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Inside an American basketball player’s journey from incarceration to Iraq

Yahoo Sports
Georgia-born DeMario Mayfield received dual citizenship last year so he could play for the Iraqi national team. (Photo via DeMario Mayfield)

Flipping burgers and bagging fries inside the grease-stained kitchen of a Georgia fast-food shack, DeMario Mayfield feared his basketball career was over.

NBA scouts who once flocked to his practices and games now ignored him. Agents who once blew up his phone no longer returned his calls. Even the college coaches who once dangled scholarship offers now treated him like he was radioactive.

This was five years ago, and Mayfield’s life had bottomed out. The then-22-year-old former University of Georgia and UNC Charlotte basketball player was serving a 10 ½-month sentence in an Athens diversion center after a May 2013 arrest on charges of conspiring to commit armed robbery.

Every morning, Mayfield would take the bus to the Cook Out, where he served up fast food for 12 hours a day as part of a work-release program. Every night, he’d bus back to a locked-down facility that housed him and a few dozen other nonviolent offenders.

“That was by far the darkest time of my life,” Mayfield said. “I let so many people down. I went from everybody offering me the world to a nobody, making minimum wage, working at a burger shack. It ripped me apart. That was the hardest thing for me to swallow.”

Mayfield eventually did find a way to revive his sputtering basketball career, but it required summoning the courage to go to a war-ravaged country few Americans are bold enough to visit. He agreed to play for a Baghdad-based club in Iraq’s state-run league, drawn by the desperate desire to gain a foothold in professional basketball so he could provide for the wife and young son who had supported him through his grimmest days.

While many American professional players in Iraq struggle to cope with the lingering threat of violence and terrorist attacks, the extreme culture shock and the pressure to be the best player on the floor every night, Mayfield thrived under those adverse circumstances. He led his team to two league championships in the past three seasons and grew to appreciate elements of Iraqi culture along the way.

Mayfield became so at home in Baghdad that the country’s basketball federation urged him to apply for dual citizenship and play for the Iraqi national team last year. The high-flying combo guard donned Iraqi colors in international competition for the first time last fall, no doubt a jarring sight for the Georgia native’s friends back home.

For Mayfield, representing Iraq was a business decision. It provided another source of income and a platform to showcase his talents against stronger competition than what he faced in the Iraqi league. If Mayfield performed well against the top players in Asia and the Middle East, he hoped he could finally persuade a high-level European team to take a chance on him despite his checkered history.

“It was a chance to open some eyes on a bigger stage,” Mayfield said. “It’s probably weird to some people, but outside opinions really don’t matter to me all that much. I’m just focused on my career and trying to put myself and my family in the correct position.”

DeMario Mayfield played for three seasons for a Baghdad-based club in the Iraqi basketball league. (Getty)

THE LONG, WINDING ROAD BEGINS

Before Mayfield’s basketball career took him to the other side of the world, it started with him trying to stay as close to home as possible. Two months into his junior year of high school, the strong, athletic combo guard committed to in-state Georgia, which is less than an hour’s drive from his childhood home.

“We viewed DeMario as a big, athletic combo guard who had the ability to make an impact for us playing on and off the ball,” former Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. “The kid we got to know was a strong student and a wonderful person with a very easy-going personality and a great heart. He was someone we wouldn’t have predicted would run into the off-the-court issues that he later did.”

Mayfield’s career in Athens lasted only one season in part because he never had the chance to play for the coaching staff that recruited him. Georgia fired Felton midway through the 2008-09 season after an 0-5 start to SEC play dropped his overall record to 84-91 and caused university administrators to lose faith that he could revive its struggling basketball program.

When Mayfield only got off the bench in six of 18 SEC games the following season under new coach Mark Fox, he decided to transfer somewhere with more available playing time and a staff that believed in him. Mayfield chose Charlotte largely because of the presence of assistant Desmond Oliver, who had recruited him to Georgia as a member of Felton’s staff.

Rejuvenated by the fresh start, Mayfield quickly blossomed into an impact player at Charlotte. He showed so much promise attacking the rim, getting to the foul line and finishing through contact that he became a regular on SportsCenter’s Top Plays and NBA scouts began showing up at Charlotte’s practices just to watch him.

“We thought he was an NBA player,” Oliver said. “He had broad shoulders, he had put on 15, 20 pounds of muscle and he was jumping out of the gym. Had he had that in high school, he’d have been recruited by the whole SEC and ACC.”

Mayfield’s college legacy could have been reviving a Charlotte program that had run aground over the previous decade, but he lacked the maturity to handle the adulation that comes with basketball success in a hoops-mad state. Three times in 11 months he served suspensions for team rules violations, penalties he now admits were a result of too much partying and too much marijuana.

