MIAMI — They met when they were nine, when O.J. Mayo couldn't stop staring at the shoes.
This kid, Michael Beasley, wore something like size-17.
"I was like, 'Damn, his feet are big,'" the Milwaukee Bucks guard recalled Tuesday night, prior to his team's 118-95 loss to the Miami Heat. "And it just went on from there. We've seen each other grow, from kids to men."
Growth often doesn't occur uninterrupted.
It was impossible to foresee the future on March 20, 2008, back before the basketball world heard of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle. Back when Mayo and Beasley were among the next set of surefire stars, squaring off in a spotlighted NCAA first-round game in Omaha, Neb.
"Yeah, I remember," Beasley said, smiling. "I had 23 points. And I had 10 rebounds."
Perhaps this was part of his new humble posture, shortchanging himself by one.
The rebounding number was 11, as his squad, Kansas State, ended Mayo's USC career. From there, they would, respectively, be drafted second and third, after Derrick Rose and immediately ahead of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. From there, they would somehow find themselves here: Beasley, back with the Heat on a non-guaranteed contract after falling from favor in Minnesota and Phoenix; Mayo, with a hefty contract (three years, $24 million) but diminished expectations after uneven stints in Memphis and Dallas.
"We will always be friends," Beasley said. "I seen what he did his rookie year. Seen a slight drop his second year and his third. Seen his pickup in Dallas. See what he’s doing now. I mean, O.J.’s always been the main attraction. You know, and with the guys he’s got up there, they need him to be. He definitely found the right situation there. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but right now, it looks good."
How's it compare to his path?
"Every situation is different, every player is different, every situation for every player is different," Beasley said. "It’s tougher for some players, like myself. I’m just grinding."
He is. Every day. With all he's got.
He's getting somewhere. Certainly, he's getting his coach's attention.
If the early signs are any indication, he may be in the midst of the most significant rebound of his career, flashing so much skill and poise in limited time that Erik Spoelstra may be pressed to give him longer and longer looks. Getting a chance for rotation minutes Tuesday because Ray Allen (illness) and Udonis Haslem (back) were getting the night off, Beasley scored 19 points in 20 minutes, giving him 35 points in 32 minutes in three appearances this season, on 15-of-23 shooting.
He consistently competed on the defensive end, too, which is what his coach asks.
"He absolutely has embraced the routine and the work," Spoelstra said. "I see a difference.”
Anyone who has interviewed him the past few weeks can hear a difference. Take Monday. Two nights prior, against the Boston Celtics, he had scored eight straight points, with the Heat running offense through him even with LeBron James and Chris Bosh and, later, Dwyane Wade on the court. A turnaround jumper. A drive to the hole. A lefty layup. A finish of a Mario Chalmers lob, which would have been followed by another had Chalmers seen him open in time.
Yet, after the next practice, Beasley still sounded sheepish. He said he was scared of letting down his teammates and that, "when they get mad at me, it's kind of like the end of the world." He said it felt "weird" to be featured with so many stars by his side, and especially when James yelled at him for passing on an open shot. (As James would later tell the media, "I'm staying on him to be him. We didn't bring him here to be a passer.")
Beasley reminded the reporters gushing over his scoring stats that he didn't have a rebound yet.
"It's not good," he said, with a head shake.
And he said this about the fans: "They show me so much love, and I honestly don’t know where it comes from, but I’m just glad it’s there."
The affection was there again Tuesday, when he replaced James with 1:55 remaining the first quarter. In his first stint, he scored three times, all on passes from Wade—two slams and a short lefty hook after switching hands. He even had a chase-down block that was ruled a foul, a sequence that ended with Mayo bumping him away and the two friends patting each other on the head.
Beasley sat the first 10 minutes of the second half, as the Heat stretched their lead to 24. From there, he exploited garbage time with his varied skill set: a corner three, a post-up and spin, a fall-away over the baseline.
"Beas, he’s a great scorer, and that’s what he does best," James said.
More notably, Beasley made two clever passes, one on the bounce to Chris Andersen for a slam, one with a touch to Norris Cole for a three.
It all looked, well, fun.
"If I can't have fun with the love of my life," Beasley said of basketball, "who can I have fun with?"
None of this was fun for Mayo during the course of the contest, not when it contributed to a blowout of his Bucks. But, afterward, when asked about Beasley, he flashed a smile.
"I'm very happy, man," Mayo said. "He looks like he's back in shape, back focused. Like the old Mike, man."
And seemingly improved, at least in terms of attitude, from the Mike the Heat had for two seasons till 2010.
"Over the course of an NBA career, you're going to have some changes, have some ups and downs," Mayo said, knowing too well. "It's all about how you conquer it, how you overcome."