Trent Cooper On The Challenges And Rewards Of Making ‘Us Against The World’

“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.

Of course.

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.

Do you have any particular inspirations for this documentary? Because I saw a little Friday Night Lights in the story.

Yeah, I really think this should be the inspiration for a scripted series that’s the next Friday Night Lights. I really feel like that. I mean, it’s incredibly current, it’s authentic, it’s happening not only in Kentucky — these kind of stories are happening all over the country. And, you know, there’s a political aspect to it, there’s a community aspect to it, and… what I love and what I think we all love is when a coach is able to reach kids that desperately need some sort of a mentor or guidance. There’s just nothing like it when that coach lights up a young kid that needs a father figure or needs a role model, it’s so cool to see it happen, especially when it’s real. So I never get tired of seeing those stories and I think it’s a series, I really do.

From a documentary standpoint, I think if there’s another season to be had. It might happen with a different school, in a different town, going through similar stuff. We might come back and visit these same kids again. That might be interesting. There are a lot of ways for this to evolve from a documentary standpoint, but I do think it would be a really exciting television series, based on this true story.

What’s the transition been like, for you, from features to documentaries? Would you say this is your passion?

Well, I started transitioning a couple of years ago. I had sort of started in sports docs. I’d done stuff for the Olympics, and I’d done stuff for ESPN early on before my feature career and I really missed it. It was my favorite stuff and I felt like I really wanted to get back into it. So about three or four years ago, I started doing documentaries for the NFL, and I’ve done several and I continue to do those. And in doing those, I kind of reconnected with this love of telling authentic stories about the human side of sports, and I also kind of stumbled into quite a few projects about coaches.

Again, I’m really kind of drawn to these guys that are able to really connect with and light up young, troubled kids and that’s why, when I kind of hit this one, it sort of felt like a lot of things had been leading up to this for me. So I think when I met Rhodes in person, I realized he was the real deal, that man. My bullshit meter is pretty good with this stuff, and having done so many projects with different coaches and so much stuff for the NFL and ESPN, I knew what I was looking for. I knew when I saw it, this guy’s the real thing.

I think the greatest compliment that I think I could pay him is that I wish he could coach my own son. I have a 15-year-old kid who’s a baller, and I wish that he could play for Rodrick Rhodes, because, you know, that’s the kind of guy you want coaching your kid.

And I knew when I saw it, I just knew it was the real thing. That’s why what was happening in this town — and all the sort of injustice that we were sensing was going on — it was just so tragic. This guy is such a gift, and for people to be fucking with him, it just felt really wrong. And I think that’s, again, what attracted us, the story. I want to say “us,” there’s always this nucleus of people that believed in this story and were happy to dive in and help.

Speaking of Rhodes and his coaching ability, did you ever find yourself getting pumped just by hearing his motivational speeches to the boys? Because he can give a speech with the best of them.

Yeah. I think that I found myself so badly wanting him to be able to coach those kids, because I was seeing… remember, I was there for all those months when he wasn’t able to help them in any way, so it was so frustrating that you’ve got this unbelievable resource right there and you can’t use it. You so badly wanted him to be able to help those kids and he would help in little ways, but you just wanted him to take over and he couldn’t. And then finally, he got back involved and it was like lightning in a bottle. It was like, literally, the day he got back involved, they went from a completely lost team with no direction that was getting blown out, to a team that could play with anybody in the state. He turned them around in one practice. And then it was just like, “Wow. How much can he do from this limited role where he’s doing these sort of secret practices that no one’s supposed to know about?” And, yeah, they go on this seven or eight-game winning streak. It was exciting.

It was unbelievable to see how potent he could be with such limited access, and again, it goes back to there’s a real it factor when it comes to him as a coach. He has that magic touch, the ability to kind of walk in a room and just change everything. So yeah, I was blown away by it. I really was.

You talk about the frustration of watching when he couldn’t coach when he’s right there. Did you feel like you and the crew were living that “us against the world” mentality that the kids at Cordia and in Lotts Creek were living?

We would joke about it all the time: Everything about that project was impossible. You’re there to tell a story about kids who are trying to play this game they love, and they’re trying to persevere despite not having their coach and despite all the things that were going on in their personal lives back home with their backs being against the wall for obvious reasons. And all you want to do is go film and tell that story, but everywhere you go, no one will let you film, and so we had access challenges everywhere. People wouldn’t take our calls, people wouldn’t let us into buildings, people wouldn’t let us shoot games we wanted to shoot. And usually, you know, I would spend my entire week fighting to get into the game and I would finally find somebody who would be cool and would let us do it.

Every bit of it was a struggle. It was never, ever fucking easy and that continued through the edit. I mean, it was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve touched in my 20-year career.

