In December of 2016, the Eastern Kentucky University men’s basketball team faced Manhattan College in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, New York.
The Colonels were more than 700 miles from Richmond. Yet, on that night – three days before Christmas – a majority of Draddy Gymnasium was maroon.
That morning, a large contingent of central Mainers had rented a bus and driven nearly six hours to the northern outskirts of New York City.
They wore matching, maroon shirts with “Team Mayo” emblazoned on the front.
They were there to watch the “Maine Attraction.”
First, a clarification: Nick Mayo – EKU’s outstanding junior forward – is not from Oakland, Maine. His hometown is listed as Oakland, because that is where his parents now live; however, Mayo was raised in Belgrade, a town of about 4,000 people (depending on the season), 10 miles southwest of Oakland and about 11 miles northwest of Augusta, Maine’s capital.
A middle child, Mayo and his two sisters, Kelsey and Mackenzie, grew up on dead-end Mill Stream Drive. It was, by Mayo’s own description, “in the middle of nowhere.”
It was also a great place to be a kid. “There was a dam nearby, and lots of trails and woods. My buddies and I ran all over the place. Our favorite game was Manhunt … but mostly, we played sports.”
Mayo’s first love was baseball. According to family lore, his first spoken word was “baseball” (pronounced “bae-ball”).
Baby Mayo’s hand-eye coordination developed rapidly. At 18 months, he was hitting pitched whiffle balls with regularity.
His vaunted pitching velocity was soon to follow.
When Mayo was in fourth grade, his principal called home one day. Mayo’s parents – Scott and Jenn – thought he might be in serious trouble.
He was not.
“The principal was calling because some teachers and students were concerned that when Nick played dodgeball at recess … he threw the balls too hard,” Jenn Mayo said. “They were worried he was going to seriously hurt someone.”
By the time Mayo reached middle school, a new love interest had emerged – basketball.
“Nick always wanted his friends to stay over so they could play basketball the whole night,” Jenn Mayo said. “They would put spotlights on the driveway hoop so they could play late into the evening – shooting trick shots out of the sunroof of our car, shooting a basketball from the backyard, over the roof of the house and hitting nothing-but-net in the driveway hoop.”
Mayo was clearly a fan of the highlight play. “We couldn’t leave for school in the morning until SportsCenter’s ‘Top-10 Plays’ had aired.”
Mayo’s mid-teenage growth spurt was more substantial than most of ours. At the age of 14, he was a lean 6’0”. By the age of 15, he was 6’5”. When Mayo walked into Messalonskee High School as a junior, he stood at 6’7”.
His height made Mayo an imposing pitcher on the mound and a matchup problem on the basketball court. So did his pedigree.
Mayo’s dad, Scott, was a star pitcher at Portland High School, in Maine’s biggest city. His mom, Jenn, was a 1,000-point scorer and has her basketball jersey retired at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, located just off the mainland in the “Downeast” region of Maine near Acadia National Park.
It was not an easy decision to pursue basketball over baseball. But, it was the right one. On Nov. 13, 2014, Mayo signed a National Letter of Intent to play Division 1 hoops at EKU.
History was about to be written.
Mayo is one of only two current Division-I men’s basketball players from Maine, playing outside of Maine. The other? His teammate, freshman Mason Cooper.
Because of that, Mayo’s story is of interest to a lot of people back home. His record-breaking college basketball career is a source of pride for people from Belgrade, and all over the Pine Tree State.
Jenn Mayo’s friend, who lives more than hour away from Belgrade, said that EKU games are often streamed on the OVC Digital Network at a local bar in town, and people gather around to watch Mayo and the Colonels play.
A custodian at Messalonskee High School proudly wears a Mayo-autographed shirt every EKU #GameDay.
“People that we don’t know stop us all the time in gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants,” to ask about Nick, Scott Mayo said.
However, Maine is also a source of pride for Mayo.
