Return to NBA by Mayo could inspire Huntington’s down and out

July 16, 2018

Former Huntington High star O.J. Mayo's last NBA team was the Milwaukee Bucks, who renounced their rights to him when he was suspended two years for violating the league's anti-drug policy. "I felt like I let them down, cheated them for two years," Mayo said of the Bucks organization. "They paid me $8 million to be, in my eyes, a subpar player. ... I owe them."

HUNTINGTON - As NBA free agency opened on July 1, many eyes were geared toward LeBron James becoming a free agent, which led to his eventual signing with the Los Angeles Lakers.

In the Tri-State, however, the date also had a different meaning for an area NBA player.

July 1 was the day former Huntington High phenom O.J. Mayo could apply to the league for reinstatement after a two-year ban for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program.

Emails to the NBA league office inquiring whether or not Mayo has applied for reinstatement have not been returned.

Mayo last played in the NBA during the 2015-16 season with the Milwaukee Bucks when he averaged 7.8 points and 2.9 assists in 41 games during a year in which he suffered a season-ending fractured ankle.

Mayo has been in action in the last few months, signing a deal in April with Atleticos de San German in Puerto Rico that was expected to get him some on-court work before his eligibility for reinstatement.

In 21 games (18 starts), Mayo averaged 13.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists before being released on June 27.

Details surrounding his release are not known. Speculation is that he was granted a release from his contract to pursue opportunities with NBA teams once the free agency period started.

The last two years have been a quiet period for Mayo, who largely shut down on social media and did not take part in many interviews, except for a short stretch of summer 2017.

In August 2017, Mayo spoke at length with Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver in what proved to be the most open and honest conversation concerning his suspension.

In that interview, Mayo admitted his priorities were out of place and he admitted smoking marijuana and using a prescription pain medication that led to his violation (Golliver said Mayo emphatically denied using cocaine).

Mayo went on to say in the article that not having basketball in his life was the closest he’d been to hitting rock bottom.

“Taking the game away is probably the closest thing to jail that I’ll get to,” Mayo said to Golliver. “Since I was like 6 or 7, I’ve always had a basketball season. That was the lowest point in my entire life: The shellshock of not being in the NBA. All my peers are playing and I’m not because of boneheaded mistakes. Take the ball away, what is there to do?”

Mayo outlined in the Golliver story that he escaped the superstar lifestyle and went on a journey of reflection to many countries - the most inspiring being a trip to a Kenyan village.

“This was about clearing my mind,” Mayo said of his travels. “When you’re on an NBA schedule, you’re away from home a lot. To be a man in Kenya, you have to care for your family away from home. I thought that was important. They’re gone for weeks breeding cattle so that the cycle of life can continue.

“It made me realize I’m blessed. At the time, I was dark. I was in a rough spot. I didn’t really see the light. The trip made me realize that I’m in a great situation and I’ve got to appreciate it. I could easily be in jail or dead.”

So how does this journey impact Mayo and, indirectly, those who follow him in Huntington?

Simple. Mayo’s story is not so different from the ones that Huntingtonians have faced in recent years or are currently facing with the drug epidemic taking control of its streets.

Since the fifth grade, Mayo has been one of the most decorated and documented athletes in Tri-State history, and his visibility could pave the way for a success story that can inspire those in the area who have faced similar battles.

Mayo was a guy who reached the pinnacle of his profession, lost it all due to drug use and had to really dig deep to find himself in an attempt to fix the issues before starting back on his climb toward that pinnacle.

If he could successfully make that climb and reach the NBA again - no matter what his role on a team - it would be an inspirational story that might offer more to his legacy than anything he’s ever done with a basketball in his hands.

Mayo’s potential journey back to the NBA is not so far-fetched, either.

The 30-year-old guard’s name came up Saturday as one of several players who may be available at the veteran minimum salary when the Milwaukee Bucks - his last NBA team - reached an agreement to release Jabari Parker.

Milwaukee renounced Mayo’s rights following the suspension, but Mayo said in the August 2017 story that a return to Milwaukee is something he wanted. He even cited strong relationships with Milwaukee players Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.

Mayo was real and genuine when speaking about the reasons why, again admitting his own faults in the situation.

“I felt like I let them down, cheated them for two years,” Mayo said. “They paid me $8 million to be, in my eyes, a subpar player. They invested millions of dollars for me to be on top of my (game), and when you’re not on top of your (game), it shows. I’ll be 30 next summer. If they just give me the chance, I can make it up. I owe them.”

Whether that next chance is with Milwaukee or another team looking to add a veteran guard with shooting touch, Mayo just wants another shot at the NBA.

If Mayo has indeed gotten his life back in order, the journey he’s gone through would hold major value within an organization as an example for younger players.

And for a team with young guards, Mayo has considerable basketball IQ and the same competitive spirit that led him to challenge Michael Jordan as a teenager - both key components that could help him as a mentor, of sorts, on the court.

Right now, O.J. Mayo wants to get back on an NBA floor, which could come into a clearer picture once the NBA Summer League wraps up on Tuesday.

If it happens, Mayo’s potential return would not only serve as a success story for himself, but also an inspiration for the entire area.

Mayo offered a statement to Golliver that speaks to that fact.

“I dug myself a hole, but it’s not a coffin,” Mayo said. “I can still get out.”

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