- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MEMPHIS, TENN. (AP) - O.J. Mayo decides to walk the block over to Beale Street from the FedExForum after a recent Grizzlies’ practice. The destination is a restaurant that’s quickly become one of his favorites.

Mayo leaves his dark blue Mercedes CLS 550 parked in front of the arena, and strolls into the Blues City Cafe, across from B.B. King’s place. Wearing sweats, the 6-foot-4 NBA rookie of the year candidate orders lunch _ a half-slab of ribs, some fried shrimp and sweet tea to wash it down.

No paparazzi. No celebrity treatment. Just a man and his ribs.

“It’s been the most relaxed and … comfortable I’ve been since maybe the fifth or sixth grade,” said Mayo, who spent part of a typical off day with The Associated Press recently.

Yes, this is that O.J. Mayo _ you remember, the brash teenager who called Southern California as a high school phenom so he could play in Los Angeles and reap the marketing opportunities the City of Angels offers.

But this is Memphis, about as far away from the NBA’s bright lights as you can get these days _ and still be in the league. The Grizzlies had just 17 wins, only three more than league-worst Sacramento going into Tuesday’s games.

“It’s not high expectations you know,” Mayo said. “The city understands we’re a young team, we’re still trying to get better. The city enjoys our young team and enjoys our talent, looks forward to watching us grow as a team and get better throughout the years.

“When we go out, they show us all respect.”

On his way out of the Blues City Cafe, a young man asks Mayo to pose for a quick photo. At the street corner, two older men call out his name and run up for a handshake and a brotherly hug. Mayo pauses to talk for a minute, smiles and obliges with the hug before moving on his way.

Mayo is the present _ and future_ face of the Grizzlies. He feels no pressure, his every move has been scrutinized since he was 13. But this Southern town, Mayo has been in relative obscurity nationally _ and he is flourishing.

On the court, he has earned the fans’ respect. He has started every game this season and is the Grizzlies’ top scorer. He also is the NBA’s top scoring rookie, averaging 18.7 points per game, and is playing more minutes than any other first-year player. The 210-pound guard ranks 10th in the NBA in minutes played per game.

Off the court, the biggest attractions here are Graceland _ Elvis Presley’s old home _ the National Civil Rights Museum that stands where Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, barbecue and the Mississippi River. The closest Hollywood is the Mississippi cafe that serves fried pickles, and Mayo already has figured out the side streets to avoid accidents between the arena and his new home.

With his soulful brown eyes and slight beard, Mayo is a guy people have been watching _ and wanting a piece of _ since he commuted back and forth across the West Virgina/Kentucky state line to play high school ball in the bluegrass state as a seventh-grader. His play became legendary and his senior year he led Huntington (W. Va.) High to its third straight state title and became nearly everyone’s All-American.

Before returning to West Virginia, Mayo lived in Cincinnati with his AAU coach Dwaine Barnes. He played at Cincinnati’s North College Hill High for three years _ where his arrival before his ninth grade year created such a buzz that it was broadcast by local television stations.

It’s not like that in Memphis, even though people here love their basketball.

They were asleep when the Grizzlies announced they had traded away Kevin Love and Mike Miller for Mayo, the third overall pick in the draft. He drives himself to and from his new house next to a golf course in his Mercedes and enjoys trips over to Beale Street with teammates.

For the first time in years he has his family in the same city with him. His mother and younger brother live nearby after moving from Huntington, W. Va. He spends time whenever possible with his younger brother Todd, an aspiring college basketball prospect.

The 6-2 Todd mirrors his older brother, wearing the same No. 32 and with similar form on his jumper. He is playing at a high school where Mayo once played summer games when he visited Memphis.

Mayo prefers to rest at his posh, executive-style house. He has a large four-poster bed in his bedroom and family photos over the fireplace at the foot of the bed and enjoys the upstairs room fitted with easy chairs and a big-screen TV for video games or watching college and NBA games.

He plays with his new puppy Bub, a terrier/pitbull mix, in the open lot across the street from his house or in his backyard with the pool still covered for winter. Meals are cooked by an old friend, Anthony Jackson, who came with Mayo from West Virginia (Mayo plans to send Jackson to school for more cooking lessons, not that the food is bad, he says).

“I’m enjoying myself. My family’s here so I’m happy,” Mayo said. “It’s great.”

He can’t avoid attention when he tries to watch his brother play wearing his own No. 32 at the rare times their schedules work out.

“When we’re at my younger son’s ballgames, he doesn’t have any peace, not at all,” his mother, Alisha Mayo said.

On a rebuilding roster, his face is on city buses and on billboards around town, including one featuring only him with the words “Young and Hungry.”

Mayo insists he doesn’t feel pressure to be the leader on a young team featuring Rudy Gay, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.

“We are young, early in our careers, just trying to make our identity for ourselves. Make a stand for ourselves in the league. It’s good we have an opportunity to do it together,” Mayo said.

His college coach, Tim Floyd, checks every box score and watches as many Grizzlies’ games as possible. He sees Mayo playing well with great poise and maturity. He has talked with NBA people to see how the guy who led his Trojans to a 21-12 record and an NCAA berth is doing.

“They tell me that the biggest thing that he’s done is come in and act as a professional,” said Floyd, a former NBA coach. “He’s been early. He hasn’t been a distraction. He hasn’t been a disruption. He loves to play. He’s not faking injuries or dodging injuries. He’s accepting blame. He’s doing all the things that franchise players do.”

Mayo has had an early education in NBA life. He’s already on his second coach since the Grizzlies replaced Marc Iavaroni with Lionel Hollins in late January. Hollins said players with the kind of talent Mayo has have the potential to be all they want.

“It’s just matter of how hard they work and how willing they are to open their mind and learn,” Hollins said.

Mayo has impressed his teammates. He’s the guy who started shooting baskets to kill time during a photo shoot hours after the trade sent him to Memphis, the one who’s first into the weight room and among the last to finish shooting after practice.

Veteran Greg Buckner, who came to Minnesota as part of the Mayo trade, recalls only one other NBA rookie who works as hard as Mayo _ former league MVP Dirk Nowitzki.

“The sky’s the limit,” Buckner said. “The talent is there, the work ethic is there. He’s young right now, so he has fun. The NBA is definitely different than any other level. Once he figures that out, the little sneaky tactics the veterans learn from experience and playing every day and every game, he’s going to be one of the best in this league.”

Mayo picked the brains of several NBA superstars, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, last summer while playing against Team USA. He wanted tips on balancing workouts, practice and games through the lengthy NBA season.

It seems to be paying off. With his stats, Mayo could have the strongest case for rookie of the year, although Derrick Rose of Chicago and rookies like Brook Lopez of the New Jersey Nets play for teams with more wins. If Mayo wins the award, he would be the Grizzlies’ first rookie of the year since Pau Gasol in 2002. Mayo sees that as a good omen for Memphis if it happens since the Grizzlies made the playoffs in 2004.

“It would definitely be good for our organization and the fans to have something to look forward to for next year,” he said.

___

On the Net:

http://www.voteoj.com

Memphis Grizzlies: http://www.memphisgrizzlies.com

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