O.J. Mayo sits on an old wooden bench in a seldom-used locker room of an opposing team's gymnasium. He's wearing a Huntington High letter jacket, black pants and a plain black baseball cap. He is missing the gold chains, diamond earrings and other accouterments that so often accessorize teenage athletes of his stature.
He might be the best high school basketball player in the nation. Nineteen years old. A well-muscled 215 pounds over 6 feet 5 inches. Shoots three-point shots with an easy flick of the wrist. Fires off passes so quickly and creatively that he is a danger to teammates at times.
He is also among the nation's most scrutinized and fussed-over young athletes. Adults from coast to coast seek to influence him -- and it is easy to wonder whether they have his best interests in mind, or are simply seeking to position themselves to cash in on his fame.
But on this night, in the 100-year-old gym where his team has just defeated Parkersburg High, he addresses adults as "Sir" and "Ma'am," while a reverential procession of a dozen or so boys and girls -- none older than 11 -- are ushered over to meet him. Wrapping an arm around each of them, Mayo signs programs, hats, basketballs and diaries while their parents are kept outside by one of the two Huntington city policemen who travel with the team.
Then he makes time for a reporter who has traveled across the country to see him.
Mayo is polite and respectful during an interview that lasts about 20 minutes.
Setting up the interview, though, has taken many hours over many days.
Since Mayo was 13 years old there have been plenty of layers to go through to get to him.
As a seventh-grader he left West Virginia with his father, Kenny Ziegler, and moved to Kentucky, which allowed boys his age to play high school basketball.
Dwaine Barnes moved with them. Mayo called him his "grandfather," but he isn't related. He was the coach of the club basketball team that Mayo played for.
From Kentucky, Barnes moved Mayo to North College Hill High in Cincinnati, suggesting that it was best for the young man to get used to a bigger city and media center -- odd reasoning, according to observers who have closely tracked his career, because since then Barnes and others have gone to great lengths to shield Mayo from outsiders.
Mayo led North College Hill to two state championships in three years, but he was also suspended three times for fighting and insubordination. Last summer, after his good friend and teammate Bill Walker was found to have exhausted his high school eligibility, Mayo returned home to join up with many of the same kids he played with and against at the Huntington YMCA 12 years ago.
These days, at least three men exert -- or claim -- at least some control over Mayo's time: Rodney Guillory, a former Reebok representative based in Los Angeles; Lloyd McGuffin, Mayo's high school coach; and Mike Woelfel, an attorney who is a Huntington assistant coach this season.
Once listed by Mayo in a biography as "the most impressive person I have ever met," Guillory is credited by some basketball insiders with influencing the player's college choice of USC. He is said to be the person who jumped the gun by scheduling a news conference last fall where Mayo was supposed to announce his commitment to the Trojans. (Reporters arrived at an L.A.-area hotel, but Mayo, who was in the area visiting the USC campus, never did. His choice wasn't made public for several more weeks.)
Guillory is a regular at the Galen Center and in the USC players' lounge after games. Asked to help arrange an interview with Mayo, Guillory at first said the player wouldn't talk by phone or in person. "And don't bother calling his school either," Guillory added, implying that no one would agree to be quoted for a newspaper story.
Later, Guillory softened and said, "I'll put in a good word with O.J. Call me when you're in West Virginia." But when that call was placed, Guillory said, "O.J. must have changed his number. I can't get to him."
The next contact was made with Woelfel, who early on the day of the Parkersburg game said he would try to arrange an interview with Mayo -- only to change his mind about three hours later, saying, "O.J.'s not going to the game, there's too much attention."
Indeed, Mayo had been generating plenty of headlines. But not for the usual reasons.
He was in the midst of a three-game suspension as the result of his actions during a highly charged game against rival Charleston Capital High two weeks earlier.
Mayo had been given two technical fouls by the same game official, Mike Lazo. The first was for taunting after a dunk. The second came as players from both teams milled around the court after the original violation was called. The second technical resulted in Mayo's automatic ejection from that game and, by local rules, a two-game suspension on top of that. But what happened next was most controversial.
Video showed that as Lazo walked to the scorer's table to sort things out, Mayo followed and appeared to lightly brush the official's back or shoulder. Lazo, however, dropped to the ground, sparking a controversy that lighted up Internet message boards coast to coast.
A court injunction won by attorney Woelfel delayed Mayo's suspension until after an eagerly awaited nationally televised game against Lakewood Artesia was played at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium. Later, a settlement between the school and the state high school association resulted in his missing three games.
Parkersburg was the second of those games, and Woelfel was adamant Mayo wouldn't be going even to watch.
But there Mayo was, sitting in the bleachers and talking on his cellphone during the junior varsity game.
One row behind him was head coach McGuffin, a middle-age Huntington native who talked about knowing Mayo for a dozen years.
"He's a kid who has always been polite and deferential," McGuffin said. "He's been blessed with extraordinary talent, and sometimes that's a burden for a kid."
