Ex-Cat Rhodes feels at home coaching in tiny Cordia, Ky.

Former Cat feels right at home at small, Knott County school

mstory@herald-leader.comDecember 11, 2011 

CORDIA — Rodrick Rhodes grew up on an asphalt prairie in Jersey City, N.J.

So when the former Kentucky Wildcats and NBA forward shocked the commonwealth's basketball community last summer by taking a high school head-coaching job at tiny Cordia in Knott County, he was confounded by the twisting roads that wind up and down the Eastern Kentucky mountains.

"He got up here, he was afraid to drive," said Mitch Smith, Rhodes' assistant coach at Cordia. "Ask him."

Laughing, Rhodes pleads guilty as charged.

"I first got up here, the people drive up and down, they call them hollers, they drive 45, 50 miles per hour on mountain roads," Rhodes said. "I think it's insane, totally insane. I had never been on anything like this. I'm driving, maybe, 10, 15 miles per hour."

Eventually, the locals learned to make an allowance for the newcomer in their midst. "It got to the point, they wouldn't even blow their horn at me. They knew my car," Rhodes said. "They were like, 'It's Coach Rhodes. Just go around him.'"

If Rhodes, 38, had one dollar for each time he's been asked since June what he's doing in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky coaching high school basketball, he might have more money than he made in the three seasons he played in the NBA.

In a sense, Rhodes' basketball journey has been as winding and as up-and-down as the roads in and around Cordia.

After he left Jersey City as one of the most celebrated high school players in the country, Rhodes' playing career included college stops at UK — where he was basically waived after his junior season — and Southern California.

Next came NBA stints with Houston, Vancouver and Dallas. After the NBA chances dried up, Rhodes saw the world by playing pro hoops in Cyprus, Greece, the Philippines, France and Puerto Rico.

When he could no longer play, Rhodes could not imagine a life outside the game. He broke into college coaching. Among his jobs were working for his former Kentucky teammate Travis Ford at Massachusetts and as an assistant at Idaho State.

By last winter, Rhodes felt he was on the fast track to nowhere. He was on the staff at the University of Texas-Pan American. "If Kentucky is considered the penthouse of college basketball, I was in the outhouse," Rhodes said. "I literally felt my career was being stagnated there."

With his frustration mounting and no other college job on the horizon, Rhodes' older brother, Reggie, made an out-of-the-box suggestion:

Why not try high school basketball as a head coach?

"I was like, 'Reg, I just don't think I want to do that,'" Rodrick said. "I was like, 'I want to stay in college.' But the more I thought about it, I was kind of burnt out on college coaching. I just thought, why not try something different?"

Reggie Rhodes had another idea to pitch to his younger brother: Coming back to Kentucky.

"I told Rod, 'No one loves basketball the way the people in the Bluegrass do,'" Reggie Rhodes said. "They'll have a greater appreciation for what you are trying to do."

For Rodrick, coming back to Kentucky meant confronting old scars.

When Rodrick Rhodes signed a basketball scholarship with the University of Kentucky before the 1992-93 season, it was a coup for then-UK coach Rick Pitino. At the time, Rhodes and guard Jason Kidd were considered the two best players entering college basketball.

In his second game as a Wildcat, Rhodes dropped 27 points on Georgia Tech. It was all but a given that the 6-foot-6 small forward with the slashing playing style was destined to be an all-time Kentucky great.

Instead, Rhodes' UK time became the epitome of bittersweet.

He was a good player, scoring 1,209 points for the Wildcats in only three seasons. Yet he never quite lived up to expectations of greatness, perhaps most painfully to his own.

For all his success at UK, Rhodes is best remembered for a moment when things went wrong.

In the finals of the 1995 SEC Tournament, Kentucky and Arkansas were tied at 80 in the final seconds. Pitino called a last-second play that put the ball in the hands of Rhodes.

The forward got fouled. With 1.3 seconds left, Rhodes walked to the foul line with two free throws to win the SEC Tournament.

He missed the first, then missed the second.

While Kentucky rallied in overtime to pull out a 95-93 victory, Rhodes sat on the UK bench weeping.

By moving back to the commonwealth, Rhodes subjected himself to regular questioning about that tearful moment.

"People just say, 'Coach, we want to ask you something,'" Rhodes said. "It's always the same thing: 'What happened in that game against Arkansas where you missed those free throws?'"

Rhodes shakes his head, smiles ruefully.

"I always go, 'I missed them,'" he said. "I also go, 'I made a lot of free throws to win some games for Kentucky, too.' "

The next question people ask him is why the moment created such emotional distress for him.

"I saw myself as someone who was supposed to rise to those moments. It's who I believed I was. So I didn't know why I didn't make the two free throws," Rhodes said. "The computer chip in me, there was a major malfunction. We won the game and I'm crying."

