Rearview Mirror: Mayo puts on clinic on how to exit gracefully

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“So wait, you’ve never seen what O.J. Mayo did in his final high school game?” my friend Tom Boorstein from SNY.tv asked me recently.

I can’t remember how Mayo came up in our conversation, which usually revolves around Tom’s inexplicable fascination with baseball umpires, but I told him I couldn’t recall having any memory of his final high school game.

“You have to see this,” Tom said while loading up the video.

True to billing, Mayo had figured out the single most ridiculous way to make a grand exit, leading me to compare it to some of the greatest curtain-closing moments in sports.

We have the great Ted Williams, who fittingly hit a home run in his last at-bat.

We have the legendary Lou Gehrig, who performed an iconic and emotional speech that would inspire people for generations to come.

We have Michael Jordan — the Bulls version — poetically leaving his hand in the air for one sweet moment after hitting a championship-winning shot as Bob Costas rhapsodized.

Then… we have O.J. Mayo topping them all, if only in terms of head-shaking hilarity.

*****

Mayo’s Huntington team beat South Charleston for the West Virginia state title his senior year by 42 points. Mayo, feeling his services were no longer needed and desirous of a victory lap for his superb high school career, leapt into action.

With a minute left, Mayo crept behind the South Charleston ballhandler at the top of the key, stripped him, took it the distance, threw it off the glass to himself and dunked it for the final two of his 41 points. He then proceeded to hurl the ball as far as he could into the crowd.

Mayo strode off the court high-fiving people, perhaps not even knowing — and almost certainly not caring — that he’d been ejected from his final high school game.

Either Mayo had this scenario mapped out in his head and endeavored to make it happen, or he improvised it on the fly. Either way, I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known about this previously. I spend a good amount of time following basketball, and I spend far, far too much time on the Internet. I suppose this caused probably at least something of a stir at the time, but I’d never heard of it, so it can’t have been that big a deal.

Hands-down, my favorite part — and I realize this is a no-brainer — was Mayo hurling the ball 50 rows deep. It was an epic gesture, the thing you do if you’re the point guard for Angola and you beat the Dream Team. I loved that he chose to do it up 40 points in a West Virginia high school State Finals game. I mean, Mayo would be drafted into the NBA 15 months later.

Something about O.J. Mayo’s unabashed celebration of the greatness of O.J. Mayo — eight days after he had been found with marijuana on him in a friend’s car — reminded me of the supreme triumph of this guy after his paternity test came back on the Maury Povich show…

Basically, Mayo was going to do his thing and couldn’t care less what anyone thought about it. That’s some serious chutzpah.

*****

The weird thing to me is how relatively pedestrian Mayo’s career has turned out. Mayo was an enormously touted recruit back then — Rivals had him No. 4 in the country. And even without knowing about his high school swan song, I was aware he was sort of crazy, so I eagerly awaited his one-and-done year at USC for its high potential for unintentional comedy.

The Next LeBronBut I don’t remember much from that season. I do know he averaged a robust 20 points under the radar on the West Coast, the Trojans lost in the first round of the tournament, and that they eventually had to vacate all their wins because he took money a la Chris Webber at Michigan.

Mayo was drafted No. 3 by Minnesota and was traded to Memphis for Kevin Love, among others; he had a good rookie year, averaging 18.5 points and finishing second behind Derrick Rose for Rookie of the Year. But he’s taken something of a hit since then, culminating in his third season this past year, when he lost his spot in the starting lineup.

Mayo’s had a terrible year in a lot of respects. He was beaten up by teammate Tony Allen over a card game, was suspended for 10 games for testing positive for a banned substance that he claimed was hidden in an energy drink he bought at a gas station, and was very nearly traded to the Pacers for the immortal Josh McRoberts at the break only to have it fall through.

On top of all of it, he had to see his father get arrested for attempted murder of a cop, while he had all sorts of drugs in his car, and you see where he could have had better role models.

I think a guy like Mayo, who clearly came up the ranks without anyone of authority putting a damper on his sense of entitlement, isn’t necessarily bred for NBA success.

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J.R. Smith strikes me the same way. Next to LeBron James, I consider Smith the best high school player I’ve seen live — which is saying something — but for all his talents, he’s never quite figured out in his head how to put it all together in a team setting.

Mending fencesMayo is an enormously talented player, which you see glimpses of when he actually does see the court. (He’s still contributing 9.5 points in 23 minutes in Memphis’ first eight playoff games this spring.) I feel like in the right situation, with the right coach, Mayo could turn out okay. Of course, you hear his name floated in terms of the Knicks once in a while, which would probably be a train wreck of a disaster.

My test case, J.R. Smith, has been in the league eight years now. He’ll have a game here and there where he hits eight threes or something, but his terrible attitude has never let him become a star and likely never will. So with Mayo, who knows?

But one thing’s for sure: Even if Mayo never lives up to his immense talent in the NBA, he’ll always have his own personal One Shining Moment to replay in his head, or on YouTube, whenever he wants.

Of course, then you see a quote like this from Mayo, about returning to the Grizzlies after believing he had been traded:

You’ve got to look in the mirror, wash your face and go to work tomorrow. You never want to bring controversy in the locker room saying, ‘This stuff isn’t right, they’re doing me wrong.’ So you just want to go in and try to be the best man you can be.

And you just hope that someone as talented — and as colorful — as Mayo has come to think of his final high school game in terms of the kid he was then, and not the man he is now.

Esoteric

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