It is often said that basketball is life in the state of Kentucky. Most of the time, that sentiment exists to describe the level of fandom that exists surrounding chief rivals in the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky, but there is an unmistakable fervor that exists for hoops at the high school level, as well.
Rodrick Rhodes has a keen understanding of both worlds, though not in an overwhelmingly positive light when it comes to his experience in the high school ranks. The now 43-year-old former professional basketball player appeared alongside the likes of Jamal Mashburn and Antoine Walker while wearing blue as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats in the 1990s. Rhodes played three years under Rick Pitino before transferring to USC and later joining the Houston Rockets as a 1997 First Round draft choice. Prior to that, he was a top-flight recruit from St. Anthony’s High School in New Jersey, where he was tutored by another full-fledged legend in Coach Bob Hurley.
Perhaps influenced by Hurley, Pitino, and former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjonovich (among others), Rhodes gravitated toward coaching after his playing career concluded. In 2011, after years spent as an assistant at the collegiate level, Rhodes was hired to take over a fledgling basketball program at Cordia School in Hazard, Kentucky. His impact was immediate with the Lions, but the team’s 7-16 record signaled that the rebuild would take some time. By his third campaign, however, Rhodes had led his team to a 20-win season. Cordia even captured the 2016 All “A” state championship, but then the bottom fell out.
After engineering a turnaround that would be the apple of any basketball coach’s eye, Rhodes’ contract with the Knotts County School District wasn’t renewed. Rhodes tells Uproxx that he was “shocked” and “in disbelief” when it happened, challenging the validity of the district’s claims about him. The story of what happened next is recounted in Us Against The World, a docuseries from Uproxx about Rhodes and the Cordia High basketball team, but we sat down with Rhodes to get an even deeper look at his story and the series.
Uproxx: What was your immediate reaction when you found out that the contract wouldn’t be renewed in Cordia? Specifically, with the language that came along with that news and the letter that was delivered to you?
Rhodes: I was shocked. I was shocked, I was in disbelief. It was a lie. It was a lie, so for me, yeah, I couldn’t believe it was happening. Yeah, I was just shocked. I’m still shocked, to this day. I was just shocked.
How would you describe your overall coaching philosophy and how does that coincide with your mission to mentor the kids that you had in Cordia and help them to grow?
Well first, it starts with a culture and the culture starts with love. We’re trying to teach the kids to love themselves. That’s the first thing in our program. To love yourself. The kids that we would get and that we got in the past are kids that came from broken homes, with dysfunctional backgrounds, rough neighborhoods, rough areas and their eyes have seen a lot of things that they probably shouldn’t have seen at their age. Our first objective is to teach them to love themselves.
How did playing for a legendary coach at the high school level in Bob Hurley shape the way that you think about the game and how you approach what you do as a coach?
Everything about my whole thought process — the way I see the game, my respect for the game, the way I handle kids on and off the court — I owe everything to coach Hurley. I’ve had the privilege to play for some extraordinary coaches. Three out of four of them are in the Hall of Fame. Rudy Tomjanovich, who was the coach for the Houston Rockets, Bob Hurley and Rick Pitino. And then I had another great coach, Henry Bibby at USC, who played for arguably the greatest coach of all time, coach (John) Wooden. I’ve been fortunate enough to play for some really good coaches, but everything and how I coach these kids and how I go about my life on and off the court, I contribute directly to Coach Hurley.
The mentor-like relationship that you have with the young men from Cordia appears tangible. Did you feel that in the moment when you were coaching them and leading them and after the fact? Did that change at all and were you just able to feel the way that you had an impact on those kids?
Oh absolutely, because I was those kids. I knew their story. I knew where they were coming from, I knew their mindset. I knew it was gonna be hard to knock down their wall and to get inside their hearts and their minds, because like I said, I was one of those kids, so I knew what it took in order to build trust and I knew it wasn’t gonna be something quick. It was gonna be a process, but I knew they were going to be able to feel that I was sincere, because I genuinely, genuinely care about their well-being, because once again, I was those kids. Coach Hurley did that for me and I’m just trying to pay it forward, so yeah, in the moment, I knew there was something magical happening, because there was definitely a bond and a relationship built out of love.