“Belgrade, in my heart, will always be home,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in being from Maine and representing Maine. When times get tough, I think ‘I can’t let myself down, I can’t let my family down and I can’t let everybody back home in Maine down.’”
It’s not that Mayo is homesick in Richmond. He has pieces of Maine with him. Brooke, his high school girlfriend, also attends EKU and is a constant source of support. Cooper, who played at Mayo’s rival high school, brings an additional New England vibe to the scene.
His EKU teammates and coaches have become Mayo’s Kentucky family. The Colonels are a close-knit bunch.
“They’re like my brothers,” he said.
Mayo has rarely let his brothers down.
He is on pace to score more points than any player in the 108-year history of Eastern Kentucky University basketball.
He is already one of only six Colonels ever to score 1,500 career points and grab 500 career rebounds.
He holds the school’s career blocks record (119).
He has a chance to become the first Colonel ever to be named first team All-Ohio Valley Conference in three consecutive seasons.
One statistic that becomes easy to overlook: Mayo has never missed a start.
He has started all 92 EKU games since he arrived on campus in 2015.
Mayo has been a steady force for the Colonels over the last three seasons. Double teams. Taped ankles. Sprained wrists. It doesn’t matter. He keeps coming.
Consistent. Resilient. Workmanlike.
All qualities Mayo credits to his upbringing.
His mom, Jenn, is a math teacher at his alma mater, Messalonskee High School.
Jenn’s family hails from Stonington, the self-proclaimed “Lobster Capital of the World.”
The nickname is not a gimmick. “Pretty much everybody on Deer Isle hauls lobster traps for a living,” Mayo confirmed.
Jenn’s family is no exception. Her mom, Donna, and step-dad, Marsden, own a lobster boat, the F/V Lindsey Marie.
This past summer, Mayo took some of his teammates to Stonington, and Marsden held out a crate of lobsters (that’s 100 pounds!) from his catch for them to devour.
It is easy to see where Mayo gets his blue-collar approach to basketball.
“My grandfather is 61 years old and he gets up at 3 or 4 a.m. every morning, goes out on his boat and sets lobster traps,” he said. “That’s tough work.”
Mayo’s dad, Scott, works at Maine Center for Integrated Rehabilitation.
“My dad works with people with brain injuries,” Mayo said. “That gave me perspective. He always made sure I understood there are people who have it worse than me. I might get a little banged up, but that’s not going to stop me from getting back on the court. I get to play the game I love everyday. I can’t take that for granted.”
That night in the Bronx, Mayo was stunned when he ran onto the court.
“I saw on Facebook that they were organizing a bus to come to the game,” he said. “But I still wasn’t prepared. It was amazing when I ran out there, seeing them all go crazy in their EKU maroon shirts.”
There were people from all over Kennebec County, former teammates from Messalonskee, family from Stonington. Everyone was there to watch the boy from Belgrade who threw dodgeballs too hard.
“The love from back home is crazy,” Mayo said. “My family and friends show me unbelievable support, and they’re always there for me.”
Mayo did not disappoint. He nearly had a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing nine boards. Better yet: the kid who loved SportsCenter delivered an #SCTop10-worthy dunk that sent the Maine delegation into an absolute frenzy.
After the game, Mayo greeted, thanked and took photos with nearly every person who made the trip.
It was a scene that reminds you … it’s good to be from somewhere.
It’s good to have “day-one friends,” as Mayo calls them.
“I’m a family-oriented guy,” he said. “My family and friends have shaped me into the player and person I am.”
They have done a good job. Mayo is a player, and a person, with a bright future.
“When we dropped Nick off at EKU as a freshman, we told him he would need to work hard, earn every minute, accept his role stay focused and enjoy the ride,” Jenn Mayo said. “Needless to say, Nick seized the opportunity and has made us all extremely proud.”
Added Scott Mayo: “We are proud of Nick’s work ethic, leadership, humility and dedication to achieving his goals … some of which have yet to be fulfilled.”
-- by Steve Fohl, Associate Director, EKU Sports Communications