Maori's moment: The inside story of a star player's triumphant return

After winning scores of supporters across the nation, Maori Davenport scored 25 points in her first game back. Nicole Craine for ESPN

TROY, Ala. -- As the school day winds down, with tipoff rapidly approaching, reality sinks in for Maori Davenport.

She doesn't have her basketball shoes. Or her ankle brace. Or her warm-up jersey. Davenport didn't think she had any chance of playing when she woke up, so she hadn't packed her bag for game day.

But now she needs all those things. It's a good problem, but a problem all the same. She texts her mom, Tara, in desperation. But Tara, herself in a daze after everything that has happened in recent days, can't find any of the things her daughter needs. She goes through Maori's bedroom in a frenzy, but has no luck. So she drives to Charles Henderson High School, a place she has spent much of her time lately, and picks up Maori.

They drive back home, past Troy University, through the newly developed part of town and onto the leafy streets lining the way to their home. Ariana Grande's "God Is A Woman" plays on the car radio. Maori likes the singer, but both she and Tara feel like the song's lyrics are a little absurd. As Maori runs into the house, three stray cats greet her on the porch, but there's no time to play. Seconds later, she emerges with a bag in hand. Everything had already been put in the living room. It was the only place Tara hadn't looked.

On the drive back to school, breathing a little easier with her gear, Maori takes in the scenery. She's amazed at what she has overlooked. As their SUV rounds South George Wallace Drive, named after the former Alabama governor who famously said "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" in his 1963 inauguration speech, the 18-year-old star basketball player sees dozens, if not hundreds, of "We Support Maori" signs in the yards of homes and businesses.

"Stop the car," she says.

Her mom stops. Maori hops out and pulls a sign out of the ground. "I think they'll be OK with me taking one of these," she says with a big grin.

It had been a long time since Maori could smile like that.

After weeks of agony, confusion and the intense glare of the national spotlight, Maori Davenport received word she could play basketball again. It was Friday morning, and she didn't even know where to go or who to see as she walked around the Henderson High campus in a celebratory haze. The news traveled fast to her classmates and teachers, and, with a 6-foot-4 frame that made her hard to miss, she could barely make it five feet without an emotional bear hug or a "Welcome back, Maori!"

Turns out she didn't actually need her warm-up jersey for the game that evening because everyone in the building, including her teammates, would be given shirts with her No. 23 on them to commemorate the occasion. The players would wear them pregame.

The mood at school was far different than it had been on Nov. 30, the day Maori was called into principal Brock Kelley's office. When she walked through the door, she saw Kelley and her coach, Dyneshia Jones, with serious looks on their faces. Having played for Jones since seventh grade, and not exactly the type of student typically summoned to the principal's office, she knew something was wrong.

She was just four games into her senior season. Having already proved to be among the nation's best in the class of 2019 (she is ranked No. 15 in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100) and having signed with Rutgers University two weeks earlier, Maori was looking forward to one final season with her high school teammates and hoped to lead the Trojans to a state championship repeat. She was coming back with a newfound confidence after a successful stint with USA Basketball's U18 squad over the summer. One of three high school players on the roster, she had been named to the all-tournament team of the FIBA Americas U18 Championship and helped carry her country to the title.

But in the principal's office, Kelley told her the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) had ruled her ineligible for the season. The reason? She had deposited an $857.20 stipend check USA Basketball had sent her. In the past, for players with high school eligibility remaining, the organization verified with state athletic associations the maximum amount allowed for a student-athlete, but USA Basketball acknowledged that it failed to do so this time. Alabama's limit is $250.

When USA Basketball realized its error, Ohemaa Nyanin, the former women's national team assistant director (she is no longer with the organization), reached out to the high school. Maori immediately sent the money back, in the form of a check, but the AHSAA cited its amateurism rules and suspended her anyway.

Maori was devastated. Kelley and Jones told Maori they would appeal. This would be resolved, they promised her, hoping that they would be right. Maori left the office and went back to class, stunned. There were more than a few tears that day. Emotions hit her in waves. Unsure of what else to do, she went to the team's game later that afternoon. Her teammates were distraught but supportive as she sat on the end of the bench cheering them on.

She hoped the decision would be reversed, but two weeks and two lost appeals later, she felt less optimistic. Troy mayor Jason Reeves reached out to see what he could do, and more than 10,000 people signed a Change.org petition encouraging her reinstatement. But there was no movement. AHSAA director Steve Savarese was steadfast in its decision.

Maori's 18th birthday came and went. So did Christmas. And New Year's. She briefly considered transferring to a private school, but she wanted to graduate with her friends.

Local news outlets had covered her suspension from the start, but the real whirlwind began when the national news got word of what happened. From there the support started pouring in -- Kobe Bryant, Billie Jean King, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, the WNBA. ESPN's Jay Bilas voiced his criticism of the suspension during an Alabama-Kentucky men's basketball game. Maori and Tara even appeared on "Good Morning America."

