Sunday, December 7, 2008

Jay and O.J.

Our son, Jay, who is Lead Pastor at the New Orleans area's First Baptist Church of Westwego, had a brief reunion last night with one of his former Middle School Bible students. Back in 2001, Jay was the bi-vocational mission pastor at Rose Hill Baptist Church's Fellowship Mission in South Shore, KY. He also served as Bible Teacher at Rose Hill Christian School in Ashland, KY during that period of time. That was the year the Rose Hill Royals were thrust into the national limelight, and in the middle of controversy in Kentucky - a state where basketball is king!

Rose Hill Christian School is a small K-12 school which is a ministry of Rose Hill Baptist Church. The Royals had fielded a varsity basketball team for several years, but had always been the whipping boy of the 64th district of Region 16 in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. Never competitive against regional powerhouses like Ashland, Boyd County, or Russell, Rose Hill's schedule was mostly made up of smaller public schools or other nearby private Christian schools. Things all began to change that year, and the impetus for that change was a 7th grader by the name of Ovintin J'Anthony Mayo - O.J. for short.

One of the school's parents had a son who was involved in AAU basketball, and the booster/parent, encouraged some of his son's teammates to consider attending school with his son at Rose Hill. The school had a good academic reputation, and the small class size and strict discipline policies, appealed to some of the AAU parents. The recent hiring of Jeff Hall as varsity basketball coach at Rose Hill, was like the icing on the cake. Hall had been a local legend in his years as a star at Fairview High School and had gained a National Championship ring, playing for Denny Crum's NCAA champion Louisville Cardinals. Hall had come back home to the Ashland area to revive the historic Ashland Tomcat basketball program that had fallen on hard times. And revive it he did - in just a couple of years - leading them to a Regional Championship and the semi finals of the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena. Hall left Ashland to coach in the Louisville area (where his wife was from) but after a couple of years of disillusionment there he had dropped out of coaching.

With the arrival of the transfer students from across the river, and the controversial hiring of Coach Hall - the scene was ripe for a storm - a perfect storm. One of the transfer students was O.J. Mayo. O.J. had played at Rose Hill's middle school team as a 6th grader, and people began to sit up and take notice. This kid could play! By his 7th grade year, he was starting for the Rose Hill High School varsity and the Royals were not only beating the small schools on the schedule, they were thumping the Regional powers! The School Administrator had asked Jay if he would serve as the basketball team's chaplain, and that is how he came to have a little deeper relationship with O.J. than just one of the teacher/student variety. Jay drove one of the vans to all the away games and he got to know the kids pretty well. After the games, he would deliver the players to their homes in Huntington, WV and (in O.J.'s case) Burlington, OH.

Rose Hill began to be noticed in the national news media. Suddenly they were scheduling and beating, some of the best teams in Kentucky. O.J. earned honorable mention on the KHSAA All State Basketball Team as a seventh grader! By his 8th grade year he was first team All State - a feat unheard of since he was still a student in Middle School. The Royals won the 16th Regional Tournament that next year, and O.J. led the team to the Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena.

Any basketball fan in America should remember what happened next. O.J. and his fellow future NBA draft pick, Billy Walker, withdrew from Rose Hill and enrolled in North College Hill High School in Cincinnati, OH. As soon as O.J. left, there were mass defections. Several of the players transferred back to Huntington High School (which was building a West Virginia powerhouse of its own), Jeff Hall left the head coaching position under questionable circumstances, and the Royals meteoric rise turned into a meltdown.

Mayo and Walker helped elevate North College Hill to not only the team to beat in Ohio, but also to a national ranking. Walker was eventually ruled ineligible for what would have been his senior season at NCHHS, and Mayo transferred back to Huntington High School for his senior year. He joined a team that had already won three state championships, and along with University of Kentucky recruit, Patrick Patterson, O.J. led the Highlanders to another state title. The crowds that sought to see him play caused several of Huntington High School's home games to be transferred to Marshall University's 10,000 seat Cam Henderson Center. It was pretty heady stuff for the kid from Burlington, OH, but he handled it all (from 7th grade to his senior year) with a coolness and maturity that surpassed his age.

O.J. signed with the University of Southern California and started every game for the Trojans during his one season in the PAC 10. He declared for the NBA draft and was chosen in the first round by the Minnesota Timberwolves, but traded later that same day to the Memphis Grizzlies. That's where last night's reunion of sorts began to take shape. When Jay saw the New Orleans Hornets 2008-2009 schedule he noted that the Grizzlies were coming to the Big Easy on December 6th. He made a couple of inquires at the Hornets front office, and was invited to give the invocation at the Hornets - Grizzlies game last night. There, on the court before the game, and then for a few minutes after the contest (where O.J. scored 18 points) Jay got to have a brief visit with his former student - now an NBA millionaire.

I vividly remember Jay telling me way back then, that there was a 7th grader from Rose Hill who would play in the NBA one day. At first I had my doubts, but after serving as the radio play by play announcer during O.J.'s 7th grade varsity season, I quickly became a believer, myself. No crystal ball was needed to make that prediction. He was just that good.

O.J. is on track to become the most prolific rookie scorer in his first 20 professional games. He just passed Larry Bird and if he scores in double figures on his next game, he'll pass Magic Johnson as the only rookie to accomplish that feat. Not bad! Jay was happy to get in that brief reunion last night in New Orleans.

Mayo's professional basketball future is bright, but Jay will be quick to tell you that the most important thing O.J. will have ever done was when he prayed to accept Jesus as his personal Savior in Jay's office, back there in the 7th grade at Rose Hill.

Now that is success!

No comments: