Former NBA player OJ Mayo has fitted in seamlessly for the Liaoning Leopards, helping the team reach this year's CBA Finals in Qingdao. XINHUA
Ex-NBA guard putting troubles behind him to rebuild career with Liaoning
Four years since falling into disgrace in the NBA, OJ Mayo has found a new lease of life in China.
Having arrived here during peak of the coronavirus outbreak in March, the American has embarked on something of a journey into the unknown in a bid to rebuild his turbulent career, which was derailed by a two-year NBA ban in 2016 for violating the league's anti-drug rules.
Five months on, the bold decision to join the CBA's Liaoning Leopards as a backup import has worked out almost perfectly. Mayo's confidence on the court has returned in abundance and he helped the Leopards reach the finals, where they came up short against the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
"I am so lucky to be a part of a great group of guys," Mayo said in a video posted by Chinese agency GYZ Sports on Weibo last week.
"They made my journey so much easier and made my adjustment so much easier to come here, and just be myself and play good basketball. I really enjoyed it a lot."
Mayo was Liaoning's replacement for original foreign starter Lance Stephenson, a former NBA forward who was stuck in the United States during the pandemic. The 32-year-old has proved an instant fit in the Leopards' fast-paced offense, with his shooting range and consistent scoring opening up plays for Chinese teammates.
The 2009 NBA All-Rookie first-team selection started in all 21 games he played for Liaoning after the CBA returned on June 20 from a four-month hiatus, averaging a team-high 28.2 points by shooting 62 percent from the field and 43 percent from beyond the arc.
He also added 6.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game to help the Leopards overcome some early struggles, which resulted in a coaching change, and build a 12-game winning streak all the way to the best-of-three final series, where they were outplayed 2-1 by 10-time league champion Guangdong.
Once touted as the NBA's next superstar and compared to the caliber of Kobe Bryant, Mayo, the third overall draft pick in 2008 selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves, now simply appreciates the opportunity to be able to hoop again. He has vowed to return even stronger next term to fight for the first professional title of his career.
"I am hoping that we can work everything out and I can come back next year and do this thing again," Mayo said.
"It's been a crazy long year. We got to the end of the road, we just didn't finish the job in the way we wanted.
"I think next year we will be more prepared. We now understand what it takes to get to the next level. I am looking forward to fighting again with you guys and giving ourselves the best chance to bring that championship home to Liaoning. I will be back. I promise that I will be back."
Mayo's rekindled passion for the game seems a far cry from his dark days in July 2016 when the NBA dismissed the guard for abusing a prescription pain medication.
Although admitting smoking marijuana and using the NBA-prohibited painkiller, partially to deal with a season-ending ankle fracture he sustained while with the Milwaukee Bucks, Mayo had emphatically denied the use of any hard drugs such as cocaine.
However, after completing his two-year ban, there were no takers as he looked for a new NBA deal.
Mayo played in lower-level leagues in Puerto Rico and Chinese Taipei from 2018-19, and had a short stint with Changsha-based Hunan Yongsheng in China's second-tier National Basketball League, where he stepped up his game and garnered huge support from Hunan fans, even on the road.
The feel-good factor has motivated Mayo to prove he is much more than an unfulfilled talent.
"I really enjoy being here in China. The NBL was just a step for me to come here to compete and get familiar with the culture and tradition, and the way the game is played here," Mayo said in an earlier Tencent interview.
"I still miss the days in the NBA for sure. There is nothing like playing in the best league of the world in front of your families and friends.
"But at the same time, as long as I am playing basketball I am happy. I've experienced the NBA and everything. That needed to be done."