While grateful for the public outcry, it has been an exhausting journey for the entire family. Tara acknowledges she hasn't slept much lately and has needed to take several days off from her job as a fifth-grade teacher at Troy Elementary School.

"It's been very, very challenging for us," Tara says. "Trying to keep her life as normal as possible, while we go through what we're going through, it's been tough. She has her academics that she has to continue to do and other things that are important as well."

When Davenport isn't practicing or playing basketball with her high school team, she's playing with her All-Alabama AAU team or at the town's rec center. Nearly every Sunday afternoon, she and her 14-year-old brother, Mario, go there after church to play in pickup games. Maori is usually the only girl, but she feels like it makes her a better player.

They are almost always the last ones at the center and stay until it closes at 6 p.m. Sometimes, though, the facility manager lets them keep playing a little longer. It's Maori, after all.

Maori is reserved and so soft-spoken that sometimes it's hard to hear her. She shies away from extra attention. She picked Rutgers because she felt the school didn't put on a show for her or do anything special during her recruiting trip.

"It was just a normal day," she says. "I liked that."

"Some of my friends will be like 'Oh, you're famous famous.' But I'm just like, 'Girl, whatever. I'm just the same Maori.'" Maori Davenport

At first, she didn't mind the attention after news of her suspension made the local rounds. People she knew would stop her and offer support and prayers, and then she would talk to them about whatever they usually talked about.

Troy, about an hour south of Montgomery, is a town of about 19,000 people with a nearly balanced population of black and white residents. With a downtown area spanning a few blocks, the newly developed section with the strip-mall staples and seemingly more churches than storefronts, it feels like many small towns in the South. While "Roll Tide" and "War Eagle" ring true, as with most of the state, Troy is visibly most proud of the Trojans -- the team nickname both the university and high school share. The water towers spotted around town proudly boast their logo and "Home of the Trojans."

"The first thing I would say about Troy is it's definitely small," Maori says. "Everybody really knows everybody. But I like that, especially lately."

Her voice trails off.

She loves the familiar faces and places of her hometown, and is comfortable with her routine. She says most people she encounters in basketball circles have never heard of Troy, and she wants to change that. Her unassuming demeanor should not be mistaken for ambivalence -- she wants to put her town on the map, one bucket, block and rebound at a time.

The WNBA is her dream (Candace Parker is her role model), and she wouldn't be the first Troy native to make it to the big leagues. MLB relief pitcher Brian Meadows, NFL defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and NFL linebacker Art Stringer, all long since retired, are from the town, but the list pretty much ends there. Country rockers Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr. both own properties on the outskirts of town, and even filmed their 2013 video for "Redneck Paradise" around Troy. But, believe it or not, that doesn't exactly make it feel like a hotbed for celebrities or famous athletes.

Still, it's home for Maori. And she has never appreciated it more.

Forty-three days after she learned of her suspension, Maori was back in Kelley's office. This time, she arrived to the gleeful faces of her principal and coach. No one can remember who actually told Maori the news, but it really didn't matter. She could play again.

Tara and Mario Davenport Sr., her ex-husband and Maori's dad, had filed a lawsuit against the AHSAA the day before, and that morning Circuit Court Judge Sonny Reagan granted an emergency motion allowing Maori to be reinstated. While it was just a temporary victory, at that moment, no one in Kelly's office cared.

Maori turned to the group: "It's show time."

Kelley summoned the rest of the basketball team into his office. Everyone in the administrative office cheered as Maori announced her return. She grabbed her backpack and headed over to the school's training center.

"She walked in here and said, 'I need a game-day workout,'" says Tyler Eady, the school's strength and conditioning coach. "I almost teared up. I'm so happy for her. I don't know anyone that could have handled this situation better than her.

"She hates attention, but she's handled this with nothing but grace and maturity. She's an amazing basketball player, but I think I'm just most proud of how she's handled everything."

She tried to stick to her routine as much as possible, but it was hard to ignore everyone's excited stares and encouraging words, not to mention a reporter and photographer following her around. A dedicated student who is in honors and advanced placement classes, she decided it would be OK to be late for AP Bio this one time just so she could tell her best friend in the cafeteria. Her teacher was more than understanding when she finally showed up.

Fans began to trickle into the gym during the boys junior varsity game. Each was handed a white T-shirt with an orange "23." Other supporters were handing out "We [heart] MD" signs. Camera crews and reporters hastily made their way in and jostled for electrical outlets and what was available of the spectator spots on the baseline.

The video board at the school's main entrance boasted proudly: "Maori's Back!!!"

