The OJ Mayo Saga

Now that Next is finished for the season, all eyes can focus on Next Next or Next 2 for the remainder of the summer. Next 2 is OJ Mayo, a high school junior who plays for Concinnati’s North College Prep and the D-I Greyhounds; his name has circulated among prep and recruiting Internet sites since he was in 7th grade, with anonymous posters and supposed prep experts hailing Mayo as the “next James” while James was in high school. Such is the hyper-drive to celebrity in today’s youth basketball system.

Mayo and his high school and AAU teammate Billy Walker are two reasons many believe Bob Huggins landed at Kansas State, as Huggins has been recruiting the Cincinnati teens for years and writers across the country see the three almost as a package deal.

In October, ESPN’s Pat Forde visited Mayo in order to interview him for an article; the article that appeared failed to feature a single quote from Mayo, as his “handlers” kept Fode away. Instead, the article quoted Sonny Vaccaro, a shoe rep from Reebok.

“The convergence of two power companies, Nike and Adidas, and the beginning of the media acceleration on the Internet, that started it,” Vaccaro said. “… No one ever paid AAU coaches before I did in ’91âÂ?¦I got Kobe [away from Nike]. I never should’ve gotten Kobe. Then Tracy [McGrady], then Jermaine [O’Neal]. Then the escalation, the paying money to AAU coaches, stepped upâÂ?¦Millions,” Vaccaro said. “Nike and Adidas are both spending millions. You’re safe with that figure.”

According to a recent article, “Reebok grassroots director Sonny Vaccaro confirmed to The Enquirer last May that Reebok funded the D-I Greyhounds with about $100,000 annually.” That money, of course, cannot be paid directly to OJ Mayo or his family, espcially since the new NBA Age Limit means it is likely he will need to spen one year at a college. However, as Forde wrote in his column, “his dimes will come. And the first ones will come from Reebok. Vaccaro, who says he first heard about Mayo when he was in sixth grade, will make sure of that.”

But, how, then, is this money spent, what does it go toward and why? And, with millions in shoe money circulating, how is this “amatuer” basketball and how do these players maintain their NCAA eligibility?

According to a recent Cincinnati Enquirer article, Reebok’s investment in the D-I Greyhounds and OJ Mayo meant “Reebok, the world’s third-largest athletic shoe and apparel company, often controlled whom the North College Hill prep basketball standout played against, where he would play and for what team he would play. The shoe giant had invested tens of thousands of dollars annually since 2003 in the D-I Greyhounds, the locally based summer basketball team on which Mayo plays… For three years, a shoe company helped determine O.J. Mayo’s basketball schedule and uniform color.”

In Forde’s column, he writes: “Teenagers have ‘inner circles,’ national name recognition and their high school games televised on ESPN. AAU programs and shoe camps, rife with sketchy characters and influence peddlers, have outflanked high school programs and coaches for primacy and importance. Recruiting analysts and reporters – many of them thinly disguised fans working for Web sites – breathlessly report on kids from shortly after puberty. (Or, in some cases, before: Clark Francis of The Hoop Scoop will proudly tell you that he once ranked Sebastian Telfair the No. 1 fifth-grader in the country.)”

Uconn’s Jim Calhoun recently said in an article that he will not be at the NBA Draft this year in New York City, though as many as five of his players may be drafted in the first round (Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone, Rashad Anderson/Denham Brown) because too many of the people he dislikes so much, like the agents and especially their runners, will be there. As Forde wrote, “The game and its mentors are to be endured less than revered. For so many elite young players, basketball has been a money game and a fame game for years before they even get to the way station that is college.”

While Reebok and Vaccaro control OJ Mayo’s schedule, uniforms and camp invitations, he recently made national news when he played for a Nike sponsored team in a Nike Tournament. Forget the days when players playing against the best comeptition was valued and the news was how one performed against another great players or team. Instead, the national significance was Nike making in-roads with OJ Mayo. “It’s huge, because he’d never played for a Nike team before,” said Art Alvarez, the Miami Tropics’ coach. “We are an elite Nike team. People from Nike were there watching him. They came to me and said they want to get involved to the point where they could bring him over to a Nike team. My loyalty is with Nike, and I’ll do whatever I can do,” (Cincinnati Enquierer).

Alvarez, a Nike-sponsored “grassroots coach,” pledges his allegiance to the Swoosh and promises to use his position as a mentor, coach and advisor to youth basketball players to aid the Just Do It! cause. These “grassroots coaches” are basically grassroots marketing employees using their position of influence and generous contributions from shoe companies to advertise, sell, market and influence young players toward a particular shoe brand. Their job is to attract and influence the best players and the clothe the next generation of superstars in a certain brand of clothing.

And this is the environment where our society develops its best basketball players. Once upon a time, players used the summers to hone their skills and challenge themselves against older, better players in gyms and parks across the country; now, these players fly across the country, play in air-conditioned gyms and wear brand new clothes, all paid for by a shoe company sponsorship. High school coaches and neaihborhood recreation coaches used to spend summers training players, tutoring the players and making them work and sweat in anonymity in pursuit of excellence. Now, coaches merely act as intediaries between shoe company execs and superstar preps.

And this is the system we cherish, the status quo everyone from Nike to the NCAA to the NBA appears determined to uphold. Nike, Reebok and adidas have a vested interest in maintaining the current system where they control the action and reap many of the benefits in the multi-billion dollar shoe and apparel industry. However, the NCAA, NBA and USA Basketball’s ambivalence is stupefying. Their laissez-faire approach to basketball development undermines American basketball from the youth through the NBA as agents, runners, recruiting gurus and shoe company execs are the power brokers while the influence of actual coaches, trainers and educators is diminished.

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