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It is the first Friday of the school year, the night of the opening football game, and the students of North College Hill ( Ohio) High will soon slip out of modest brick houses and long stucco apartment complexes and walk to the stadium. O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker will not be among them, at least not yet. They are stealing away in an SUV, heading east and then south, nine miles, to a shabby section of Cincinnati.
But in North College Hill they are viewed as more than prodigious athletes. O.J. and Bill, who have been best friends since elementary school, are seen as saviors of a financially strapped school and its athletic department. More than a few locals--including the mayor--will tell you the two players have brought harmony and hope to a racially mixed town.
None of that is on the boys' minds, though, as the SUV pulls up in front of the Findlay Street Neighborhood House. O.J. and Bill empty their pockets. Wallets, keys and cellphones get tucked in the glove compartment or in a pouch behind a seat. "Folks here like to steal," Walker says, and then he and Mayo break from the car, spilling onto the cracked sidewalk of a neighborhood known as the West End. The few blocks surrounding the Findlay House are among the most dangerous in the city. Bright futures--even those of NBA stars in waiting--can disappear in places like this. But then that is exactly why O.J. and Bill are here.
No player has been anointed a future NBA superstar earlier than Ovington J'Anthony Mayo. The trinity that shapes perceptions in high school basketball (shoe companies, AAU coaches and the media) tabbed Mayo as the next LeBron when Mayo was in seventh grade and living in his hometown of Huntington, W.Va. He was so gifted, they said, it was only a matter of time before his high school games were televised on ESPN and a replica of his jersey was a must-have. Yet Joe Nickel, the athletic director at North College Hill High, had no idea who Mayo was when the school's basketball coach told him in December 2002 that Mayo was considering a transfer to NCH. Nickel thought, foolishly, "we were just getting a good player." But in April, when news of Mayo's impending registration made the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer sports section three days in a row, Nickel knew it was time to panic. "We had never been on the front page before," he says.
He called an emergency faculty meeting and told teachers and administrators, "We better prepare like Britney Spears is enrolling." He wasn't far off. On the Monday in April when Mayo arrived, near the end of his eighth-grade year, local news crews pulled satellite trucks onto campus to file reports. People tried to sneak into the school to get autographs; Nickel and staff kept them at bay. "But there was one thing we hadn't prepared for," he says. "Seventh-grade girls."
They sprinted into the halls of the grade 7--12 school and rushed the door to Mayo's first class. They screamed as if he were Justin Timberlake, yelling, "I see him! I see him!" It took nearly 15 minutes to quell the throng, after which an exhausted Nickel fell into the chair in his windowless office in the basement of NCH's gym and wondered, Why us? Why North College Hill?
Opposing coaches wonder the same thing.
Though its name suggests a tony prep school, North College Hill is a public school with public school problems. Classrooms are overcrowded. Of the 500 students almost half are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, reflecting the town's 46% poverty rate. When O.J. and Bill arrived, the school's financial picture was as bleak as it had been in decades. The school district hadn't passed an operating levy on property taxes in 16 years, and rising expenses had put the district in the red. Nickel was pondering drastic measures, including asking students to pay to play, which might have locked out athletes from the most impoverished families.
The town of North College Hill was mired in its own economic slump, but the most pressing issue facing Mayor Daniel Brooks was a sociological one. Mixing long-time residents (most of whom are white) with an influx of newcomers (most of whom are black) had proved difficult. Also, a large number of rental properties had created a transient population that wasn't vested in the town. "How do you bring together people who are very different?" Brooks asks. "How do you create pride for a city that convinces people to put down roots?"