That 1994-95 Kentucky season ended with a dispiriting loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. In a hyped matchup with Carolina star Jerry Stackhouse, Rhodes played poorly (shooting 2-for-10).

After that junior season, he entered his name in the NBA Draft. When it became apparent that he wouldn't be chosen, Rhodes took his name out of the draft. Yet rather than return to UK he transferred to USC.

The perception at the time was that Pitino had decided he wouldn't win a national title with Rhodes playing a leading role and forced the senior-to-be off the UK roster. Back then, Rhodes denied that.

Now, he acknowledges he wanted to stay at Kentucky for his final year.

"Oh yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely," he said. "I knew we were going to be a Final Four team. I knew that. And I knew it was going to be in the state of New Jersey."

Rhodes was sitting out as a redshirt at USC when Pitino and UK won the 1996 NCAA championship at The Meadowlands.

According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate, there are 16,963 residents of Knott County. Only 153 of them are, like Rhodes, black.

When Rhodes began to seriously ponder coaching at Cordia, he called his former UK teammate Jeff Sheppard, who lives in southeastern Kentucky, to ask a pointed question.

"I said, 'Shep, how is it?'" Rhodes said. "And, 'how is it for me?'"

Sheppard's reply was as simple as black and blue.

"I told Rod that when the people in Eastern Kentucky looked at him, they weren't going to see white or black," Sheppard said. "They were going to see him and see (Kentucky Wildcats) blue."

Says Rhodes: "He was right. The people have been great to me."

The Cordia School is one of the unique educational institutions in Kentucky. It was founded in 1933 by Alice H. Slone as a settlement school in a remote part of Knott County.

Slone's niece, Alice Whitaker, 72, serves as director of the school even now. With some 300 students (grades K-12), Cordia is a public school but also receives financial support from a private foundation that Whitaker runs.

What Cordia does not have is any recent history of significant basketball success. The Lions have not won a game in the 14th Region Tournament during the 21st century.

When Rhodes expressed interest in becoming the school's coach, Whitaker asked him the same question everyone else has since.

"I said, 'Why Cordia?'" she said. "And he said, 'Why not Cordia?'"

Rhodes has a big-vision dream for the small school. He sees Cordia possibly becoming the next Oak Hill Academy, the nationally famous Virginia prep school that routinely attracts some of the country's best basketball players to a remote locale.

That would require an injection of fund-raising to become a reality. In the short term, Rhodes would just like to make Cordia competitive locally.

He does not teach, but works in Cordia's after-school program.

With his girlfriend, Alexis Malpapeai, Rhodes lives in a house across the street from the Cordia gym that belongs to the school.

Sometimes, those who have known the brightest lights of a sport have trouble with the mundane realities when they try to work at a lower level.

On Monday night, after Cordia scored a 97-55 win over Jackson City, Rhodes, Malpapeai and Smith, the assistant coach, stayed until after 11 p.m. cleaning up the gym.

The players Rhodes is coaching are too young to remember him from his UK days.

"You hear about him, what he did," said Cordia senior Marcus Summer. "It's kind of exciting having a coach who played in the NBA. I know we're working harder than we've ever worked."

Interestingly, the guy from urban Jersey City seems to have been born for small-town life.

"We'll be in Wal-Mart, and he'll see somebody and I can hear him saying, 'OK, I met them four weeks ago,' and then he'll pull out the name," said Smith, the Cordia assistant coach. "He's been real down to earth."

By his mere presence, Rhodes — who brought three players with him from Texas who also are black — is helping give students at Cordia a more expansive educational experience than they had before, Whitaker said.

"He's brought some diversity to us," she said. "And we've had some black kids from here in the area come to our school that I don't think would have come if not for Rodrick. He's been here long enough that if there were down sides (to him), I'd be seeing them. And I haven't. He's been humble and hardworking."

Having a former Kentucky Wildcat and NBA player as coach has injected some electricity into Cordia basketball. When intracounty foe Knott County Central came to Cordia to play Thursday night, the gym doors were to open at 5 p.m.

Fans started lining up to get in around 3. Said Whitaker: "We'd never had anything like that before."

Alas, after a 2-0 start to the season, Cordia found that reality was visiting along with Knott Central. The Lions absorbed a 99-36 drubbing at the hands of one of the 14th Region favorites.

"Rodrick was upset, felt like he'd let our community down," said Cordia Principal Jonathan Mullins. "I told him, most of our kids had never played in an environment like that. We're not discouraged at all."

After months of being asked what he's doing at Cordia, Rhodes' answer is compelling.

"This will sound crazy to some people, but I read about the issues some of the kids up here face, some of the drug problems in this area, and they are the same (as) in Jersey City when I was growing up," Rhodes said. "You know, if I win here, I'm a miracle worker. But even if I don't, I just felt I could come here and try to impact lives the way people in Jersey City did for me."

At the end of those twisting Knott County roads, what Rodrick Rhodes seems to have found is purpose.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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