DeMario Mayfield feared his basketball career was over when he was arrested on suspicion of planning a robbery, but the former US college star is now bouncing back — in war-torn Iraq.
Originally from Georgia in America’s deep south, the six foot five inch (1.95 metre) player is the latest banner addition to Iraq’s national team after taking citizenship following a 2015 club move to Baghdad.
“I will forever be grateful for the opportunity that I have had presented to me,” Mayfield, 26, told AFP.
“It has been nothing but love since the day I arrived.”
Mayfield’s prospects looked grim back in 2013 when the one-time University of North Carolina and University of Georgia star was arrested in his home state for conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
“Right then and there I thought it was the end,” he said.
“But then I realised I just had to trust myself and dig myself out of the hole.”
In the end he pleaded guilty to the lesser offence of possessing a firearm and served 10 months on a work-release programme – before eventually being given another chance by Angelo State in Texas.
But after finishing there he got no interest from clubs in the US or Europe until an offer from an unlikely source – Baghdad’s Oil Club – came along.
“I had friends in this league before I came. They persuaded me to come here. We did a lot of talking before coming,” Mayfield said.
Iraq was not the easiest sell.
The Middle East country has been wracked by violence and bloodshed since the US-led invasion of 2003.
While the capital Baghdad can often be quiet it is still frequently the target of suicide bomb attacks — often claimed by the Islamic State group that swept through the country in 2014.
“I was very scared at first… seeing everything on the media,” Mayfield said.
It took some convincing – and a contract that made it worth his while – to get him to make the move.
Now, more than two years after his switch, Mayfield and the team that brought him to Iraq insist they have no regrets.
“He has very good skills… with good leadership on the court,” said Oil Club coach Khalil Yehya.
Last year “we were the champions, and he got the award for best professional player in the championship”.
And starring in the Iraqi league was only the start.
Mayfield’s performances drew the attention of the country’s struggling national team as it sets its eyes on qualifying for the World Cup in 2019.
“We asked the Iraqi government to give DeMario a passport so that he could join Iraq’s team,” said national basketball federation secretary Khaled Najm.
Complete with his new Iraqi citizenship, Mayfield has already been making an impact – dominating as his unfancied side beat neighbouring rivals Iran in a qualifying game last month.
“I’m basically an Iraqi, an American Iraqi,” he said.
While he has enjoyed undoubted success in Iraq, life in Baghdad can still have its drawbacks.
Mayfield lives in a hotel room and has had to leave his family – including his young son – back in the States because of security concerns.
The language is also an issue, even though he says he has learnt the basic basketball terms in Arabic to help him out on the court.
He has a favourite cafe where he goes to eat pastries and drink tea and has friends to hang out with.
In the streets he gets recognised by fans of his adopted homeland – reminding him just how far he has come in the past few years.
“My journey with the Iraqi team has been something special,” he said.
“It’s been one heck of a ride, but I’m enjoying it.”