'I cheated the game': After drug ban, O.J. Mayo seeks second chance

One year after being banned from the NBA for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, O.J. Mayo has his sights set on a comeback. (Getty Images)
One year after being banned from the NBA for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, O.J. Mayo has his sights set on a comeback. (Getty Images)

Last month, former Slam editor-in-chief Ryan Jones wrote a long feature for Bleacher Report aimed at identifying what had happened to O.J. Mayo. Now, we know: one year after being banned from the NBA for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, he’s trying to work his way back into professional basketball.

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The heralded prep prospect once hailed as “the next LeBron” became an all-Pac-10 First Team selection in his sole year at USC, the third overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft and a 2009 All-Rookie First Team selection with the Memphis Grizzlies. His career never took off, though. His production and effectiveness waned throughout his years in Tennessee. A lone year in Dallas began with a bang, but ended with a whimper. He found himself out of the rotation five months into a three-year deal with the Bucks, and never played more than a grace-note supporting-cast role in Milwaukee before suffering a season-ending leg fracture last March.

Despite a disappointing run of things, Mayo was still set to enter unrestricted free agency at age 28 during a summer when seemingly the entire league had gobs of salary cap space thanks to the infusion of cash from the NBA’s new $24 billion broadcast rights deal. Instead, on the first day of free agency, Mayo was “dismissed and disqualified from the league,” and prevented from even applying for reinstatement for two full years, following a positive test for a “drug of abuse.” And then, nothing … until now.

Mayo sat down with Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver in Los Angeles for a far-reaching, in-depth discussion about how he’d hit bottom, and the difficult process of getting up off the ground and trying to climb out of the hole he’s dug:

Once the 2016-17 NBA season started, a “hurt” and “lost” Mayo couldn’t bear to watch, consumed by remorse over the years that had preceded his ban. He had “burned the candle at both ends [until I] ain’t got no candle left.” His “entourage” had grown too big, and he had prioritized “showing love to friends, hanging out, and finding girls” over the gym. He acknowledged smoking marijuana and abusing a prescription pain medication that triggered his two-year ban because it is on the NBA’s “drugs of abuse” list. (He emphatically denied testing positive for hard drugs like cocaine.)

Mayo also concluded that he had been “overwhelmed” by a string of difficult life events: his father, high school basketball star Kenny Ziegler, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for distributing crack cocaine, his brother was placed in juvenile lock-up, a close friend went to jail, and another was killed. “I was bred to play basketball and I thought I could balance everything,” he said. “I couldn’t.” […]

“Taking the game away is probably the closest thing to jail that I’ll get to,” Mayo said. “Since I was like 6 or 7, I’ve always had a basketball season. That was the lowest point in my entire life: The shellshock of not being in the NBA. All my peers are playing and I’m not because of boneheaded mistakes. Take the ball away, what is there to do?”

After staying away from basketball for the entire 2016-17 season to rehabilitate his injured ankle, travel and “get his stuff together,” Mayo began taking his first tentative steps down the comeback trail. Eventually, he worked his way into a workout group featuring several current NBA players, working with professional skills development and fitness trainers to try to burn off the weight he’d put on in his year away, and knock off the rust that had accumulated on his game.

I'm not black I'm O.J …. my bro back working hard in the gym!! Miss the USC days #Blessed #MyBrother #USC

A post shared by Taj Gibson (@tajgibson22) on Jul 20, 2017 at 8:17pm PDT

Throughout his conversation with Golliver, Mayo comes off as contrite, a man unwilling to blame others for his decline, eager to take responsibility for the position in which he finds himself:

Mayo knows all the potential excuses and he chooses to reject them. Did he have too much, too soon in life? Sure, he admitted, his childhood and teen years were exceptional. “But if I had the same focused mindset I had at 15 and 16 later when I was 24 and 25,” he argued, “we wouldn’t be sitting here talking right now.” Could he have used a better father figure and more guidance? Mayo didn’t want to say that, repeatedly pointing out that his mother had “taught me right from wrong.” Did his friends, or fake friends, lead him astray? “I knew better,” he argued. “I knew guys in my neighborhood who should have made it somewhere but got stuck. I wasn’t raised like that.” Were the league’s drug rules unfair? “Every man writes his manner,” he said. “I just made poor decisions.”

Most of all, he insisted, his former coaches, teammates, organizations and the NBA itself do not bear any of the blame for his current predicament. With the benefit of hindsight, Mayo wished he had taken the league’s counseling and support programs more seriously. He admitted that he hadn’t acted professionally enough to deserve a spot in the NBA, and he thanked Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd, GM John Hammond (now with Orlando), and owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens for doing “everything in the world to help me.”

“I want to go back to what I left [in Milwaukee],” Mayo said, when asked for his dream destination. “I was real close with Jason Kidd. That was the best relationship I had with a coach besides [Dwaine Barnes]. I had great relationships with Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and Khris Middleton. I was comfortable there. I felt like I let them down, cheated them for two years. They paid me $8 million to be, in my eyes, a subpar player. They invested millions of dollars for me to be on top of my s—, and when you’re not on top of your s—, it shows. I’ll be 30 next summer. If they just give me the chance, I can make it up. I owe them.”

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An in-shape, committed and focused version of Mayo is the kind of player who might absolutely be able to help an NBA team. Peel away the off-court concerns, and at his best, O.J.’s an athletic two-guard with good size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds), a generally reliable long-distance shooter (37.3 percent from the field in his eight NBA seasons), a capable secondary ball-handler who (in Milwaukee, at least) tended to look for chances to set up the team’s young stars, and a player with the physical tools and capacity to dig in and switch assignments on defense. (For what it’s worth, Milwaukee was nearly five points per 100 possessions better on D with Mayo on the floor than off it two seasons ago, according to NBA.com’s stat tool.)

Mayo is eligible to apply for a return to the NBA on July 1, 2018; under the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA’s teams and its players, reinstatement requires “the prior approval of both the NBA and the Players Association,” based on consideration of a variety of factors, including satisfactory completion of a treatment/rehabilitation program, how Mayo has conducted himself since his dismissal (including whether he has “comported himself as a suitable role model for youth”), whether he’s “judged to possess the requisite qualities of good character and morality,” and whether he can demonstrate that he hasn’t tested positive for a “drug of abuse or marijuana” within the 12 months before submitting his application. (Mayo insisted to Golliver that he’s totally sober.)

You’d expect, of course, that it won’t be easy for a lot of teams to “peel away the off-court concerns,” or to overlook the track record that saw Mayo fritter away most of what should have been his most productive years in the pros. Given the way he flamed out in his previous three NBA destinations, we shouldn’t anticipate 30 general managers lining up to offer Mayo a deal should he make his way through the reinstatement process. It only takes one, though, and Mayo’s just hoping to find a single squad willing to give him the chance to prove he now fully appreciates what he once squandered.

“I dug myself a hole, but it’s not a coffin,” he told Golliver. “I can still get out.”

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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