Special to Page 2
The top recruit in the class of 2007 is headed to USC. To play basketball.
It's been a few days since reports surfaced that O.J. Mayo, the 6-foot-4 point guard prodigy from West Virginia via Cincinnati, plans to take his talents to South Los Angeles. Perhaps the kid loves a challenge and is itching for the chance to show that he is both the most talented and unconventionally named O.J. in Trojan history. (Orenthal James vs. Ovinton J'Anthony? You make the call.) Maybe he's just ready for his close-up. And upon further review, and with that possibility in mind, his decision is as baffling as it first seemed while making all the sense in the world.
Since when did kids start looking at media markets before choosing schools? Really, who can imagine a kid calling Bobby Knight and saying, "No sir, I really love the striped warm-ups, but there just ain't enough TV sets 'round here?"
Don't get me wrong -- there are lots of great reasons for a kid from the Midwest to want to live and work in Southern California, especially if he's not paying his own rent. The place has got great weather, smokin' hot women, both beaches and mountains within driving distance, and "Monday Night Football" comes on at 6 p.m. instead of 9. Can't beat that with a bat, Jack.
But the word is that Mayo wants to play for USC because he thinks being in a large media market will build his Q rating, a significant concern since it's more likely that Lew Alcindor will play for the Trojans in 2008-09 than Mayo. (Not to mention that, as ESPN.com's Pat Forde has noted, Reebok powerbroker Sonny Vaccaro lives in Southern California now.)
The kid's logic seems sound on paper. L.A.'s a big place, and USC seemed to do a good job of making household names of Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. But who's the last basketball star created by the Cardinal and Gold Talent Agency? Harold Miner, maybe? And did USC really make Miner a star as much as it made fools of those who really believed that he was Baby Jordan?
Historically, market size has only been moderately significant in marketing college athletes. Unlike in pro sports, big collegiate names are often built in locales off the beaten path. Carmelo Anthony was the top small forward in his recruiting class when he went to bask in the dim lights and gray skies of Syracuse. But one year and a national championship later, he left college as a megastar.
Would 'Melo have been a bigger star had he won a chip in New York at St. John's? Probably. But would he have been a big star simply because he played at St. John's? Put it like this -- if that were the case, St. John's would be at the top of a lot more recruits' lists. And they surely would have had the talent to win more than five Big East games last season.
In college hoops, it's not where someone plays that makes him a star, but when someone plays. By "when," I mean March. Or so went the world when I was a kid.
Perhaps that's a na´ve and antiquated outlook. But it seems that, for example, heading to Lexington to play for Big Blue would make Mayo a bigger name than heading to South Central to play for a program that will be fighting USC and UCLA football, UCLA basketball, the Lakers, the Clippers and Brangelina for L.A.'s attention come November.
But this is the kid's call. It seems to be a suspect decision, but no adolescence is complete without a bad decision here and there.
That doesn't mean that the rest of us aren't allowed to be a little disappointed. Fans of nearly every school in America were trying to convince themselves they had a chance at Mayo and his teammate, cousin and fellow ballyhooed recruit Bill Walker. Mayo did little to disappoint them. From a distance, it seemed like a wide-open race as to who could land Mayo and Walker. The pair even kept Florida A&M on their list for a while, enticed by the possibility of taking a small school and putting it on the map.
No one really thought that would happen -- especially not after the Rattlers athletic department ran afoul of the NCAA -- but the pair kept other schools on their list that weren't hoops hotbeds. Former Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins established a relationship with Mayo and Walker before the Bearcats fired him, leaving open the possibility that they would join Huggy Bear at Kansas State. After leaving Indiana after last season, it was believed that current UAB coach Mike Davis was using his access to Mayo as a selling point when he was looking for a job.
Those are big-name coaches, but those have never been big-name basketball schools.
Even those who could care less about recruiting had to look at a kid willing to break the mold and go to a less-prestigious program to make his mark. Think about it -- if Bill Snyder was considered a miracle worker for turning K-State into a football powerhouse, what superlatives could be imagined to describe O.J. Mayo taking the Wildcats to the Final Four? And if he could take FAMU to the second round of the Big Dance, his next trick would have to be turning Gatorade into Goldschlager.
So yeah, it would have been cool for him to pursue such a route, and it's a bit of a bummer that he's choosing not to.
But if Mayo knows what he's doing, this should be pretty downright spooky for the NCAA. For years, the NCAA has lamented about the grip sneaker companies have on college basketball. Nike, Reebok and adidas are able to get to the kids before recruiters can and, in many instances, wield more influence than the slick-talking coaches that yearn for the players' services. Though the NCAA would love the world to believe its kids play for the big name on their jerseys, the reality has been that a lot of players are in it for the logos on their feet.
If the esteemed Mr. Forde is right -- as he tends to be -- and Mayo is heading to USC to be close to Vaccaro and what Vaccaro can do for him, then the NCAA is about to have big, big problems. Really, what tangible benefits could an amateur athlete receive from being in Los Angeles, where college sports don't command undivided attention? If a kid's not able to receive a check or cash in on his notoriety while in college, why play in Cali? And between class and the obligations of being a varsity athlete in a revenue sport, how on earth would Mayo find the time to make a star of himself?
Only Vaccaro and Mayo know the real answers to those queries. And they're probably nothing Myles Brand wants to hear. For that matter, they're nothing any fan wants to hear, either.
So instead of breaking the mold and trying to cut his own path during his one -- and definitely no more than one -- year in college, it seems Mayo's taking a new but conventional route. Instead of following a shoe company and using a school's name and prestige to make himself a star, he seems to be following a shoe company and using its location to make himself a star.
If everything with Vaccaro is above board, then this makes no sense. By winning, Mayo would be a star wherever he decided to go. But if this does add up, if Mayo has fame and fortune waiting for him in California, then college basketball is in even worse shape than most of us thought.
And it won't get any better.
Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at firstname.lastname@example.org.