“I was the man at Charlotte, and it was just too much for me at the time,” Mayfield said. “I could not handle it. I couldn’t balance basketball, school and my social life. It became overwhelming for me. My social life started taking over everything.”

Time after time, Mayfield was warned he needed to quit smoking marijuana. Time after time, he failed to heed that advice. He didn’t appear to grasp that he was putting his basketball career in jeopardy because he was still showing up to practices and meetings on time, still performing well in games and still on pace to earn his degree ahead of schedule.

When Mayfield failed yet another drug test halfway through a promising 2012-13 season, Charlotte’s staff could protect him no longer. School officials finally ran out of patience and dismissed Mayfield even though the 49ers were off to a 16-4 start and he was averaging an efficient 14.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in league play.

“I love the kid because he really is a good person, but the reality was he was a grown man making grown-man decisions and those decisions weren’t good for him or our program,” Oliver said. “It was sad, but it wasn’t the first time he dealt with the marijuana issue. It’s hard to fight for kids who get caught up in drugs.”

DeMario Mayfield starred at Charlotte before a series of failed drug tests led the school to dismiss him.

THE WORST MISTAKE OF MAYFIELD’S LIFE

In the aftermath of being dismissed at Charlotte, Mayfield plunged into depression.

He felt he had blown his slim shot at the NBA and he couldn’t envision trying to jumpstart his stalled basketball career by transferring to a third college. He was eager to help support his longtime girlfriend and their young son, but he didn’t have a backup plan now that his basketball aspirations appeared to have gone bust.

“Even though I worked full time, I had my degree and I had a place to stay, he wanted to provide for us, to be the head of the household,” said Jasmine Mayfield, then DeMario’s girlfriend and now his wife. “He had really given up on basketball, he was trying to think of other ways to make money and he started hanging with people he shouldn’t have been hanging with.”

What happened next was the worst mistake of Mayfield’s life, one his friends and family still describe as wholly out of character for the kind-hearted, gregarious basketball player. In May 2013, police arrested Mayfield and former Georgia football player Ricardo Crawford in an Athens neighborhood well-known as a burglary target. The pair had masks, latex gloves and guns in their car when police found them.

Having police approach his car with guns drawn was the wakeup call Mayfield needed to turn his life around. He had grown up without his father in his life and he knew he had almost put his newborn son in the same position.

Mayfield set a goal to use his jail sentence to kick his marijuana habit and figure out what to do with the rest of his life. At first, he told Jasmine that he would go back to school, but when she challenged him to make a plan, he didn’t have an answer for what his focus would be or what he was going to do with his graduate degree. Unsatisfied with that answer, Jasmine asked Mayfield if he was truly ready to abandon his basketball dreams just yet.

“He told me he still wanted to play, but I could tell he wasn’t sure it was possible,” Jasmine said. “I told him, ‘It can still happen, but you need to pull yourself out of the dirt.’”

Mayfield might have hung up his high tops for good were it not for a pair of Division II coaches unafraid to offer second chances to talented players in need of a fresh start. Angelo State’s Chris Beard (now the head coach at Texas Tech) and Cinco Boone (Angelo State’s current head coach) were pragmatic enough to understand they would never land a player as accomplished as Mayfield without any baggage, so they decided to investigate whether they could safely take a risk on him.

After speaking extensively with Jasmine, Mayfield’s mother and some of his former coaches, Beard and Boone decided it was time to have a face-to-face chat with the player himself. They left San Angelo, Texas, and drove 16 hours across five states in order to meet with Mayfield during his lunch break at the burger shack.

Having shed his apron but not the rest of his work attire, Mayfield joined Beard and Boone at a back table and spoke openly and remorsefully about his past transgressions. At the end of their conversation, Mayfield told Beard and Boone, “I just need another opportunity. If I get another opportunity, I will not let you down.”

“There are so many kids that think they deserve an opportunity, but DeMario was almost begging for another chance,” Boone said. He looked us in the eye at that fast-food restaurant and he was open and humble. More than anything, I think that’s why we had a good gut feeling about him.”

When Mayfield finished serving his sentence in 2014, he, Jasmine and their 2-year-old son headed straight to Angelo State in search of a fresh start. Mayfield knew this was an opportunity most players in his shoes would not have received, so he was determined to make the best of it.

In addition to averaging 15.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game for a team that won 28 games, Mayfield also earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and worked to ingratiate himself to his new community. He stayed around after games to talk to kids and even brought all of his teammates and coaches to the Halloween party at his son’s daycare.

