By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Columnist
Maori Davenport had to go to court just to get back on the court.
How ridiculous it’s come to that for the Alabama prep basketball star.
Thankfully, a cruel and unjust ruling by the state’s governing body was put on hold Friday by a local judge, mere hours before Charles Henderson High School took the court against Carroll.
It was just a temporary victory, but at least it allowed Davenport to play for the first time since November. She scored 25 points in a 72-17 victory.
“I’m just so happy to see her back on the court,” mother Tara Davenport told reporters after the game. “Where she belongs.”
Where she belongs, indeed.
We can only hope the judge sides with Maori again when he hears the facts of the case, though when that will happen is unclear. More important, this ludicrous affair should serve as a lesson to all high school administrators:
Rules are necessary, to be sure, but the people who carry them out should always try to do what’s best for the kids who play the games.
That mantra is nowhere to be found in this case.
“I believe in rules. But I also believe in a fair and reasonable application of the rules,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who has been lobbying on Davenport’s behalf. “High school teachers and high school coaches and high school administrators are supposed to elevate their young people, not keep them down.”
Davenport’s senior season — which should’ve been a triumphant last lap with her Charles Henderson teammates before she headed off to play for Basketball Hall of Famer Vivian Stringer at Rutgers — was thrown into turmoil over a simple clerical error.
Last summer, Davenport played for her country at a youth tournament in Mexico City. As is normally does, USA Basketball sent out a modest stipend check of $857.20 to everyone who participated.
That was not an issue for those players who were already heading to college because the NCAA allows such payments. But USA Basketball failed to check on whether it applied to high school players such as Davenport, who couldn’t accept any money under the amateurism rules of the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
Davenport’s family deposited the check. Then, some three months later, after learning that the payment was against AHSAA rules, they self-reported the violation and repaid the money to USA Basketball.
“USA admitted their mistake,” said Tara Davenport, who is also a coach at Charles Henderson Middle School. “Her dad and I sent the money back ASAP.”
Case closed, right?
The AHSAA said any violation of its amateurism rule carried an automatic one-year suspension, effectively ending Maori’s high school career. Charles Henderson, the defending Class 5A champion, also was ordered to forfeit its first four games, the ones that Davenport played in before turning herself in.
Davenport appealed the ruling, only to be turned down by two AHSAA panels. Even more appalling, the association put out a statement this week coldly defending its decision, essentially putting all the blame on Davenport’s family as well as the coaches and administrators at Charles Henderson.
For Bilas, that was the final straw.
“That statement was full of falsehoods and mean-spirited,” he said Friday. “It does not speak well of anyone in the state of Alabama, especially those within the state high school athletic association. That was low-brow stuff.”
The AHSAA statement said Davenport had adults around her who should have known the rules. It said the Aug. 15 payment wasn’t reported for 91 days and only after the start of Charles Henderson’s season, as if implying that Davenport’s family only fessed up when they were nailed.
“If exceptions are made, there would no longer be a need for an amateur rule,” said the statement issued by Johnny Hardin, president of the AHSAA’s Central Board of Control. “The rules are applied equally to ALL athletes.”
But Bilas pointed out that this was such an extremely rare case, it didn’t even require a ruling once the money was paid back.
“There’s no way that when the rule was put into place that this was even contemplated,” he said. “I don’t know how many young people in Alabama play for their country, but I’m guessing it’s not very many. Certainly, not very many who still have high school eligibility.”
Good thing, he added, the AHSAA wasn’t around when that US Airways jet was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. “I assume they would’ve cited Sully Sullenberger for boating without a license.”
The Davenport ruling turned Alabama into a national disgrace, drawing universal condemnation from all corners of the sporting world.
Golden State Warriors star DeMarcus Cousins, a native of the state, demanded that Davenport be allowed to play. Kobe Bryant called it “just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in youth basketball.” Tennis great Billie Jean King described the whole situation as “maddening.”
“To force Maori Davenport to miss her senior year of high school basketball because of a mistake that wasn’t even her fault is nonsensical,” King wrote on Twitter.
The Alabama Legislature, usually a bastion of no-nonsense law and order, even passed a resolution urging the high school association to reconsider its decision.
Davenport still seems a bit overwhelmed by the whole affair. And no matter what the judge ultimately rules, her senior year has been forever tarnished.
That’s something she’ll never get back.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” Davenport told The Associated Press during a visit to the Legislature this week. “I was confused and I was shocked.”
She hopes no other else has to endure this sort of injustice.
“I just want them to help this not happen to any other student-athlete in Alabama,” Davenport said. “Just be clear about the rules. Always communicate with every high school. That way, this has no chance of happening again.”
Sounds like a reasonable request.
Far more reasonable than what we’ve heard from the adults in the room.