Rutgers recruit Maori Davenport on her lost senior season: 'It hasn't gotten any easier'
Maori Davenport sat in her principal's office in silence for 45 minutes, trying to make sense of the news.
Moments earlier, she was prepping for her pregame meal. It was Nov. 30, and the star 6-foot-4 forward/center was getting ready for the fifth game of her final basketball season at Charles Henderson High School in Troy, Alabama. That's when she got the summons to Brock Kelley's office.
"I don't know what this is," Davenport remembers thinking, "but it's probably not good."
Tipoff was hours away. Then it wasn't.
Kelley and coach Dyneshia Jones told Davenport that she had been ruled ineligible for the rest of her senior season. At issue was a stipend check for $857.20 sent to Davenport by USA Basketball. Davenport had led Team USA in rebounding and blocks en route to a gold medal in Mexico City at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in August.
USA Basketball routinely pays players small amounts during its summer programs to help them recover costs, including lost wages and employment opportunities.
Typically, USA Basketball confers with high school federations to determine if players are allowed to accept payments. But due to an error USA Basketball admits it made, no call was made to the Alabama High School Athletic Association, which does not allow payments of more than $250.
When USA Basketball realized its mistake, it notified Henderson and the AHSAA. Davenport then sent the money back. But the AHSAA ruled that she was ineligible for one season.
After hearing the news in Kelley's office, Davenport called her grandfather, Moses Davenport.
"He's the toughest person I know," Davenport said in her first public comments on the matter. "He's survived four heart attacks. He told me that God has a plan for me."
Background on the check
Davenport, who signed with Rutgers in November, is the No. 15 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2019 class.
As a junior, she led Henderson to its first state title in program history, averaging 18.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, 5.1 blocks and 1.7 assists per game. She won MVP honors at state after putting up 17 points, 13 rebounds, nine blocks and four steals in the championship game. She also amassed 30 points and 25 rebounds in a regional semifinal victory.
Last summer, she was one of three players with remaining high school eligibility selected for the USA Basketball U18 team. All three players were sent checks after the competition, USA Basketball spokesman Craig Miller said.
Notre Dame recruit Anaya Peoples of Schlarman Academy (Danville, Illinois) repaid the money to USA Basketball and her eligibility was restored, Miller said. Missouri recruit Aijha Blackwell told USA Basketball she intends to repay the money but has not yet sent anything back, Miller said. Blackwell left the Whitfield School (St. Louis) in December citing the expensive tuition and is in the process of transferring.
Miller, who has been with USA Basketball for 29 years, said his group was "disappointed" with the AHSAA decision.
"In all my years with USA Basketball, we have never had this happen before," Miller said. "It was not a purposeful error.
"The NCAA allows us to pay athletes -- who have no remaining high school eligibility -- a small amount for the sake of representing the USA. Typically, if we have an athlete with high school eligibility remaining, we will check with their athletic association because the rules are different in each state.
"But we didn't realize [Davenport] had high school eligibility remaining, and it was absolutely our mistake."
Miller said USA Basketball caught its error in November. The payment will not impact Davenport's eligibility at Rutgers.
Davenport was named to the FIBA Americas all-tournament team after averaging 7.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.
"[Davenport] represented her country well," Miller said. "By all measures from our coaching staff, she's a great young lady."
Beverly Kirk, who has been Davenport's AAU coach for the All-Alabama Roadrunners, said it was an innocent mistake.
"Everybody had their guard down," Kirk said. "Because the money came from USA Basketball, they automatically thought it was legit. ... But the AHSAA said that because the check was cashed, it makes her ineligible."
That ruling, unless it is overturned, has jeopardized Davenport's chances of becoming a McDonald's All-American, winning another state title and earning Alabama Miss Basketball acclaim.
Davenport's parents, Mario and Tara, are considering legal options but have not yet hired an attorney. Transferring to a private school is another possibility, but Davenport does not want to leave her classmates.
"We're still fighting to get her back on the court," Tara Davenport said. "Maori was born and raised in Troy. Going to another school would be hard. This is her graduating year."
Davenport, who turned 18 on Dec. 15, hasn't been in a festive mood since that meeting with her principal. The one-year suspension has been upheld twice on appeal, once by an AHSAA district board and then by its central board.
"I realize this is the reality," Davenport said softly. "But it hasn't gotten any easier."
She attends every Henderson game possible, sitting at the end of the bench, next to the trainers. She watches another Henderson player wear her No. 23 jersey, and that stings.
Davenport goes to practices, too, but she admits it feels pointless at times if she's not going to be allowed to play. Often, she quietly works on her moves and puts up shots, trying to keep her game sharp.
One bright spot has been the support Davenport has received from her community.
Nobody in authority has asked me anything.Maori Davenport
Tara Davenport said Troy mayor Jason Reeves called to say he was sorry. Maori said she's had long and "encouraging" conversations with the Rutgers coaching staff, and nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for Davenport's reinstatement.
In addition, hashtags such as "Free Maori" and "Let Maori Play" have popped up on social media.
Davenport said the support has helped her find the strength to get back to the gym.
"At first, it was hard just to pick up a ball again," Davenport said. "I never realized how many people stood behind me.
"When I got back to school, everyone was bombarding me with questions. I just wanted to go home, but my classmates said, 'Maori, that's messed up. You did the right thing. They should let you play.'"
Davenport said it was frustrating not being allowed to speak during any of the hearings. Principal Kelley, she said, did a good job of representing her position, but she would've welcomed the opportunity to tell her story directly to the AHSAA.
"Maybe if they asked me some questions, things would've changed," she said. "But nobody in authority has asked me anything."
"I want to thank Charles Henderson High School for its heart-felt presentation made to the Central Board," AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese said in a statement. "I also want to commend the Central Board for its commitment to upholding the AHSAA member-school by-laws in sometimes very difficult situations."
Difficult for no one more than Davenport, who is left to practice and pray.
"I never imagined I would be training a whole season without playing a game, but that seems like what's happening," she said. "It's been hard, but I still have hope. Maybe something good can come out of this. Maybe the rule gets changed. It may not help me, but I don't want this to happen to any other athlete."