Punk or punked?

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

Once, the wire story would've shaped the public's perception of that strange high school scene in West Virginia. America's best high school basketball player would've been framed as something of a punk, what with him getting ejected for trash talking, chasing down an official and knocking him on his fanny and all.

The highest and mightiest would've wagged those fingers with a "Tsk, tsk, tsk," toward a system that creates these holy teenage terrors, and O.J. Mayo's reputation would've been shot to hell.

Only, the truth didn't come out through the West Virginia Secondary School's Activities Commission's spin, or game referee Mike Lazo's dubious reporting of events. Through the footage of hand-held cameras and video phones uploaded onto the Internet since Friday's game between Huntington and Capital high schools in Charleston, this turns out to be a different day of truth-telling in sports.

This time, the kid isn't so easily boxed up and stereotyped.

This time, the grownups had to be accountable for behavior, too.

No one needed a network television crew to be filming that high school game in West Virginia when hundreds of millions of possible eyeballs had access on the web. All different angles, all different perspectives – all chasing a truth born of the naked eye.

Not so long ago, the urban legend of this story could've scarred Mayo, but no more. This sure looked like a trumped-up charge of thuggery on Mayo.

So now, everyone gets to play along.

Did Mayo push that official, Lazo.

Or did Lazo flop?

Cast your votes at home.

This is how it goes in American culture now. American sport just hustles along with it. Here's a high school basketball star in West Virginia – a 6-foot-5 senior who would've been one of the top picks in the 2007 NBA draft had David Stern not insisted that he go to college for a year – at the center of a most decidedly 21st century sports debate. Nevertheless, our ability to see this incident for what it was spares it from chasing Mayo to USC next year, never mind the NBA.

To me, it looked like Mayo was simply searching for an explanation for what appeared like an unjust ejection. He followed Lazo to the scorer's table and leaned into him to ask what had happened. He didn't look like he was initiating contact, and if he did, it resulted in the most innocuous of grazes.

Then, Lazo crumpled to the floor, like he had been hit with a missile.

It was a clownish fall, one that was tough to buy.

Next thing you know, though, the police were leading Mayo off the court and state officials had slapped an automatic two-game suspension on him. After getting a court injunction to play on Tuesday afternoon and hustling down to Durham, N.C., to score 23 points in Huntington's victory over No. 11 Artesia of Lakewood, Calif., Huntington is on the brink of moving into the No. 1 spot in USA Today's national rankings. It would give Huntington the inside lane on the mythical prep national championship.

Still, there seem to be pundits getting good and worked up over Mayo's behavior. Truth be told, the video exonerates him of anything but a few regrettable seconds of mildly poor sportsmanship.

So Mayo dunked on a kid and said something to get a technical foul. And? What, did he take a towel out of a teammate's locker, too?

When there was typical Friday night high school hoops nonsense brewing later at mid-court after the dunk and tech, Mayo walked casually there. He didn't get into anyone's face. It didn't look like he said a word. Nevertheless, the official, Lazo, gave him a second technical foul, a cause for ejection.

The Huntington High School coach, Lloyd McGuffin, said Lazo had targeted Mayo from the moment he walked into the gym, baiting him several times throughout the night. The ref says Mayo cursed at him. And on and on it went.

Over the summer, Jason Kidd had a long talk with Mayo at Sonny Vaccaro's camp in New Jersey. Kris Stone, a childhood friend and high school teammate of Kidd's, runs the Elite 24 game at Rucker Park in New York and wanted the Nets star to lend some perspective to Mayo about his own jagged journey through adolescent prominence to pro stardom. Slow down, Kidd told him. Don't be in such a hurry to get to college and to the pros because it will all change so fast on you. It'll become a business, and you'll look back on your high school career with the greatest of fondness.

Around high school and AAU basketball, Mayo has been a big deal for years as the next big thing. So much for the days when everyone had to read Street and Smith to know your name in prep sports. These days, so little goes unseen and unanalyzed, and Mayo found that out again with so many people choosing up sides on him.

All at once, the videos of the ejection spared his reputation and thrust it on notice. It's a blurry line these teen prodigies walk between fame and infamy, between perpetrator and victim.

"He's looking forward to playing, but he's also learned a lot from this incident," Huntington High assistant Mike Woelfel told the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington. "I've sensed a maturation in him these last several days and it's real."

For better or worse, there's no hiding anymore – not in West Virginia, not anywhere. In all corners of the nation, they can click on those video links and decide for themselves.

Did Mayo push that ref or did that ref flop?

Punk or punked?

America is casting its votes on the next big thing in basketball. Regardless, O.J. Mayo has to watch himself now.

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