“You know they don’t take kind to all types of people coming into Eastern Kentucky.”
That was the warning a friend gave to Rodrick Rhodes when Rhodes decided to take a job coaching basketball at Cordia High School in Lotts Creek, KY. In the same breath, the friend figured Rhodes might actually have it easier, being seen instead of blue (the University of Kentucky color that he had worn when he played for the Wildcats in the ‘90s) instead of black. He perhaps didn’t expect that, in an area plagued with racism, Rhodes and Cordia High School would work together to not just make a winning basketball team but create a more diverse and accepting community in Lotts Creek.
The same friend also probably wouldn’t expect for Rhodes’ coaching contract not be renewed just four months after turning the Lions from the perennial losers that they were in 2012 to the All ‘A’ Classic champions that they became in 2016. Us Against The World is Uproxx’s documentary about both the issues that led to that decision and the aftermath.
Helming the documentary is director Trent Cooper, a filmmaker whose 20-year career includes an eclectic range of award-winning commercials, feature films, and documentaries. After spending the past year directing NFL Media’s The Conversation, a documentary on Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality, as well as the Emmy Award-winning docuseries All Or Nothing for Amazon, Cooper came together with Uproxx Studios to tell the story of a Rodrick Rhodes and a disenfranchised Eastern Kentucky high school basketball team in Us Against The World.
We spoke with Trent Cooper about the experience — and struggles — of chronicling this story.
How did Us Against The World all come about? What drew you to this particular story, to this world?
Well, this is sort of a long story but it’s sort of awesome at the same time. I was doing research for ESPN 30 For 30 that I was preparing for them. It’s based on the greatest comeback in college basketball history. They call it the Mardi Gras Miracle. And the Mardi Gras Miracle was the University of Kentucky versus LSU in the mid-90s, and I think LSU was winning by like 32 points with 8 minutes to go. And Kentucky comes all the way back and wins at the buzzer, and in doing the research for that, I was looking at, you know, the cast of characters on the team. There was this guy, Rodrick Rhodes, who had been one of the big, big names on that team. And I noticed that he was kind of in the doghouse with the coach for a minute and he had been benched for a time during that big comeback. But he got back in and made a big shot or two. And I was reading a little closer and it said that he now coaches high school basketball and he just won a state championship. So I’m like, “Oh, this guy sounds cool, I’ll give him a call.”
I call him up, and he tells me all about the Mardi Gras Miracle. He gives me a great interview, just like you and I are doing right now.
And then I ask him about this state championship that he had just won two months ago, and he just gets really quiet. I’m like, “This makes no sense. Who wouldn’t want to talk about their [accomplishment]? Like, this is so fun to talk about, who wouldn’t want to talk about this stuff?” And I finally pull it out of him: He’d just been fired a couple of days prior to this and he starts to tell me about the circumstances that had led to that.
It was hard for him to talk about it because the wound was so fresh. But I just kept asking and pulling questions out, and my mouth was kind of dropping as I couldn’t believe what a story this was. I can’t believe that this kind of shit happens still today. And it just felt like such an unbelievable injustice, but I wasn’t sure yet. and I wanted to go down there and really meet him in person and see what was really going on and see if there was really a story. So immediately I stop — I kind of moved off the Mardi Gras Miracle — and I started thinking this was a bigger and better project.
I went down there with some cameras, and we shot for a couple of days. We interviewed a lot of people and found that, yeah, it’s an incredible story of this guy who had come to town with this unbelievable pedigree and resume and in many ways [he] had changed the world. He had lit up this very depressed community that seemed to be desperate for any kind of hope. This is a community that had been decimated by the loss of coal. So many of them are unemployed, the school is struggling, the team hadn’t been good in a long time, and he just kind of came in and breathed life into this community.
The fact that they had won the state championship and suddenly his contract isn’t renewed, I’m like, “This is just crazy.”
So the more people we talked to, the more layers of the story were revealed, and I think what was most amazing and really made us all want to jump in is that, even though his contract didn’t get renewed, he didn’t leave. And his commitment to these kids that had come all this way and had trusted him with their futures was so strong. Even though he wasn’t employed, he was going to stay and see this through. Because he had made promises to them, made promises to their parents. He wanted to make sure that these kids were going to have a chance at a better life. And the other thing that was fucking awesome was the kids came back. Because they didn’t have to come back. Their coach wasn’t there anymore and they were in a world that didn’t want them there, and everyone basically said, “Fuck it. We’re coming back. It doesn’t matter that you don’t want us here. We’re not going anywhere.” I thought, “Well, we need to come back here. We’re going to see how this turns out.”
How long did it take you to put all of this together?
My first conversation with Rhodes, I think, was in July of 2016. But my first shoot was literally a year ago, I think, [August 23]. So from the time we first started shooting and then, you know, we came home and we cut together a little sizzle reel and got Uproxx involved, and that took a couple of months to kind of get on top of it. And then, yeah, we were in a race against the clock because we knew this was an awesome project, but the season was going to start whether we were ready or not.
We had people that believed in us and believed in the project as much as we did. Thank God for Uproxx, because they basically stepped up, like, literally two days before the season started and said, “We love this and we want to help you get this thing made.”
The season started and we started shooting. We worked through the season. From the time we started shooting to the time we buttoned it all up, it was a very long, hard year of our lives.