Charles Henderson girls basketball coach Dyneshia Jones was glad to see Maori Davenport’s smile back.
Declared ineligible by the Alabama High School Athletic Association in late November for violation of the state’s amateur rule, Davenport, Charles Henderson’s senior center, was back playing in a game environment Friday night after Pike County Circuit Court Judge Sonny Reagan granted an emergency motion that allowed her to resume play.
The 6-foot-4 Davenport, considered one of the top players in the nation and a Rutgers signee, scored 25 points and played into the fourth quarter of a 72-17 win for the Class 5A second-ranked Trojans over Carroll.
The game was played before a packed, standing-room only crowd at the Charles Henderson gym. It was Davenport’s first game appearance after missing 16 Trojan contests following the AHSAA ruling. She played in four games prior to the ruling, which was upheld by the AHSAA District 2 Board and its Central Board of Control in the AHSAA appeal process.
“The whole time I am watching her and that smile because I hadn’t seen that smile in awhile,” Jones said Saturday afternoon.
“It was great to have her back. It was like old times. The girls were excited and playing hard. It was just good to see that smile back on the court and the excitement she bought. The girls feed off it.”
Davenport’s parents, Tara and Mario, filed a civil lawsuit late Thursday night against the AHSAA and its executive director Steve Savarese, asking the court to review the facts surrounding their daughter’s case and restrain the AHSAA from stripping the star student athlete of her eligibility.
The AHSAA, through spokesperson Ron Ingram responded on Friday, saying, “We’re aware of the litigation and (are) in discussions to formulate an appropriate response.”
AHSAA attorney Jim Williams, in an email to al.com, said on Friday, “We received the Court’s ruling entering a temporary restraining order this morning. We will honor and follow the Order of the Court. At the same time, we believe that the ruling by the Central Board of Control was an appropriate interpretation of the rules adopted by the schools and was applied accordingly.”
Reagan’s temporary restraining order ruling, according to al.com, lasts only 10 days. The Davenports’ lawsuit asks for an expedited hearing, though no hearing date was set after Friday’s ruling by Reagan.
Both Jones and Charles Henderson principal Dr. Brock Kelley, when interviewed by the Dothan Eagle over the weekend, were not sure when the next step would be in the legal process of the case or how long the process might take.
The Davenports have retained the Carl Cole law firm of Decatur to handle their case.
“This is kind of out of our control,” Kelley said. “The school doesn’t have anything to do with it. We will answer questions when asked, but that is strictly the Davenports. The school has not filed anything.”
The AHSAA ruled Davenport ineligible for cashing a check of $857.20 in August from USA Basketball. Davenport played for USA Basketball in the summer in Mexico. The AHSAA ruled it violated the state’s amateur rule that prohibit athletes from accepting payment for loss of time or wages while participating in athletics as part of expenses and can’t accept any stipend higher than $250 . The penalty is a suspension for a year.
In Davenport’s case, it would end her high school basketball career as she is a current senior.
The Davenports claimed they didn’t know it violated a rule until told in late November and returned a check in the same amount to USA Basketball within 48 hours of being told of the rule.
USA Basketball took the blame for the mishap, saying it was a clerical error that a check got sent to a player who still had high school eligibility. The majority of the players were college players who are allowed under NCAA rules to accept the checks.
On Friday night, though, all that was on hold for Davenport.
“ It felt soooooo good to be back on the court last night,” tweeted out Davenport on Saturday morning.
Those at Charles Henderson felt the same way.
“We are excited to have her back,” Kelley said. “We are thrilled for that. For a student to go through so much adversity, to uphold her senior year, and then get the word she can come back and play, it was a special moment for her and for Charles Henderson High School.”
Playing at its home gym where signs of “Let Maori Play” and “We support Maori” were prevalent inside the gym and outside on the CHHS campus, the Trojans made Friday a memorable return for Davenport, who scored on the game’s first play, electrifying an already electric crowd.
“It wasn’t a designed play, but she (Niaira Jones) was trying to get it to her anyway,” Jones said.
Davenport, who had been practicing with the Trojans to keep in shape, showed she didn’t miss a beat. She scored 12 points in the opening quarter, six in the second quarter and seven in the third quarter. She started in the final quarter before coming out.
“I played her until she got tired because I wanted her to enjoy it,” said Jones, who took the other starters out in the third quarter. “You know she missed 16 games and I wanted her to be out there as long as she wanted to be out there. That was her moment.”
Friday’s game was played before a standing-room crowd, many of whom came to see and support Davenport.
“I think for a girl’s game, it was 75 percent more people there,” said Jones, noting she saw a lot of former players at the game that she hadn’t seen in awhile. “It was amazing.”
Jones said the night of emotion was “overwhelming” to her, but she tried to stay focused and zoned in on the game instead of what was going on the packed stands.
The crowd was so big that Kelley said he was “afraid that the fire marshal might shut us down. We had a ton of people, standing room only.”
It wasn’t just local people either. The case has drawn national attention through social media with tweets from ESPN’s Jay Bilas, NBA players Demarcus Cousins and Kobe Bryant and WNBA players as well college coaches such as South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Rutgers Vivian Stringer, who will coach Davenport next year. Pro tennis icon Billie Jean King also tweeted support for Davenport.
“We had a ton of media there,” Kelley said of the crowd, which also included the Davenports lawyers who came down from Decatur. “The students came out in support. I would say we had half of our student body there to come out and support Maori. Several of them gave her a standing ovation when she came out on the court.”
And they just didn’t sit there, said Kelley.
“That was the loudest I’ve heard the gym,” said Kelley, who is in his fourth year at the school. “A very energetic night.”
Jones said she thought Davenport held up well despite not having played a game in six weeks.
“I was surprised (at her endurance),” Jones said. “She has been doing a lot of things and working out, but game speed is different. It really did surprise me.”
The Trojans head coach said she didn’t say anything specific to her standout center before the game, saying she only talked to the team as a whole about focusing on the game, a Class 5A, Area 3 counter, and what it meant to possibly hosting the postseason area tournament.
“I had a talk with the girls because this was an area game and our goal is to host the area tournament, so we had to focus on that,” Jones said. “I talked to her like I talked to the rest of them. There was no one-on-one talk at all.”
Jones said he was thankful for the other support given to Davenport, locally in Pike County, at the state level and at the national level, but was especially thankful to Charles Henderson’s administration.
“I want to thank everybody involved, including our principal, Dr. Kelley, and our superintendent, Dr. (Lee) Hicks,” Jones said. “They have been on it the whole time. I haven’t had to do a lot except take care of my team.”
Charles Henderson, with Davenport in the lineup for now, is scheduled to play at Greenville on Tuesday night and at Carroll on Friday night before returning home on Jan. 22 against Pike County.