While Maori readied herself in the locker room with her team, Tara made her way around the gym greeting friends and family members and thanking other parents for their encouragement. Mario Sr. arrived and did the same. (Maori's brother, Mario Jr., had his own game, so he was not in attendance.) Carl Cole, the family attorney, made the three-hour drive from Decatur with his 8-year-old son, who had encouraged him to take the case. They both wanted to see her return in person.

The team took the court for a brief warm-up during halftime of the boys JV game, and the crowd chanted, "Let her play!" as she began to stretch. When the game concluded, cheerleaders wearing "23" shirts lined up by the balloon archway in the corner. One member of the squad ran around looking to see if anyone knew how to use the smoke machine. They had never used it before, but felt like this was the perfect occasion. A DJ played music, further hyping up the crowd. Finally, the music silenced, and one by one, the players ran onto the court, with Maori at the end. Screams reverberated off the gym's ceiling. Tara stood in the corner of the bleachers, with a smile that wouldn't fade.

When the starting lineups were announced, Maori once again was last. Her team coordinated a paparazzi-style display after she high-fived a teammate at the end of the line and she playfully -- but boldly -- flexed her muscles for the fake cameras (and the real ones). Her shy demeanor melted away and a confident, self-assured baller was there in her place.

It took 19 seconds for Maori to score. From then, it was a dazzling display of shooting, rebounding, blocks and assists. Towering over much of her opposition, and with her braids bouncing triumphantly on her back as she ran back and forth down the court, it was clear she was in her element.

"It just felt like I belonged there," she said after the game. "It's like I left a place and I came back right where I belonged."

Charles Henderson took a 43-5 lead over Carroll High into halftime. Maori had 18 of those points and played every minute. She was subbed out in the third quarter and played sparingly in the second half. Charles Henderson won 72-17.

As the buzzer sounded, Maori was bombarded with hugs from her teammates. She took it in for a moment, then turned and walked to the corner of the gym and cheered on the boys varsity players as they ran onto the court for their game.

The word from the scorer's table was that Maori finished with 25 points and too many rebounds, assists and blocks to count. A video of the game would have to be reviewed later.

Flocked by reporters and cameras in the locker room, she fielded questions as her teammates looked on. While she said her performance was "OK," she was astounded by the love she felt from everyone in the gym.

"I knew the city was behind me, but they really showed up and showed out today," she says. "[The signs] were the coolest thing ever. I never imagined signs for me.

"I will never let myself forget this day. I will tell my grandkids one day about this and the night Grandma scored 25 points and had a few rebounds."

She looks at her mom.

"I feel the same way," Tara says. "I'll never forget this day. We have had so much support from this city, it is just amazing. That has made this journey so much easier to conquer."

Some 36 hours after her magical night, Maori sits in her church best with her mom, brother and some family friends at a local Southern buffet-style eatery called Sisters. They often come here after services at Troy Church, a non-denominational Christian church that meets in a ballroom at Troy University.

If it weren't for the line out the door, it would feel more like someone's home than a restaurant. As Maori samples the down-home cooking -- chicken, potatoes, banana pudding -- she is approached by patrons black and white, old and young, friends and casual acquaintances. All have a congratulatory message to share or tell her she has been in their prayers.

An employee runs over and says, "You're the basketball player everyone has been talking about!" Maori smiles sheepishly, thanks her for her support and takes her plate back to the table. She is mostly quiet as she eats and sips her sweet tea, save for the moments when she exchanges funny faces with the toddler sitting next to her.

People continue to stare, but she doesn't seem to notice. A woman approaches with her young daughter, who appears too starstruck to speak. "She had a game yesterday," the woman tells Maori. "She said you were her inspiration, and I told her to pray about it, and then they won the game!"

A while later, as Maori prepares to leave, the young girl asks if she can take a picture with her. Maori looks uncomfortable but doesn't hesitate to oblige.

"I'm still not really used to the spotlight," she says as she gets back into her mom's car. "I'm just used to people being like, 'OK, she can play basketball and she's really good.' But I have never been in any other kind of spotlight, definitely not anything that was nationwide before. I know my name is pretty far out there right now, so I guess I should expect people I don't know to approach me, but it's still a little weird.

"Some of my friends will be like, 'Oh, you're famous famous.' But I'm just like, 'Girl, whatever. I'm just the same Maori.'"

Maori says she hopes everything goes back to normal soon. Judge Reagan's motion provided a 10-day restraining order, which allows her to play for now. At the Jan. 22 hearing, the sides will present their cases and Reagan will either keep the restraining order in place, thus allowing Maori to play for the remainder of the season, or remove it and restore the suspension.

Tara wants her old routine back, too. She has lesson plans to make. It's the first time in her 18 years of teaching that she has felt unprepared, and she is determined to rectify that. Mario just wants everyone to stop asking him questions about his sister.

This Sunday afternoon, Maori needs to go home and study, but she'll get to that later. She's off to the rec center for an afternoon of pickup games with the boys. Just like always.