Ky. Sports Assoc. v. Cordia: Win or Go Home
In a state where basketball is a religion, a small, mountain school is accused of heresy – disturbing the hierarchy of Kentucky high school sports. Fined, sanctioned and harassed for its transfer students – many of whom are urban and black – the Cordia School has a history of coming from behind. But this is about more than basketball, says Coach Rodrick Rhodes, a former UK star.
John FlavellCordia High School Coach Rodrick Rhodes huddles with his players before a 2011 game. The former UK star and NBA player has helped bring students from tough urban neighborhoods and a Malaysian war zone to the rural school. The high school athletic association says he’s cheating. He says he’s changing lives.
One of the smallest schools in Kentucky—the Cordia School—nestled deep in an isolated part of the Appalachian Mountains, is known for its fights.
“Every few years, [school board members] try to consolidate us, so we have to fight against that,” says Alice Whitaker, head of Lotts Creek Community School, which owns the Cordia School building and helps support it. It has been in a vicious, decades-long fight with the coal corporations that want to strip-mine the surrounding mountains.
“There was a war back then,” Whitaker says of the coal-fights in the ’60s and ’70s. “You could sit out here and hear the gunshots.” She tells of her aunt Alice Slone, the founder of the Cordia School. “Aunt Alice called that mountain ‘Adam,’” she says, pointing to a tall, yellow mountain towering over the school. “They came in with bulldozers to strip it. She broke up and called Woodrow Guthrie down the road and said, ‘They’re trying to strip-mine Adam.’ Within a half-hour, there were 20 men out there with guns. They went away, and haven’t come back yet.”
What the school has never been known for, however, is sports. That changed three years ago when former University of Kentucky Wildcat star Rodrick Rhodes shocked the basketball world by agreeing to become Cordia’s head coach. He’s turned tiny, mountain-bound Cordia into a strong basketball school. Other schools have started to notice, and they’re not happy.
First, the Kentucky High School Athletics Association (KHSAA) banned certain students from playing. They claim that Rhodes and Cordia are illegally recruiting students to play for them. They can think of no other reason why students from New York, Canada, Mali and all over would want to come to East Kentucky to play basketball in Cordia. The cultural difference is too large, and Cordia is not a basketball school.
Robert Cooper, 1972Protesters stand in front of bulldozers to stop strip mining near Cordia School in 1972. The protest was part of the early anti-strip-mine movement. Fighting for the community is nothing new for the school, says Alice Whitaker.
At first blush, nothing in this story makes sense. New Jersey native Rodrick Rhodes—who left Kentucky on bad terms the first time—isn’t supposed to be thriving in the hollows of Appalachia. Cordia, known for its activism and its environmentalism, is not supposed to be good at basketball. What does make sense—in fact, what seems inevitable—is that Cordia is fighting.
“I’m praying they don’t give us a slap on the wrist,” Whitaker says with a laugh. She knows Cordia will be outspent, she says, but she hopes they don’t go too easy on them. “I want them to lower the boom. We can fight that.”
Three months after she says this, the KHSAA complies, levying unprecedented penalties on the team and the school itself. They not only banned Cordia from playing any games in the 2014-15 season, any games in the 2015-16 postseason, but also fined the school almost $26,000. The fine alone could cripple a large school, but it threatens Cordia’s existence going forward.
“I wasn’t wanting that much punishment,” Whitaker says, after the ruling had been laid out. “I did want enough so I could appeal it.”
Cordia continues its fight with KHSAA, and it can get even more acrimonious. But this is not a story about the intricacies of high school basketball. This is about the well-being of children, the future of Appalachia, and whether or not the Commonwealth of Kentucky can stop making the same mistakes it has made over and over.
Kentucky Takes the Short Money
In 1976, the National Basketball Association was looking to expand. Having won a decisive victory against the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA), the league looked to absorb the most profitable teams from its prostrate rival. In short order, they took the Indiana Pacers, the Denver Nuggets, the San Antonio Spurs and the New York Nets. That left only two remaining ABA teams: the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis. The NBA offered both of the ABA teams a $3 million buyout.
NBAAfter owner John Y. Brown took the buyout for his ABA
Kentucky Colonels, former players like Artis Gilmore
(No. 53) went on to major careers in the NBA. Taking the
quick cash instead of investing in the future is as
much a Kentucky tradition as basketball.
The Spirits of St. Louis, however, crafted their own deal. They took a smaller payout upfront ($2.2 million instead of $3 million) and 7 percent of future TV revenue of any of the four ABA teams the NBA absorbed. This wound up netting the owners of the team upwards of $300 million, with their revenue increasing constantly, until last year when the NBA bought out their contract for, among other concessions, $500 million upfront. The deal is often called the greatest in sports history.
Of course, it’s as useful to point out the winner of a 39-year-old business deal as it is to gamble on last year’s Derby. Nevertheless, the disparity—$3 million compared to nearly a billion—is hard to ignore. For people who study Kentucky politics, it’s also an eerily familiar pattern: The leaders sell off their best assets, devalue the organization as a whole, then strike a frontloaded, self-serving deal that gets worse with every passing year.
In Kentucky, basketball is king: beyond coal, culture, religion, and politics. In basketball and in government alike, in 1976 and today, Kentucky has most often gambled against itself and taken the short money.
The Former Future of the Kentucky Wildcats
This is not Rodrick Rhodes’ first fight.
For a few months, all of Kentucky’s hopes were invested in Rhodes. When the superstar 6’6 forward from Jersey City committed to become a Kentucky Wildcat in 1992, many Kentucky fans assumed a title was inevitable. Coach Rick Pitino had just taken an undermanned Wildcat team to an Elite Eight, where they came a heartbreaking last second shot from upending powerhouse Duke. Rhodes was the all-world talent Kentucky’s devoted fan-base demanded. Even without the Internet to whip the Big Blue Nation into a frenzy—as it would later with similarly touted freshmen John Wall and Anthony Davis—the fans couldn’t wait to ring in the Rhodes dynasty.