The Rides of March. ...And Beyond
Spotlight found Bucks' Mayo early
Rupp Arena ranks among basketball’s most storied venues.
It has been the launching pad for the careers of countless All-Americans and National Basketball Association players.
But only one of them walked in the shoes of Ovinton J’Anthony Mayo, who competed there as an eighth-grader in the 2003 Kentucky High School Athletic Association Sweet 16 Basketball Tournament.
Mayo, now a sixth-year NBA veteran whom the Milwaukee Bucks signed as a free agent July 13, 2013, was introduced to the national spotlight at a much younger age than most, if not all, of his contemporaries.
But Mayo has never needed to shield his eyes from its glare, which began even before his arrival at Rupp Arena to play in one of only three remaining single-class state tournaments in the country.
O.J. was born in Huntington, West Virginia, and began displaying advanced basketball skills as a fourth-grader. He remembers signing his first autograph when he was 11 years old.
He later moved with his family to the tiny village of South Point, Ohio, and commuted across the nearby state line to attend Rose Hill Christian School of Ashland, Kentucky.
The state of Kentucky allows junior high school students to play varsity basketball, so Mayo’s prep career began when he was a seventh-grader at Rose Hill Christian, a K-12 school of about 425 students.
Mayo was asked how he was able to earn a spot on the same stage as high school seniors when he was a mere middle-schooler.
His opportunity was earned with hustle of more than one variety.
"As a sixth- and seventh-grader, I was able to play with the older guys in my neighborhood,” he said. “Anytime I was at the local park or rec center, I was always playing against older guys. I think that's what instilled confidence in me. The other guys thought I was really good, and they wanted me on their team because I was able to get a buck or two against them.
“Having the opportunity to play varsity high school basketball as a seventh-grader in Kentucky, which is a big -time high school basketball state, was a big deal.”
Mayo, who estimates he stood about 6 feet-2 inches tall as a seventh-grader, did more than just hold his own during his first season of high school basketball.
He averaged 23 points per game.
The national media swooped in.
After Mayo dominated an AAU tournament in Ohio, throwing down several powerful dunks along the way, a newspaper story quoted a coach who said he understood the growing number of Mayo reviews labeling him as the next LeBron James.
Mayo’s individual numbers dwindled a bit in his eighth-grade season, when he averaged 20.5 points a game, but his celebrity grew as he led Rose Hill Christian on its run to Lexington and the Kentucky Sweet 16.
Mayo considered that achievement the highlight of what became an enormously successful prep career.
"Playing in the Kentucky state tournament at Rupp Arena was a tremendous opportunity,” Mayo said. “I’ll never forget it. We played South Laurel in our first game and we won. We got to the Elite Eight."
Mayo achieved a double-double of 13 points and 12 rebounds in Rose Hill’s 65-46 triumph over South Laurel, a school located in London, Kentucky that numbered close to 1,300 students in grades 9 through 12.
O.J. had an even more attention-grabbing game in the quarterfinals, totaling 25 points and 10 rebounds as Rose Hill lost 83-78 to Louisville Ballard, which had a student body of about 1,800 for grades 9-12.
Mayo was named first-team all-state by the Louisville Courier-Journal, becoming the youngest player ever to achieve that status. But the 2003 state quarterfinal game was his last as a Kentucky prep player.
He enrolled the following year at North College Hill High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In his freshman season, he averaged 31 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals per game and was selected to Ohio’s all-state first team. His team finished its regular season at 20-0 and advanced to the Division III state tournament, where it lost Reading. Mayo was chosen Ohio Division III Player of the Year by the Associated Press.
Mayo went on to average 28 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists during his sophomore campaign, which featured a 56-point single-game outburst. He led North College Hill to its first Ohio Division III state basketball title, was voted Associated Press Division III Player of the Year for the second straight season and was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball, becoming only the second sophomore – LeBron James was the first -- to receive the award.
As a junior, Mayo averaged 29 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals and was Ohio’s Mr. Basketball for the second consecutive season. He shared Ohio AP Division III player-of-the-year honors with three other players, including boyhood friend and teammate Bill Walker. North College Hill claimed its second straight Division III boys’ state basketball championship after Mayo totaled 26 points and 8 assists in the championship game and was selected tournament MVP.
"I was just a kid having fun,” Mayo said. “I had a good high school career. The attention high school basketball was getting then was greater than it had been in a long time when LeBron came up.
“There were a lot of really good players and teams in Cincinnati and Columbus. We had a lot of fun playing the game.”
During the summer of 2006, Mayo moved back to West Virginia and enrolled at Huntington High School for 2006-07, his senior year.
O.J. led the state in scoring during the 2006–07 season at 28.4 points per game and teamed with current Toronto Raptors forward Patrick Patterson in leading Huntington to its third straight West Virginia Class AAA basketball championship. Mayo totaled a triple-double of 41 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in Huntington’s 103-61 title-game victory over South Charleston.
Huntington finished 25-2 and received a No. 3 national ranking, the highest ever for a West Virginia high school team.
Mayo was the 2007 recipient of the Bill Evans Award as the state's boys basketball player of the year by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association. He was also named National High School Boys Basketball Player of the Year by EA Sports.
Mayo scored 12 points in the 2007 McDonald’s All-American Game, which also included 18 other future NBA players including MVP Michael Beasley, Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose.
Before moving on to play collegiately at the University of Southern California and for the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA, Mayo was asked to account for the many successes of his six-year prep playing career.
“I just work on my game all the time,” he said. “What happens out on the floor just happens. It’s a gift from God. He has blessed me with a gift.”