the major colleges lined the court when Mayo's team - all seventh-graders - played. Louisville coach Rick Pitino watched Mayo play a tournament game in December, and the coaches from Kentucky have been to a number of his games.
“First of all, this is high school basketball in Kentucky, so everybody is watching,” Hall says. “And when you have a kid this young with skills like he has, it creates an unusual amount of hype on its own. Fortunately, O.J. is the kind of kid who can keep all of this in check. He handles it as well as anyone I've ever seen.”
Elmwood High School coach Doug Reynolds was in the crowd that day at the AAU tournament in Lima, Ohio, and remembers his first look at Mayo. The LeBron James connection immediately came to mind.
“At first I thought he was a high school kid because he was so mature and so skilled. I just couldn't believe he was only a seventh-grader,” Reynolds said. “After he had a couple of dunks early in the game, it was clear this kid had talent that was way above the rest. It's easy for people to conclude he's the next LeBron James.”
Like LeBron James, Mayo has a Web site, but Hall said there's no Hummer, no thousand-dollar suits, no cell phone and no plans to put Rose Hill games on ESPN. Mayo makes the ride to school each day in the Rose Hill student van.
“If this thing grows into a LeBron James-type situation, then we will have to handle it when that comes along,” Hall said. “I'd be lying if I said we hadn't thought about that scenario, but it is hard to look that far down the road.”
Mayo, who is not available to the media after most games, said in a recent interview that his sights are set on college. He got his first college letter from nearby Marshall when he was 11, but right now, Mayo likes Duke, Louisville and Cincinnati.
“I'm going to go to college and get my degree,” Mayo said. “You never know if I will blow my knee out or something. Everything else will wait.”
While he hopes the firestorm of attention that has surrounded LeBron James will not find its way to this sleepy community on the Ohio River, Hall is realistic as well. He knows the fascination a man-child of such ability can create.
“We understand there is a lot of interest because this young man is such a rare talent, but we hope people can keep some sense of perspective,” Hall said. “Some of us just have gifts. Some of us are gifted to play musical instruments, some of us are gifted to be strong academically, or do whatever. But the bottom line is that O.J. Mayo just has a gift from God.”