When Albert Jackson first pitched his friend Demario Mayfield on playing professional basketball with him in Iraq, he mentioned the money, not the explosion.
It was the summer of 2015, and Jackson had just finished his first season with the Oil Club in Baghdad. When the team asked him for help finding another American player to pad the roster, Jackson thought of Mayfield immediately. The pair had been teammates for a season at Georgia, and Jackson knew Mayfield had recently gone undrafted and was eager to prove himself as a professional.
Apart from the time he felt the floor of his hotel shake and heard the gunshots following a terrorist attack in the restaurant beneath his room, Jackson had enjoyed his season in Iraq. He had especially enjoyed the money, which is mostly what he talked about with Mayfield. Americans can pull $20,000 a month or more, plus bonuses for wins and championships, playing in the Middle East.
It was an opportunity to play at a high level—an opportunity it looked like Mayfield might never get. Two years before that phone call, the former 3-star recruit had been arrested for conspiracy to commit armed robbery, derailing his life and his basketball future.
Now, three years later, he's a dual citizen of the United States and Iraq—and the basketball icon of a war-torn region.
Mayfield grew up in Franklin County, Georgia, 35 minutes from the Bulldogs campus. So when the program parted ways with head coach Dennis Felton in January 2009, Mayfield didn't decommit, even though he had offers from schools like Auburn, Florida State and South Carolina.
Then the 2009 Georgia AAA player of the year barely saw the floor as a freshman. He stuck out his first year in part because he befriended teammates like Jackson, and in part because he had fallen in love with a junior at the school named Jasmine. But before the end of his freshman season, he decided to transfer.
Mayfield says he had an offer from Shaka Smart to play at VCU, but he was about to become a father, so he decided to stay close to Jasmine and chose the Charlotte 49ers instead. The following two seasons were his strongest as a college basketball player, but he clashed frequently with coach Alan Major and was suspended three times before finally being dismissed in 2013. It was then that he made the mistake that altered the course of his career—and his life.
In May 2013, Mayfield was arrested with former Georgia football player Ricardo Crawford in Athens. The pair were in a car in a neighborhood well-known as a burglary target, and police officers found them with masks, gloves and guns.
"What the hell was I thinking?" Mayfield says now. "I had put myself in a life-or-death situation. Cops came to the car with guns drawn. It could have been a bigger mistake. I could have been shot down. I almost lost my family. That day will be forever stuck in my mind."
About a year later, Angelo State coaches Chris Beard and Cinco Boone came to visit Mayfield in Athens. After pleading guilty, he had spent 10-and-a-half months in a diversion program and was working at a Burger Shack. Beard and Boone offered him a fresh start in Texas.
"His basketball story from the beginning has been such a rocky road," Jasmine says. "He was on like strike No. 6, so I told him he had to go."
Mayfield, who is 6'5" and played point guard in high school, spent the 2014-15 season with the Rams as a swingman, averaging 15.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. The team went 28-6 and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. He earned a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction.
Despite his rebound off and on the court, he couldn't draw any attention before the 2015 draft. He expected he wouldn't be selected, but he thought he would at least be able to find an agent and earn an opportunity with a team in Europe or Asia. But no one would even represent him. Then Jackson called and convinced him to come to Baghdad.
"I just told him, 'I got a job for you,'" Jackson says. "And when I told him the money, he couldn't believe it. I told him I'd take care of him. We are tight like that. If he told me about a great basketball opportunity in North Korea, I'd probably be like: 'OK, bro. Let's do it.'"
The farthest from home Mayfield had ever ventured was the Bahamas, but he felt emboldened to go to Baghdad. He wanted to provide for his family and wanted to prove himself. His first impression, of the airport, was positive. But as the taxi took him 30 minutes toward his hotel, he grew nervous. For the first few days, as he adjusted to intermittent power outages and cold showers and foreign food, he wondered if he'd made a huge mistake.
