Men's Journal

This Series About a Tiny Kentucky High School Basketball Team is the Best New Documentary You Haven’t Seen

 Clay Cook

I have a confession. I never intended to watch all ten episodes of Us Against the World. I had already scheduled an interview with the main subject of the show, former University of Kentucky star and NBA player Rodrick Rhodes, so I planned to screen the first two or three 15-minute episodes and get just enough info to have a good conversation.

I started the pilot on a four-hour bus ride from New York City to Washington D.C. By episode three, I stopped taking notes, too engrossed in the storyline. By episode six I hoped for a little traffic in Baltimore so I could finish the series before pulling up to the station. I binged all ten in one sitting. It was absolutely worth it.

Released in September by Uproxx on Comcast’s streaming site, Watchable, the show reveals the controversy and racial tension surrounding the basketball program at the tiny Cordia School in Eastern Kentucky’s rural Appalachian Mountains.

MORE: 10 Must-See Adventure Documentaries

You can watch the trailer below:

Rhodes took over as head coach of the team in 2011, going from just six wins in his first year to a state championship in January of 2016. He accomplished this by attracting talented kids from New York City and other parts of the world (including Canada and a refugee from Mali). Local supporters from nearby schools criticized Rhodes for recruiting these kids, building a basketball factory with outsiders—most of them minorities with rough backgrounds.

In 2014, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association charged Rhodes and Cordia with a litany of violations, including falsifying records, allowing faculty to lease housing to an athlete’s family without receiving payment, and impermissible contact with students not enrolled in the school. Cordia appealed the sanctions, getting the penalties reduced.

Rhodes claims he never recruited players—that they came of their own volition. Part of the mission of the school, he says, is to expose students from other parts of the country to rural Appalachian living (the school has student housing on site). It also, he says, is meant to expose the local community to people with diverse backgrounds, a cause that the schools founder, Alice Slone, championed back in 1933.

For years, Rhodes says the team endured racists chants from opposing student sections as well as unfair accusations of cheating. In 2016, the school board elected not to renew Rhodes’ contract.

This is where the series begins, following Rhodes as he acts as a sort-of shadow coach and mentor to the team during the 2016-2017 season, despite not being able to hold practices or give instruction from the bench. This creates several surreal moments: at games he sits in the first row behind the bench, acting very much like a coach without actually being on the sideline. In one instance, he holds a secret practice to help snap a losing streak.

While the content is largely one-sided (the filmmakers led by director Trent Cooper were denied comment from the school board) and does gloss over the 2014 sanctions, it provides an emotional and riveting look at Rhodes’ mentorship and relationship with his players.

Sure, from the outside it may very well look like Rhodes built a recruiting shop. At the very least, the system he created is unusual for high school athletics. But the documentary asks: Does this matter? Especially if a coach is genuinely changing kids’ lives, providing them with mentorship and an education they never would have received otherwise?

That’s certainly the way Rhodes sees it. And after watching the entire series (it takes only about two-and-a-half hours, total) it is what he hopes you see, too. Now an assistant coach at a Division II school in Idaho, we spoke with Rhodes about how the documentary came to be and the reaction since its release.

What have the reactions been like so far, particularly with the local community near Cordia?

I think that it has been insightful. Even the people that didn’t agree, that didn’t see the big picture are saying, “Wow, we didn’t know these kids came from such harsh backgrounds.” I think a lot of people get that and understand it now. I think it will change some people’s minds.

How did the whole documentary come about?

Trent Cooper [the director] was researching for a 30 For 30 with ESPN about the “Mardis Gras Miracle” [a 1994 comeback victory by the University of Kentucky in which the team, including Rhodes, overcame a 31 point second-half deficit to beat LSU]. I was one of the people he was told to contact and he had heard that I had just won a state championship [in 2016]. He was like, “How does it feel to win a state championship.” I was like, “Um, it’s ok.” He seemed taken aback by the lack of excitement in my voice.

The call was literally like two or three days after the board decided not to renew my contract. I told him what had been going on the past five years. I was like, “I am sure you don’t want to hear more about that.” He told me he did, and that he wanted to fly down here to talk to some people.

During the season, you weren’t the coach but you were a constant presence. Did the school board give you any restrictions?

They told my assistant coach (Josh Hurt), who became the head coach, that I was not to be around the team. I don’t know how they can try to regulate that. I thought it was weird, especially for a guy who just had great success with the team—to totally cut me off like that? I thought it was odd.

What was Cordia’s pitch to get you to coach there in the first place?

They told me about saving kids’ lives. The whole mission was wanting to save kids’ lives and wanting to see diversity, bringing kids from all around the world to show them a different way of living.

When I heard that, it was something close to my heart. Because Coach Bob Hurley [Rhode’s high school coach in Jersey City, New Jersey] was a guy who took a lot of inner-city kids and tried to show them the Catholic lifestyle and a different way of life. That was something that got me intrigued and got my blood going when they told me this is what they wanted at Cordia.

When were the first instances of racism you and the team experienced?

To be honest, none until we started winning. When I first got down there it was a feel good story. I think I might have won, like, six games.

What do you mean by a feel good story?

I strongly believe we have done so much. Let’s not even talk about basketball. These people have never interacted with Hispanic kids, with African kids, with black kids. You have to remember this is an isolated area in Appalachia.

I know for a fact this one gentleman told me he was a racist. And he was one of the people we were able to change his heart. So that to me is the win—change the mindsets and the hearts of people.

What are you hoping viewers will take away from the show?

I got called, and was accused of, a lot of things
before people got a chance to see this doc: I
was a cheater, I was a recruiter, I was bad for high school basketball
. I
am the furthest away from any of these things. I want them to take away that
this wasn’t about basketball. That was the bait. If we were fishing, that was
the bait. It was about using basketball to change these kids’ lives and put
them on a different path. Until this doc came out people couldn’t see
what my heart was doing.

You can watch the entire series, for free, here.