Maori Davenport returns to the court after judge’s ruling

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The Alabama high school basketball star who lost her eligibility because of a mistake made by USA Basketball returned to the court Friday night for the first time since Nov. 29 after a ruling by an Alabama circuit court earlier in the day.

Pike County Circuit Judge Sonny Reagan on Friday morning granted an emergency motion filed by Maori Davenport’s parents, allowing the 18-year-old to play in Charles Henderson High’s game Friday night. The Rutgers signee, one of the top-ranked seniors in the country, was allowed to return to action immediately, pending a hearing before Reagan.

Charles Henderson, based in Troy, Ala., beat Carroll, 72-17, on Friday. Davenport scored 25 points, including 18 in the first half.

As the case attracted national attention and support from the likes of Kobe Bryant and Billie Jean King, Davenport’s parents filed a civil suit Thursday against the Alabama High School Athletic Association and its executive director, Steve Savarese, seeking the reinstatement of their daughter’s playing eligibility.

“I am just so happy because she is able to get back on to the court, her happy place,” Davenport’s mother, Tara, said in a phone interview Friday. “Just to see her face, to know she will be able to play tonight, in a real game, live, it’s just so exciting as a mother just seeing your child as happy as she is.”

Davenport had been sidelined since late November because of a disputed eligibility ruling stemming from a mistaken payment by USA Basketball.

AHSAA and Savarese ruled the 18-year-old ineligible because she received and cashed a check worth $857.20 from USA Basketball for “lost wages” in the summer while helping lead Team USA to a gold medal in the FIBA Americas Under-18 championship in Mexico City. USA Basketball has held itself accountable for its self-described “clerical error.”

In the lawsuit, Davenport’s parents asked the court to rule “that any ruling by Savarese and/or the AHSAA” that their daughter “is or may be ineligible to participate in the sport of basketball for the 2018-19 season is invalid” and for an order declaring Davenport eligible.

The suit also requested an expedited hearing “due to the fact that the season is finite and that postseason play in the sport of basketball begins in February of this year.” Postseason play begins Feb. 2 and concludes with the state championship tournament that runs from Feb. 25 to March 2.

The AHSAA says Davenport violated Alabama’s amateurism rules when she deposited the check in August. Davenport and her family have said they were unaware that by cashing the check — which USA Basketball offers to all of its players as a stipend for lost wages and to recover costs associated with competing on the team — she violated AHSAA bylaws and rules until three months later, when USA Basketball contacted her. Davenport then immediately repaid USA Basketball. The payments are permitted by the NCAA and some state athletic organizations.

However, the AHSAA and Savarese ruled that she was in fact still ineligible and have twice upheld that ruling on appeal. Despite a national outcry, the AHSAA doubled down on its decision Monday, reiterating that based on AHSAA bylaws and rules no further action can be taken by the state association. Troy Mayor Jason Reeves spoke up against the ruling at a Tuesday city council meeting.

AHSAA director of communications Ron Ingram referred questions Friday to the association’s lawyer, saying in a statement the matter “is now pending litigation.”

In a tweet Friday morning, Davenport laid out a simple request: “At this point all I want to do is play basketball. Nothing more nothing less.”

“The rule that Maori was disqualified under is not only arbitrary in its application to Maori, but arbitrary on its face,” the lawsuit argued. “It allows for no distinction for an innocent mistake. … It further allows only one punishment, whether the dollar amount involved is millions of dollars or $250, a player is disqualified for a year, and if the defendants’ public pronouncement are to be believed, there is no ability to make a distinction.”

The lawsuit also argued that the “Alabama Supreme Court has long held that a Circuit Court may overrule the decisions of the AHSAA ‘if the acts of the association are the result of fraud, lack of jurisdiction, collusion or arbitrariness’ and in those cases, ‘the courts will intervene to protect an injured parties’ rights.’ ”

Charles Henderson Principal Brock Kelley said Friday that neither the school nor the district was part of the lawsuit filed by Davenport’s parents, but the school remained in support of Maori and wanted to see her back on the court.

ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas was one of the first national figures to criticize the AHSAA ruling, in multiple tweets following a widely shared article on Davenport’s case on espnW. Since then, the case has gained national attention, with some of the sport’s biggest brands and stars weighing in.

“This #MaoriDavenport situation is just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in youth basketball,” Bryant wrote in a tweet Thursday. “Let her play!”

King, a tennis icon, also backed Davenport’s cause, writing in a tweet Thursday: “This is maddening. To force Maori Davenport to miss her senior year of high school basketball because of a mistake that wasn’t even her fault is nonsensical. Do the right thing, @AHSAA_hoops, and let her play.”

The WNBA, Spalding and several current and past WNBA and NBA players also spoke out in support of Davenport.

Read more:

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