"Dwaine is smart. He had a plan for these boys and wasn't going to go anywhere that didn't fit that plan," says longtime grassroots basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro of Reebok, which also sponsors the D-1 Greyhounds. "But I wouldn't be surprised if part of his plan was picking a school that would be helped by O.J. and Bill coming there."
The people of North College Hill would love to believe that Barnes turned the oft-criticized practice of shuffling basketball talent into an altruistic enterprise, but that's hard to fathom. Barnes says only, "When you put your kids in school, do you think about those things?"
More eyebrows were raised last fall when 6'11" center Keenen Ellis, ranked among the top 50 players in the class of '07, transferred to NCH from Cathedral High in Indianapolis, moving in with Mayo and Barnes, who became Ellis's guardian as well. "People complain about it, but it's just a reality today with the influence of AAU ball and kids' wanting to play together," says Mark Schlabach, whose Loudonville High team lost to NCH in the state semifinals. (Schlabach now coaches Hiland High in Berlin, Ohio.) "Fair or unfair, you have to deal with it."
Says Mahaffey, "Dwaine wanted certain things for the boys, and he found it here. They love the small community, love that they can walk to anywhere. They love that everyone is like a family."
They love it, yet when no one is looking, they leave.
In front of the Findlay Street Neighborhood House, O.J. and Bill greet friends and others lingering outside. Mayo, age 18, is more gregarious--slapping hands, hugging people. He has big dimples and a huge smile. When he walks, he swings his arms too much, like a speedskater in full glide. Eventually he joins Walker, also 18, who is sitting on a brick wall fronting a flower bed devoid of flowers, waiting for the gym to be unlocked.
For the record, O.J. and Bill come to the West End to play in the Midnight Madness league. Created to keep kids off the streets, it is made up mostly of former college players and provides good competition for O.J. and Bill while they wait for their high school season to start. But when they get frisked by a female police officer upon entering the community center, when they walk onto the blue concrete slab that passes for the court, when they slip on the team "jersey," a faded purple T-shirt with KAISER PICKLES across the front, it is clear they aren't here for the basketball.
"We come because this place is more like where Bill and I are from," Mayo says. "Here, no one cares who we are."
That is not always the case at NCH. Recently, O.J. and Bill were involved in a fight with at least one other student that led to suspensions for Mayo and Walker, and speculation that the boys would be on the move again. One school district employee called the fight a "jealousy thing," and people close to Barnes wondered if the walls were closing in on them at North College Hill. Truth be told, though O.J. and Bill have no plans to leave NCH, the walls have always felt a little snug, necessitating their journeys to the West End.
When the game finally begins, O.J. and Bill play carefree--trying to entertain more than compete--and their team soon trails by 15. There is an edge to the fans. "People here, they don't give you anything," Mayo says. The crowd seems to love that O.J. and Bill are losing. When they make a mistake, the hoots come in droves. "He is supposed to be a lottery pick?" one fan shouts when Mayo turns the ball over. But then O.J. and Bill come alive. They cut the lead to nine and then five and then three. As Mayo threads a pass from half-court past three defenders, as Walker catches it in stride and throws down a monstrous dunk, the gym goes silent. The crowd is awed.