The answer to both questions, it turns out, was O.J. and Bill.
Last May, a little over a month after the two players led NCH to its first Division III state title, 55% of North College Hill residents agreed to a $564,000 annual levy. No one denies what got it done. The previous operating levy passed in 1989--the last time the Trojans made the state final.
Boys' basketball--the only sport at NCH to turn a profit--went from netting $8,000 the season before O.J. and Bill arrived to $60,000 last season, when three home games were moved from the school's 1,256-seat gym to a 3,400-seat one in a neighboring town. In addition, Reebok now gives the team uniforms and shoes, allowing Nickel to shift funds to other sports.
As alumni and former residents returned for games, as neighbors who'd never spoken found common ground in a basketball team, a community was reborn. "Everyone is talking about O.J. and Bill. Everyone has rallied around them and the team," says Macy Goldberg, the manager of Fricker's, a sports-themed restaurant near the school. "There's been a real change."
Adds Brooks, "It's made us look a lot closer at what we've got. It showed people that we should be proud of what we are."
O.J. and Bill were raised by single moms in the Cabell County (W.Va.) School District and might have gone to Huntington High if not for a state high school rule that forbids students from playing varsity before ninth grade. Dwaine Barnes, who has coached O.J. and Bill since fourth grade and is a father figure to both, wanted tougher competition for Mayo as a seventh-grader, so he enrolled him at Rose Hill Christian, a private school 15 miles west in Ashland, Ky. Walker soon followed, and it seemed a perfect union. Rose Hill went 55--10 in Mayo's two seasons, and he was the first eighth-grader to be named all-state. But the school's size (371 students) and proximity to Huntington discouraged O.J. and Bill from staying for their high school years. "Rose Hill was just too small," Walker says. "We didn't fit in. I wouldn't say it was racism, but it seemed like we were the first black people they'd seen. We were like aliens to them." Living in Huntington became a problem too, as Mayo's fame grew. "People were knocking on my windows in the middle of the night, asking for autographs, bothering my family," says Mayo. "It got to be too much."
Mayo calls Barnes his "grandfather," and Barnes, 43, refers to himself as such, even though they are not related. Barnes is Mayo's legal guardian. He applied for that designation--and moved to North College Hill--for the purpose of enrolling Mayo at NCH. An elusive figure despite having coached AAU basketball for years, Barnes confirmed details for this story but asked not to be quoted extensively. He also handles interview requests for the boys' mothers and said that neither would comment. "The story is not me and not their mamas. The story is about the boys," he says. While some in the basketball world have questioned Barnes's motives, O.J.'s and Bill's faith in him is unwavering. "He's grooming me so I can make my own decisions, so I can stand on my own and be a man," Walker says.
Brooks has received letters accusing the town of paying Barnes so the boys would attend NCH. Nickel and other school officials have faced similar accusations. "I've had a ton of parents say it's not fair," says Walt McBride, coach at Summit Country Day, which plays in the Miami Valley Conference with NCH. "But they did nothing illegal, so what can you say?"
The events that led to O.J.'s and Bill's arrivals seem more curious than scandalous. In December 2002 Jamie Mahaffey, NCH's basketball coach, heard from a friend of Barnes's that the AAU coach was shopping for a school for his two young stars. Mahaffey had met Barnes two years earlier, when an AAU team he was coaching scrimmaged Barnes's team, the D-1 Greyhounds. He never thought Barnes would consider NCH. In fact, he told the friend that Barnes should look at Princeton High, a school 10 miles northeast. But a short time later Barnes showed up at an NCH practice. "We're thinking about North College Hill," Barnes told a speechless Mahaffey. Barnes was more than thinking about it: He had already persuaded Walker's mother, Nancy, to move with Bill and had lined up an apartment across the street from the gym for Mayo and himself.
Mahaffey, 33, says he learned later that Barnes wanted an ethnically diverse school (NCH is 60% black, 35% white) and a small-town environment (every student lives within two miles of campus). Barnes was trying, it seemed, to replicate some of what the boys had in Huntington. He also wanted the two to have access to the gym at all times, wanted all media requests run through him and asked for input on future schedules. (Nickel and Mahaffey complied.)