“To this day, our university president still texts back and forth with DeMario,” Boone said. “He’s a special guy. He really is. I tell people all the time we’re going to coach together someday.”

Life in Iraq can be lonely for American players, but Mayfield learned to make the best of it and found elements of the culture that he enjoyed. (photo via DeMario Mayfield)

FORGING A LIFE IN IRAQ

Mayfield hoped that a trouble-free year at Angelo State would help him latch on overseas with a professional club, but there wasn’t much interest in a player less than one year removed from incarceration. The only offers Mayfield received were from third- and fourth-division European teams who typically paid less than $1,000 per month.

That might have been Mayfield’s best option had he not received a tip from a close friend and former Georgia teammate. Six-foot-11 Albert Jackson spent the 2014-15 season playing for Baghdad-based Al Nift and told Mayfield that the club was seeking an American guard as a complement to him for the upcoming year.

The notion of living in Baghdad for six months terrified Mayfield, but the money was simply too good for him to turn down. Al Nift offered to pay him $64,000 for the 2015-16 season, a salary that compared favorably to what American imports receive playing in other far-flung leagues in the Middle East and beyond.

“I had zero other options,” Mayfield said. “I was going 100 percent, but in the back of my mind, it was still like, ‘Yikes, I’m going to Iraq.’

“On my way to the airport, I was Googling everything about Iraq, the food, the safety, everything. The only thing I could find on the Internet was about bombs exploding. It was like, ‘There was a bomb here today. Yesterday, there was a car bomb and 10 people died.’ It felt like I was going to a war zone.”

Part of the reason Mayfield had a better experience in Iraq than many other Americans players was that his club was sponsored by the oil industry and had the money to provide him amenities and security. He lived in a central Baghdad hotel each of his three seasons with Al Nift, the hotel’s chef would make him whatever meal he wanted and the team provided a driver to help him navigate the Iraqi capital’s traffic-snarled streets.

It also helped that Mayfield didn’t just hole up in front of Netflix 20 hours per day like many American players in Iraq. He made an effort to learn to communicate in Arabic, he made friends throughout the city and he’d accept invitations to visit his teammates at their homes for an occasional home-cooked meal.

“Either I was going to sit around and complain about being in Iraq, or I was going to try to enjoy it,” Mayfield said. “I’d rather try to enjoy it. It’s still hard for me at times, but I can get out in the city and mingle and I can speak enough Arabic to get what I want or get around.”

What Mayfield learned from his conversations with Iraqi people was that his perception that they would be hostile toward Americans was dead wrong. Most of the Iraqis he encountered had an idealized view of America from Hollywood movies and feared insurgent groups and radical Islamic terrorists just as much as he did.

“Everyone I met, they welcomed me with open arms,” Mayfield said. “Everything I’d seen about Iraq before I got here was that they hate the West, but they love everything about America.”

For Mayfield, the toughest part of his three seasons in Iraq was being away from his wife and son for half of each year. He’d text or FaceTime constantly to assure Jasmine that he was all right, but there were some anxious moments for her anytime rolling blackouts in Baghdad forced Mayfield offline.

“If it was longer than an hour, I would start to get worried,” Jasmine said. “I’d constantly search the ’net to try to make sure there wasn’t a bombing or anything. He didn’t have too much trouble over there, but it’s still Iraq at the end of the day.”

Mayfield’s decision to apply for dual citizenship and play for the Iraqi national team paid off exactly as he hoped. Not only did he earn a six-figure salary this past year, he also left no doubt he was capable of playing at a higher level than the Iraqi league.

Mayfield averaged 19.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists this past year during the first round of qualifying for the FIBA 2019 World Cup. Iraq won just two of six games and failed to advance, but Mayfield did spearhead a rare upset of neighboring Iran.

Largely as a result of his performance on that stage, Mayfield received more interest than ever before from European club teams this summer. He signed for the upcoming basketball season with Sigal Prishtina, a Kosovo-based club that participates in the Champions League and the Euro Cup, the two most prestigious competitions in Europe besides the EuroLeague.

The chance to play at that level is a significant achievement for a guy who five years ago was taking fast food orders and pondering career possibilities outside of basketball. Mayfield does not intend to play another season in the Iraqi league, but he would love the chance to represent the Iraqi national team again soon.

“I’m forever grateful for the opportunity with the national team,” he said. “Whenever they call me again, I’ll play.”

DeMario Mayfield’s success with the Iraqi national team helped him earn a contract offer from a European club for the 2018-19 season. (photo credit: FIBA)

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Jeff Eisenberg is a basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at jeisenb@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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