When Maori Davenport received a check for $857.20 from USA Basketball, she didn’t think twice about what it was for. She figured it represented compensation for the money she would have made working had she not made the United States’ FIBA Under-18 women’s basketball team that won a gold medal in August.
So, she cashed the check and continued going about her business.
In November, USA Basketball discovered it had made an accounting error and notified officials at Davenport’s high school and officials at the Alabama High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for scholastic sport. USA Basketball’s intention was to make sure everyone understood the circumstances and realized its error.
As it turned out, that wasn’t enough. Classifying the check as an illegal payment, the high school association on Nov. 30 banned Davenport from playing her senior season. And that action has caused a national uproar.
USA Basketball routinely compensates players participating in summer programs as a thank you for sacrificing money they could have made working at jobs. But before it does, USA Basketball normally takes a precautionary first step – asking state high school federations if players are allowed to be compensated.
The problem was, no one from USA Basketball made a call on Davenport’s behalf, thinking she had no eligibility remaining. And the AHSAA had placed a $250 limit on such transactions.
Earlier this week, the Women’s Sports Foundation became the latest group of organizations and dignitaries to call for her reinstatement.
“We encourage the Alabama High School Athletic Association to exercise discretion in the case of Maori Davenport and reinstate her eligibility for 2019 basketball season. Universally, we believe it is the responsibility of the Women’s Sports Foundation and sports governing bodies to increase girls’ access to and participation in sport to reach equity at all levels,” wrote the WSF. “Adults in the sports community should strive to remove barriers to access for youth rather than create them, with the ultimate goal of closing the participation gap and helping every girl realize her power through the benefits of sports and physical activity.”
The WNBA, NBA star Chris Paul, Spalding sporting goods and others have added their voices to the call to end the banishment of Davenport, who will play for Rutgers next season. But to this point, the AHSAA hasn’t changed its mind.
“No young woman should have her future jeopardized because of an unintentional administrative mistake,” said Bethany Donaphin, head of WNBA league operations. “When we heard Maori’s story, we wanted the AHSAA to know that we disagree with its decision and to let Maori know we support her right to play.”
Davenport, a 6-foot-4 center from Charles Henderson High in Troy, Alabama, rated No. 15 in ESPN’s Top 100 players in the Class of 2019, told ESPNW how grateful she is to have received such overwhelming support.
“I’m not the type of person to get too excited, but I did think the support gives me a better chance to make a change,” Davenport said. “If the whole world — or most of the world — is behind you, that’s good.”
Davenport led Team USA in rebounding and blocks during the tournament — an annual showcase for the nation’s top players — and had already appeared in in the first five games of the season before receiving news of the AHSA’s decision.
“How is this even fair?? She shouldn’t pay for someone else’s mistake. This is CRAZY!!!!,” tweeted Paul, the Houston Rockets guard.
USA Basketball tried to rectify the situation by telling Davenport and the AHSAA it was a mistake. And Davenport returned the money. But the organization still enforced the one-year suspension.
The first thing Davenport did was call her grandfather, Moses. “He’s the toughest person I know. “He’s survived four heart attacks. He told me that God has a plan for me.”
In 2017-18. Henderson led her high school team to its first state title, averaging 18.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, 5.1 blocks and 1.7 assists. She won the state’s MVP, amassing 17 points, 13 rebounds, nine blocks and four steals in the championship game. At Rutgers, she will play for Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, whose 1,005 wins are fifth all-time.
USA Basketball told ESPNW that Henderson was one of three players compensated for time spent with the team. Notre Dame’s Anaya Peoples also repaid the money and had her eligibility reinstated. Aijha Blackwell, who will go to Missouri, is in the process of arranging repayment.
“In all my years with USA Basketball, we have never had this happen before,” said Craig Miller, a USA Basketball spokesman. “It was not a purposeful error. … But we didn’t realize [Davenport] had high school eligibility remaining, and it was absolutely our mistake. … [Davenport] represented her country well. By all measures from our coaching staff, she’s a great young lady.”
Beverly Kirk, Davenport’s AAU coach, also vouched for her.
“Everybody had their guard down,” said 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.”
Davenport’s parents are considering legal options and transferring to a private school has been discussed. Despite all of the apologies and financial restitution, the AHSAA has twice upheld its decision on appeal while not allowing the player to testify in her own behalf.
“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.”
Davenport is still allowed to attend games and sit on the team’s bench. And for some reason, a teammate has been given her No. 23 to wear.
“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.”
Alost 10,000 names are on a petition calling for Davenport’s reinstatement. Hastags #FreeMaori and #LetMaoriPlay have gathered steam on Twitter.
“At first, it was hard just to pick up a ball again,” said Davenport. “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.'”
Said Davenport: “I never imagined I would be training a whole season without playing a game, but that seems like what’s happening. 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.”