Maintaining a positive mentality through all of the injustices that worked against yourself and your team, that has to be difficult. How did you find the strength to get through?
I have my family. I have an unbelievable family. My wife was very supportive and the unity, the circle of people that was backing me and that continue to back me through the burden of bad times. They were unwavering in their support, so I had a very good support system with my family and then that circle, that core of people that never turned their back on me, so that was how I got through those difficult times.
The recruiting allegations seemed to be widespread and something that was sort of a theme throughout the tenure. What would your response be to that criticism and how much of that do you think was motivated by outside factors like race or jealousy?
This whole thing is based off of jealousy because of the kids we have at that school. You look at the kids we have, you would think that we were getting five-star players. All these McDonald’s All-Americans, all these phenomenal basketball players and that was the backdrop of what was going on at Cordia and me with these kids. That was the backdrop. We had kids who… once again, with the stories that some of these kids have told me — and I know them to be true, because I’ve seen these same stories growing up — I wouldn’t want my kids to see what I saw and what those kids saw, and I would do everything in my power to protect my kids from their eyes seeing some of the things that these kids have seen.
[Again], it was the backdrop of what we were trying to do and that was just build lives. Put these kids on the right path, you get them to love. A lot of these kids are hard, they hard, like you know what I would do with all the kids — I hug them. At the practice or before a game, I would hug the kids, and a lot of the kids would shy away of that, because they never got that from a man.
They thought that was weird that a man would try to hug them and then by the end of the process throughout the year, when I coached these kids, they were coming up to me, hugging me or smacking me in the back of the head or touching my head, which they know I hated… It was that process of just getting those kids to love themselves and if you can love yourself, you can love other people, so yeah basketball was just the backdrop of really what we were trying to do for those kids.
It had to be torture for you to watch the team full of your guys being coached by somebody else. How did that relationship between you and coach Josh Hurt also grow during that time? Were there any tense moments and how did you just handle that situation as a whole?
It was very tense. It was difficult, it was hard at times. Coach Hurt was put in a very, very tough situation, the Knott County Board of Education made it very clear to him that he was not to have contact with me. They did not want me in the practices, they didn’t want me to have any influence on the seating or what happened with the kids. He did his best. He did a good job of trying to do what the Knott County board wanted him to do, but also honor the kids, because the kids wanted me to be a part of what was going on. So, in fairness to coach Hurt, he was put in a very difficult situation and I think he did it best to try to balance the two worlds.
Is there anything else you would want to express with regard to your experience in Cordia and Us Against The World?
It’s not a basketball story. These kids come from rough neighborhoods, they got rough backgrounds, they come from rough families. In the program we tried to create a culture of accountability. That’s what we tried to do.
These kids did some stuff they shouldn’t have done, but the heart of our program was accountability and love.
A culture of love and accountability and basketball was just a backdrop and if people knew that, I think… I hope that’s what this documentary shows: that basketball was just a sidebar or a side note to what was really going on at Cordia. People got so angry and so mad, because we were winning games in basketball, they couldn’t see the big picture. To me, that’s what was unfortunate about this whole situation, but I’m hoping the documentary shows that. Like I said, these kids… And I say this not to down the kids, but to shine a light on the truth. These kids weren’t necessarily great basketball players.
We taught them discipline, we coached hard, we made them accountable. We teach them discipline, we wouldn’t allow them to… Everything you did, you were accountable for. Everything on the court and off the court and I wanna stress that. There was no superstar player. There were no guys that have been ranked in the top 50 players in the country. We didn’t have any of them. We weren’t like an Oak Hill Academy or Findlay (Prep), this was no great program with these superstar players coming through there. Basketball was the backdrop of what we really doing with those kids and I hope that people see this in this documentary, because that’s the truth of the matter.