But after three weeks, he had earned his keep on the court, and the team offered him a lucrative single-season contract—and an upgraded hotel room. He's felt comfortable in the city ever since, even after Jackson revealed to him that the hotel he moved to was where the explosion had taken place the previous season
"Every time you turn on the news or read an article online about Iraq, it's a shooting or a bombing," Mayfield says. "But honestly, I feel really safe here. Adapting to the culture, that's the hard part. I'm working for three hours a day, then the other 21 hours I'm lonely."
Mayfield doesn’t want his family to join him in Baghdad. He believes he could get visas for them, but he knows it’s safer for a well-known male basketball player than it would be for a woman and a six-year-old who loves to run around outside. He prefers allowing them to enjoy their lives in Jacksonville, Florida, to the constant worry he fears he’d feel if they were with him in Iraq.
Having Jackson for the first season made for an easier transition. But in 2016, Jackson returned to South America, where he'd been playing before his tour of the Middle East. Although he earned less money there initially, he felt the trade-off was worthwhile because the quality of play is substantially higher in a region where basketball is more deeply rooted.
"When basketball is played the right way, it's beautiful," Jackson says "When you are in the Middle East, at times it's more like you're playing streetball, like YMCA basketball. It can make it tough to get ready for practices and games."
In the Middle East, Jackson says, if there are two Americans on a team, the coaches expect them to score at least 50 percent of the team's points. "They expect you to be Shaq and Kobe," he says. "They basically just throw Demario the ball and say, ‘Go.'"
For Mayfield, it's worked. He's a natural ball-handler and an explosive athlete who has a great feel for the game. In his second season, he led the Oil Club to a league championship, averaging 29 points, eight assists and eight rebounds a night.
After the season, he returned home to Florida to spend time with Jasmine and their son, Demario Jr. He was weighing offers in South America, hoping to find the spot that could springboard him toward higher-profile gigs in Europe or Asia. Then the Iraqi national team called: FIBA's No. 85 team in the world needed a boost.
By the end of the summer, after weeks of discussions with his family and friends and then months of waiting on the paperwork to clear, he had become the only Iraqi-American dual citizen on the club, and he began competing in the FIBA Asia Cup, a World Cup qualifying competition.
"In the Iraqi league, there are three levels of players: the good, the OK and the very bad," Mayfield says. "But FIBA is the big stage. Every country in the world participates, and it's an opportunity for me to showcase my skills and be evaluated against better competition."
Last month, Mayfield scored 24 points and added 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in a historic win over Iran. Iraq lost to Kazakhstan in its next game but will continue international competition in February against Qatar. Mayfield hopes Jasmine and Demario Jr. will be able to attend that game. More than that, he hopes he will eventually play in a place where they can live with him year-round.
The cliche "Rome wasn't built in one day" has become a mantra for Mayfield. He says it out loud, he texts it to friends and he even uses it as a hashtag on social media posts celebrating his achievements. A few years ago, his big mistake almost caused his life to crumble. He nearly lost basketball. He nearly lost Jasmine. He nearly lost his life.
"That arrest got him to where he is today," Jackson says. "It continues making him successful. He remembers losing all he loved because of a stupid mistake. He did a complete 180 after that. You hate to say it, but it might have been exactly what he needed."
"It helped him to refocus and realize who was there for him, and who was just along for the ride," Jasmine says. "He's been the man on campus ever since he was in high school, and you get to the big stage of college, and it's easy to lose focus. It helped him refocus. It kept him away from the distractions. And also it helped him to mature a little bit. Now he's learned his lesson. He's on the big stage again."
"I'll forever be fighting that incident, but I have no problem with continuing to prove myself to people," Mayfield says. "I made a lot of mistakes, but I want my opportunity to play at the highest level. I know I can."
Now he's married and he's committed, he says, to being "the best father ever to walk this earth." So every day, he wakes up in an active war zone. He practices with his team and then works out and studies film on his own. He FaceTimes with his family and sends each of his paychecks straight home to them. Brick by brick, he rebuilds Rome.