It was so hard to make this film. And part of it was access and timing and, again, we weren’t telling a historical story that, like, we’re just going out and getting some interviews. We were chasing a story that may or may not be interesting, so you’ve got the challenge of making an active documentary. Like, what if the season wasn’t interesting? What if they suck? What if nothing ever happens? What if Rhodes never got back involved? What if the kids just pissed away the season? What if we couldn’t get in and film the games we needed to film?

Or what if they were good that season without Rhodes?

Yeah. And then it’s like, well, he’s sort of irrelevant. There were a million ways that this could have not panned out creatively, and I think the process was incredibly difficult, but I feel like the basketball gods and the universe brought us a pretty awesome story. And we were constantly… every time we were sort of blown away [it was], like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe that just happened.” Even though it was really hard, I can’t believe that just happened.

Obviously, Rhodes is the most notable face in the documentary and the one who brings this all together, but how important was it to you to equally show the struggles of the boys?

I think it was critical and I didn’t know them — when I first came [and] fell in love with the project, I didn’t know anything about the kids. I was only really responding to what I believed was going on with the coach. So, I could have gotten to know these kids and been like, “Whoa, nothing here.” But it was the opposite.

We were pretty blown away by their stories and what they were going through. And I think, to me, what makes it interesting is, these kids aren’t five-star McDonald’s All-Americans that can go to any college that they want. These kids are struggling to find a way to play this game at the next level and get some kind of college scholarship, whether it’s Division I or Division III or small play, any way to keep the dream alive and to help them get out of those neighborhoods and find some sort of path to a better life.

It undermined every minute of every day, it is a massive struggle, and they’re completely ill-equipped to handle that struggle without Rhodes. So you were just constantly saying, “Oh my god, these kids need him so bad and for whatever reason, he’s been taken away from them.”

It would just make you angry, as a filmmaker. But, at the same time — and I want to make this really clear — every time we would go down there to shoot, we would be adamant about finding some way to find the other side of the story. So we were constantly beating down doors, “Tell me the other side of the story.” And you can’t believe the way they would clam up. It was like the whole state was on lockdown. Then we would finally find someone who would speak out and find one voice, then a second voice. So that was the other struggle because we didn’t want to go down there and just tell one side of the story, we wanted to tell both sides. We fought for that second side, and I think we ultimately found it, but it wasn’t easy. It was, again, part of the struggle.

But, yeah, the kids were interesting and they would break your heart and they would rock your world all at the same time. You know, I found myself really, really rooting for them — but as a filmmaker, you can’t help them. I can’t help them. I just have to observe, and I was observing some pretty great kids that were trying to make the most of a fucked up situation and I was inspired by them. I was really inspired that they came back, I was inspired that they stuck together. I saw them come together as a team, and then I saw them fucking blow it. I really struggled, man. I tried to keep up with them with texts and I want them all to go to college. That’s basically what you want. You just want them all to get that chance at a better life.

Can you provide some insight on how the few Kentucky natives on the team felt about the whole situation?

Yeah, they were super cool about it. There was zero racism within the team. In fact, I didn’t see any racism within the immediate community of Lotts Creek. I mean, that was also inspiring. In their little bubble of Lotts Creek, Kentucky, it was them against the world. It wasn’t five or six kids and their coach against the world; it was this community that had gotten behind those five or six kids that was against the communities outside their immediate area. And that’s why us — the us of Us Against the World — is bigger than just that little community. And that extends to the local kids on the Creek.

What was so cool about Rhodes and the integration of these five or six kids is people stopped seeing color for the first time, we believe, in that area’s history. The integration actually worked, and they became brothers and they love having each other in each other’s lives. That’s why when Rhodes’ contract didn’t get renewed, it disrupted all of that.
It felt like there was a lot of great progress and it just got disrupted. And so the kids from the Creek were incredibly supportive of the kids that had transferred in. They weren’t as good, and that wasn’t always the case: There were seasons prior where the team captain was a white kid who grew up on the Creek, and that was literally the state championship year, you know. The team captain was a white kid that was a local, so it wasn’t always the case. The year that we covered them, all the starters were transfer kids. But the guys coming off the bench were contributing. and they were cool and they were supportive of the African-American kids, and that was cool to watch.

You could see it in the locker room and see when they cheer and stuff, it’s genuine. They got along and continue to. I mean, many of them are best friends. I love seeing that too. I mean, to see a black kid and a white kid that are best friends despite all the shit that’s going on in the world and the area around them. For them not to be affected by it, is very cool.

All 10 episodes of Us Against The World are available to stream exclusively on Watchable and Uproxx.