HUNTINGTON, W.VA. — O.J. Mayo sits on an old wooden bench in a seldom-used locker room of an opposing team's gymnasium. He's wearing a Huntington High letter jacket, black pants and a plain black baseball cap. He is missing the gold chains, diamond earrings and other accouterments that so often accessorize teenage athletes of his stature.
He might be the best high school basketball player in the nation. Nineteen years old. A well-muscled 215 pounds over 6 feet 5 inches. Shoots three-point shots with an easy flick of the wrist. Fires off passes so quickly and creatively that he is a danger to teammates at times.
He is also among the nation's most scrutinized and fussed-over young athletes. Adults from coast to coast seek to influence him -- and it is easy to wonder whether they have his best interests in mind, or are simply seeking to position themselves to cash in on his fame.
Expectations are that about 20 months from now -- after only one season at USC -- Mayo will be a millionaire playing his first NBA game.
But on this night, in the 100-year-old gym where his team has just defeated Parkersburg High, he addresses adults as "Sir" and "Ma'am," while a reverential procession of a dozen or so boys and girls -- none older than 11 -- are ushered over to meet him. Wrapping an arm around each of them, Mayo signs programs, hats, basketballs and diaries while their parents are kept outside by one of the two Huntington city policemen who travel with the team.
Then he makes time for a reporter who has traveled across the country to see him.
Mayo is polite and respectful during an interview that lasts about 20 minutes.
Setting up the interview, though, has taken many hours over many days.
Since Mayo was 13 years old there have been plenty of layers to go through to get to him.
As a seventh-grader he left West Virginia with his father, Kenny Ziegler, and moved to Kentucky, which allowed boys his age to play high school basketball.
Dwaine Barnes moved with them. Mayo called him his "grandfather," but he isn't related. He was the coach of the club basketball team that Mayo played for.
From Kentucky, Barnes moved Mayo to North College Hill High in Cincinnati, suggesting that it was best for the young man to get used to a bigger city and media center -- odd reasoning, according to observers who have closely tracked his career, because since then Barnes and others have gone to great lengths to shield Mayo from outsiders.
Mayo led North College Hill to two state championships in three years, but he was also suspended three times for fighting and insubordination. Last summer, after his good friend and teammate Bill Walker was found to have exhausted his high school eligibility, Mayo returned home to join up with many of the same kids he played with and against at the Huntington YMCA 12 years ago.
These days, at least three men exert -- or claim -- at least some control over Mayo's time: Rodney Guillory, a former Reebok representative based in Los Angeles; Lloyd McGuffin, Mayo's high school coach; and Mike Woelfel, an attorney who is a Huntington assistant coach this season.
Once listed by Mayo in a biography as "the most impressive person I have ever met," Guillory is credited by some basketball insiders with influencing the player's college choice of USC. He is said to be the person who jumped the gun by scheduling a news conference last fall where Mayo was supposed to announce his commitment to the Trojans. (Reporters arrived at an L.A.-area hotel, but Mayo, who was in the area visiting the USC campus, never did. His choice wasn't made public for several more weeks.)
Guillory is a regular at the Galen Center and in the USC players' lounge after games. Asked to help arrange an interview with Mayo, Guillory at first said the player wouldn't talk by phone or in person. "And don't bother calling his school either," Guillory added, implying that no one would agree to be quoted for a newspaper story.
Later, Guillory softened and said, "I'll put in a good word with O.J. Call me when you're in West Virginia." But when that call was placed, Guillory said, "O.J. must have changed his number. I can't get to him."
The next contact was made with Woelfel, who early on the day of the Parkersburg game said he would try to arrange an interview with Mayo -- only to change his mind about three hours later, saying, "O.J.'s not going to the game, there's too much attention."
Indeed, Mayo had been generating plenty of headlines. But not for the usual reasons.
He was in the midst of a three-game suspension as the result of his actions during a highly charged game against rival Charleston Capital High two weeks earlier.