A Georgia-born former college basketball player has become an Iraqi citizen so he can play for the country's national team.
DeMario Mayfield moved to Baghdad seeking redemption two years ago after his hoop dreams were left in tatters by a run-in with the law.
The dual national says he now earns a six-figure salary playing professional basketball in Iraq, admitting it was “mind-boggling" to think how much his life had changed since leaving the U.S.
“Before I came to Baghdad, I didn’t know what to expect," he told NBC News. "I had just all bad expectations. Then I got here and I’ve met some of the most genuine and nicest people that I’ve ever met."
He added: “It was an eye-opener for me to never judge when you’ve never experienced anything in their culture.”
Husein Al-Amdey, the chairman of the Iraqi Basketball Federation, was thrilled that Mayfield had received Iraqi citizenship. He described the 6-foot-5 forward as “one of the best basketball players in the region.”
Al-Amdey said he believes Mayfield “is going to be of a great help for the Iraqi team,” which is currently ranked 85 out of 149 teams by FIBA, the International Basketball Federation.
Mayfield, who was not selected in the 2015 NBA draft, says it’s a big responsibility to pull on the Iraqi national team's jersey.
“Everyone looks at the American as the hero here,” he said. “I definitely have to lead these guys to play their best. And I also must play my best to put us in a position to be successful.”
"One mistake doesn’t define a person"
Mayfield played for three colleges in the U.S. — the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of Georgia and Angelo State University in Texas.
But in May 2013, he was charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery in Georgia.
He accepted a plea deal and served 10 and a half months in a diversion center, which he described as like a “jail/work camp." He then served another year on probation.
“That’s why I had to come to Iraq,” Mayfield said when asked about the charge. “To build my name back up, build my resume back up, because that was a major blow to my career.”