The head coach went on about the excitement generated by his team of kids who all had played YMCA Buddy Ball together at age 7. Then assistant coach Woelfel arrived, sitting next to Mayo -- still chatting away on the phone -- and putting his arm around his shoulder.
McGuffin said Mayo didn't want to talk about his suspension but added, "O.J. knows he's supposed to talk to you," before heading to the locker room.
As soon as the head coach was gone, Woelfel whispered in Mayo's ear. A moment later, Mayo clicked his phone closed and hustled away. Said Woelfel: "O.J. doesn't want to talk."
The assistant and attorney was willing to talk plenty himself, though, offering among several tidbits that his sister taught Mayo in grade school and that he didn't plan on coaching at Huntington after this season. And all along, he was insistent that the player would not grant an interview.
Woelfel sought information himself, asking what a reporter knew about Guillory. "I've been Googling him," Woelfel said, "and I can't find anything."
Eventually, Woelfel headed off to the locker room but not before saying again, "He's not going to talk. You don't have to stay."
Yet, after the game -- won by Huntington -- McGuffin came by to ask the reporter how the interview went.
Told that Mayo had declined to speak, McGuffin rolled his eyes and asked, "Did Mike Woelfel say something to him?"
With that, he headed back to the locker room, from which, minutes later, Mayo reappeared.
He was ready to talk.
One thing before Mayo talks.
There's a well-known basketball promoter -- a guy who knows both the good and the seamy side of the youth game -- who vouches for the young man's honesty.
"When you see him come out [to L.A.] in June or July you'll see he's a strong-willed sucker," said Sonny Vaccaro, a former shoe company executive who founded the first major summer camp for high school all-stars and has been an acquaintance of Mayo's for five years. "O.J. is going to be special. Unlike that other superstar, Kobe, if O.J. says something it will happen."
Vaccaro says he believes that Mayo chose USC on his own, and that Guillory's intentions are basically honorable.
But with the exception of McGuffin, Vaccaro is less charitable in his opinion about those who surround Mayo in West Virginia.
"There's so much [bad stuff] going on in Huntington. They're all trying to maneuver their positions and he's just got to get out of there with his grades and his reputation," he said. "It's not unusual for a kid of his talent, and because of different circumstances kids like him gravitate toward others. It's not unique. But the bigger you are the more magnified it is.
"I believe whenever O.J. comes [to L.A.], the second part of his life begins."
At the start of the interview, Mayo's head is down. He answers questions slowly, considering each word. His hands are folded, his foot taps.
He says he never even considered not being on the bench this night in support of his teammates. Yes, he regretted the incident that caused his suspension, but no, he will not discuss whether he lost his temper or considered himself a target of an overzealous official.
"There are always lessons to be learned," Mayo said. "I learned them."
He brightens and raises his eyes when asked about his decision to attend USC.
"I'll get to wear shorts all the time," he said. "I get to have a fresh start. It will be a whole new start for me."
Mayo speaks proudly of his mother, Alisha. "She was 16 when I was born," said Mayo, whose given names are Ovinton J'Anthony. "My mom works hard for everything. She works hard for me and she has never tried to stand in my way."
Of his father, who also played for Huntington High, Mayo said, "My dad's team won a state title. I want to do it again."
Until he was 10, Mayo recalled playing baseball and football with equal passion: "Sometimes I still think I like baseball the best."
Growing up, he says he worshiped the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. Now he's a Cincinnati Bengals fan and loves Carson Palmer, "a smart quarterback and throws a great ball."
Huntington (20-2) begins the playoffs tonight ranked No. 10 in the nation by USA Today. The Highlanders have four other major college prospects and, without Mayo, have won consecutive state titles. He giggles as he tries to describe his teammates.
"Shooter," he said of guard Jamaal Williams. "Tough guy," of forward Patrick Patterson, who is considering scholarship offers from Kentucky, Florida and Wake Forest. "Oooh, like a brick wall," about Chris Early, who will play for Oklahoma next season.
Who would win a game of horse?
"I would of course," Mayo said, smiling.
Asked to describe his personality, Mayo said, "My personality is for everybody to see. It's on the basketball court."
And then there was this: Asked whom he most trusts in the world, his head lowers and he whispers one word.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
High school star O.J. Mayo has played for three high school teams -- from three states -- in six years.
Rose Hill Christian School, Ashland, Ky.
* As a seventh- and eighth-grader, Mayo was allowed to play varsity high school basketball for the private school in Ashland. He averaged 23 points his first season.
North College Hill, Cincinnati
* Mayo transferred to the Ohio school in the spring of 2003. In three seasons, he averaged 26.8 points, won two state titles and was named Mr. Basketball of Ohio twice.
Huntington High, Huntington, W.Va.
* In the summer of 2006, Mayo moved back to his birth home in Huntington. In November, he signed a letter of intent to play at USC.
Sources: Huntington Herald-Dispatch and Cincinnati Enquirer