The Cold, Hard Grip of Reality: An O.J. Tale
First, you feel the warmth turn to ice and then that cold rises from your feet on up your legs. There’s a numbing reaction. The hairs on your legs and forearms don’t stand up…they shoot out from your skin like the jagged daggers that hang off the roof of a cabin on a freezing February night in West Virginia. With each second that passes, it grows larger, more menacing. Now, your energy is gone. Next go the feelings; you can’t love anymore. Can’t laugh or smile. Finally, it all comes to a point, locking in on the sides of your neck, compressing your skin through the creases in its grip. With all of its vigor pointed directly at your jugular, your breath trickles until it stops, your eyes bulge and the only noise you can make is a hoarse whisper that sneaks out of your throat. It’s suffocating you. Unavoidable. Deadly. You wish you could see what you feel, see yourself becoming engulfed by this dark shadow of energy, but that’s impossible. This is all inside of you.
Once upon a time not so long ago, there was a kid named O.J. He was diagnosed with this disease, this drug, and its effects are still being felt.
Hype has gutted many a great entertainers, athletes and political leaders. The funny thing is that everyone loves hype. The problem is that only a minuscule percentage of us actually get to suffer through what true hype is. And what it means and what it can do to a person. Even the strongest person can become a mouse when hype coils them up and spits them back out.
“I don’t think anybody would be happy. I’m uncomfortable. But I’m a basketball player. I’m a professional. If it’s what’s best for the team, honestly, I’m definitely all for it. The team and winning are the priorities. I can put my feelings aside for what’s best for the team.”
O.J. Mayo isn’t fooling anybody. Four games into what is probably the only stint he’s ever spent coming off the bench in his entire life, and he wants to talk what’s best for the team. No way, out of the question, a physical impossibility that this is the same person who was once chosen by famed high school basketball decision-maker Sonny Vaccaro that he would one day be amongst “the greatest of the greats.”
This season has been a collection of most of Mayo’s worst play as a professional. His adjusted player efficiency rating is only 11.04 and has dropped in all three seasons he’s been in the League. His field goal percentage this year is hovering just above 40 percent. Basically, when you break it down mathematically, Mayo is a worse player than Darrell Arthur, Sam Young and Tony Allen.
There are rumors, despite the consistent denials of the Memphis brass, that Mayo is available. The Grizzlies have their star, Rudy Gay, and a strong complement of post players. For them, Mayo has always been a part of the supporting cast. He could score 30 points or hit a game-winning shot, and the Grizzlies would still send Mayo to the corner. Stand there and shoot they will tell him, just as they always have.
It was never supposed to be like this. By year three, he was supposed to already be an all-star and already taking the boundaries of the sport as a business and sludge hammering them apart. This is the same guy who was once heralded as the next LeBron James while at the same time called the next Michael Vick. This is the same guy who used to watch Jason Kidd tapes in high school and then go out and play like Kobe Bryant.
We are taught confidence, the real kind, is God-given. It can’t be earned or learned. Yes, you can improve along the way, a barber becoming more comfortable doing fades or a sales rep learning the best tricks to get customers to spend money.
True confidence, an unbridled belief that what you say or do is right, and that unequivocal stubbornness that allows someone to completely ignore hate, is there from the start. It has to be, or else it isn’t totally real.
Mayo has obviously lost his basketball confidence so far this season. He’s averaging only 13.9 points and two assists a game. Those are Kyle Korver numbers. But look even deeper and he just appears completely different.
In high school, he acted like a man as a freshman, already comfortable with the autograph seekers and the cameras. He won championships, found national press for his cockiness and soaked in the hate that came from beating down small schools by 60 points. In college, Mayo took 27 shots in his very first game and floated above the disgust that came to a kid who chose his school, his coach, his future. As a pro, Mayo took 20 shots in his first game. It didn’t matter that he only made five. That’s hardly the point. Everywhere he has been, he has dominated, whether on the court or not, with an aura that expressed no disdain for mistakes or any care for how others felt about him.
There are so many stories about Mayo. Some are on tape like his classic disembodiment of Lance Stephenson at the 2005 ABCD camp. Some aren’t like the 45 points Mayo hung on Javaris Crittenton when Crittenton was a possible Lottery pick and Mayo still had yet to see the floor at USC.
He had an air of invincibility orbiting around him and it couldn’t have all been a product of circumstances not directly involving him. All of those stories couldn’t have possible been made up.
Now, we must ask the question: this is the same kid, right?
Will the real O.J. ever stand up? Or is what we’ve been seeing every day the real Mayo? Watch him play and you will see it’s not the same guy. Was that superhero we created, the one who had a sniper calibrated out to half court, had enough confidence to break people down off the dribble and never acted or looked a shade under 30 years old – the Shaft of the hard courts – was that person just a fabrication of our own undying need for a hero, a value to hold on to? How evil we are.
Now, he’s turned into a dwarf, eager to seed control to Gay or Mike Conley. When pick-n-roll opportunities present themselves, he doesn’t attack and floats through the motions. The old O.J. set the bar and accepted all challenges, over and over again. The new O.J. shoots fadeaways as he fades away while others from his Draft class are busy making All-Star games and U.S.A. teams.
What is our unique, and unending obsession with O.J. Mayo? We know what he is, or at least we think we know. We also thought we knew five years ago, and that assumption wasn’t too exact. We say we don’t want hype, that hype is destructive and that hype is evil and that hype is never warranted, never earned. The very definition of hype is the pressure distilled on someone who hasn’t worked or sweated for it.
But yet, we love the hype. We love the hype that gets dropped on someone like Mayo, become obsessed to the point of worship. We want Mayo to become great, almost like we need it to fulfill some type of weird sports dream we all have. It feels almost like … a drug.
This Mayo, whether or not he’s real, doesn’t seem like a hero. The disease of hype is gone, it’s powers having zapped all that was alive and thriving within him to dust. But the larger question still remains: is that really a good thing?
Mayo never did help to change the game. His presence merely reinforced it.
-Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney