Making a half-court shot during a promotion at an Oklahoma City Thunder game might be easier for 23-year-old Cameron Rodriguez than keeping the $20,000 prize.
Rodriguez, a basketball player at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, made the shot Nov. 18 during halftime of the National Basketball Association team’s game against the Denver Nuggets. Now he and his school are asking the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for a rules exception that would allow him to use the money as a scholarship to help pay his tuition.
“I didn’t really think about it at first because I was way too excited,” Rodriguez said in a telephone interview. “After things settled down, I realized we might have an issue because I was receiving a large amount of money.”
Rodriguez knocked over the Thunder mascot during his celebration after becoming the fourth person since February to hit the team’s half-court shot, sponsored at every home game by Oklahoma City-based MidFirst Bank. On Nov. 22, 33-year-old teacher Brad Brucker became the fifth, and the second in as many games.
“We might go broke after these guys,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant joked to reporters afterward, according to ESPN.
The NAIA student guide says athletes cannot use their sports ability or fame for financial reward. John Leavens, the executive director of the NAIA Eligibility Center, said rulings on these cases typically take one to two weeks.
“It would certainly hurt his cause if he had tried to circumvent the rules,” Leavens said in a telephone interview. “The fact that he connected with the right officials to make sure that he understood the proper application of the rule is something that we expect, and we’re glad to see.”
Every one of Southwestern College’s 1,700 students receives financial aid through institutional grants to help with the $23,000 annual tuition, according to Brenda Hicks, the school’s director of financial aid. Rodriguez, who is on a $4,000 athletic scholarship, said he pays roughly $33,000 per year when he adds room, board, books and other fees.
If the NAIA says he can’t use the money as a scholarship, Rodriguez said, MidFirst Bank offered to donate it to a charity in his name. Rodriguez said he probably would choose between a non-profit set up to help the Southwestern basketball program, or a group through the Thunder’s work with local children -- “a thank you for the opportunity and the experience,” he said.
Rodriguez would have lost eligibility for at least a full academic year had he pocketed the money, according to Ed Loeb, a Southwestern math professor and faculty athlete representative. There would be no conflict if Rodriguez won the money in a non-basketball promotion, such as a long golf putt, Loeb said.
The request for a rules exception will go first to the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference, then to the Kansas City, Missouri-based NAIA, according to Leavens.
Established in 1937, the NAIA governs 13 sports in college athletic programs that aren’t affiliated with the larger National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NAIA covers 60,000 athletes at almost 275 member schools.
NCAA regulations also say that athletes aren’t eligible if they use their athletic skills for pay in their sport of focus. The bylaws make an exception for prizes from promotions where contestants are chosen at random, as Rodriguez was, NCAA spokeswoman Emily James said yesterday in an e-mail.
NBA teams or sponsors often buy insurance to cover payoffs on promotions such as half-court shots. MidFirst Bank said it skips the insurance and pays the $20,000 itself each time the shot is made.
That’s good news for Rodriguez, because the standard contract from promotion companies bars professional and college players, and anyone fewer than five years removed from a high school team from participation, according to Chris Hamman, vice president at SCA Promotions. The Dallas-based company assumes the risk on shot promotions for NBA teams, including the Dallas Mavericks.
“The theme of these promotions is that an average guy has a chance to win a large prize, not someone who’s trained and highly skilled at the sport,” Hamman said in a telephone interview.
Not all NBA teams feature a half-court promotion at every game. The Brooklyn Nets, for example, will give fans a shot for $10,000 at 10 home games this season. The promotion is sponsored by closely held Speck Products, which designs cases for electronic devices.
Thunder employees seek people in the stands who appear capable of making the half-court shot, according to team spokesman Dan Mahoney. He said basketball experience wouldn’t make a fan ineligible to participate.
“We think that for the integrity of the promotion and for our fans, we always want to have someone that has a reasonable chance to make it,” Mahoney said in a telephone interview. “That’s a lot of people in our building. It’s a random selection process before the game.”
The shot’s sponsor since 2008, MidFirst said in a statement that it considers the promotion an “integral part of the Thunder game experience” and had no plans to drop its involvement. G. Jeffrey Records Jr., the bank’s chief executive officer, owns a stake in the Thunder.
Oklahoma City has held the promotion at all 231 home games since 2008, including playoff contests, Mahoney said. After no one hit the shot in the first 90 games, eight have since converted their attempts.
Mahoney said that had the team known Rodriguez was a scholarship basketball player, he probably wouldn’t have been picked because of the eligibility issues.
A 6-foot-6, 210-pound sophomore from Elk City, Oklahoma, Rodriguez said he hadn’t attempted a half-court shot since high school before he swished the shot at Chesapeake Energy Arena. He said his teammates have been replicating the attempt in practice for the past week.
“Shooting clutch free throws at the end of a game is hard to beat, but that’s the first time I’ve ever had almost 20,000 sets of eyes on me,” Rodriguez said. “In an NBA arena, it’s something else.”