SI Vault
December 05, 2005
As the season opens, the nation's most intriguing team is in North College Hill, Ohio, where two players who came from out of state have been embraced by the locals. And why not? O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker are budding superstars
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 05, 2005

Talk Of The Town

As the season opens, the nation's most intriguing team is in North College Hill, Ohio, where two players who came from out of state have been embraced by the locals. And why not? O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker are budding superstars

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4 5

Though their comeback falls short, O.J. and Bill leave the court jovial and rejuvenated. On the way home Walker is told that the league's organizer has credited him and Mayo with boosting attendance and thus keeping more kids out of trouble on this Friday night. "Really?" Walker says. "That's cool, but I don't really think about that kinda stuff."

Brooks, the Mayor of North College Hill, thinks about that kind of stuff all the time. Sitting in his office, he unrolls architectural drawings that illustrate his grand vision for the town. A few blocks from the school, Brooks wants to erect a $13 million community center with pools and gyms, offices and classrooms. "Imagine how people would feel having something like that in their town," he says. He has raised $100,000 and hopes that the presence of O.J. and Bill will attract more money. "Reebok and Nike, we plan on hitting them up," Brooks says. "If they want to put their name on it, that is fine with us."

Brooks isn't the only one eyeing bigger things. Nickel called the athletic director at St. Vincent--St. Mary, LeBron James's former school, for tips on how to handle the offers pouring in. During James's senior season, 2002--03, the basketball team reportedly made $400,000. The school got appearance fees upward of $10,000 for games in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, North Carolina and New Jersey. Two games were televised on ESPN2.

Following that season, the Ohio High School Athletic Association passed the LeBron Rule, which limits schools to one game per season beyond the five states bordering Ohio. Still, Nickel persuaded the members of the Miami Valley Conference--a collection of small schools now greatly overmatched--to allow NCH to reduce its status to associate member. This will enable the Trojans, whose season opens on Friday, to play 12 nonconference games, some in arenas at the University of Cincinnati and Xavier. The team will play two games in Huntington and one in Charleston, W.Va. Its one big trip will be to Southern California. Nickel estimates the team will net $75,000 this season and, if all goes well, $100,000 during the boys' senior year, when some games could be nationally televised. "If we manage the money right, we are set for a decade," he says.

But the boys' most lasting legacy, Brooks believes, will be as a unifying force within the town. To illustrate this, he tells a story about a middle-aged white woman upset with her young black neighbors. They played their music too loud, she told the mayor, and borrowed her lawn chairs without asking. Brooks says the young family and the woman are now the sort of friendly multiracial neighbors that he envisions filling every tree-lined street in North College Hill. "When we had a ceremony to give the team the keys to the city, that woman put her arms around Bill and O.J. and said. 'Don't you ever leave North College Hill.'"

It is a tale so corny, so allegorical, that one can't help but believe it's the concoction of a small-town politico. "But that kind of stuff happens to us all the time around here," Mayo says. "Sometimes you get tired of it."

Back in the SUV, returning to North College Hill, O.J. and Bill recall the highlights from the game and scan the new text messages on their phones. Walker calls a friend to get the score of that night's Huntington High football game.

Mayo occasionally returns to Huntington to see his mother, Alisha, and other relatives, but he still misses the place, as does Walker. "Sometimes you just want to be around people like you," Mayo explains.

The SUV approaches Mayo's apartment, from which O.J. and Bill can see the football field, its stands full. The two teens leap from the car, cross a swath of grass and pass through the stadium's chain-link gate.

Their schoolmates are standing in front of the snack bar, on the dirt track that rings the field. The oval will soon be replaced by rubberized asphalt, thanks to revenue brought in by the basketball team. Walker wades into the crowd. He teases a cheerleader, then talks to his English teacher. She mentions a slam poem he wrote for her class titled Please Understand, about a former girlfriend. "It was really good," the teacher says, and Walker blushes.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5