Stand outside the Southeast corner of Thomas M. Cooley High School on a winter afternoon, when the setting sun paints the old brown bricks a light yellow, and you can hear the squeak of gym shoes on a hardwood floor. Go inside and climb the stairs toward the landing on the second floor, and you begin to hear the rhythmic thump of basketballs, the slapping of hands, the shouts. And then, gusting out the gym door, comes that drill sergeant's voice.
This is an article from the March 5, 1990 issue
"DEE-fense! You're not picking up your man. You're just standing around.... Loose ball, pick it up!"
Ben Kelso—the voice behind the door, the man behind the voice—is there in his black Reebok jogging suit, holding his clipboard like a scepter as he exhorts and teaches, implores and scolds: "No! No! You're standing straight up and he dribbles right around you. Crouch! Get down where the ball is! Deny the pass in. Force the lob and pick it off!"
It is early January at Cooley High, in northwestern Detroit, and 15 members of the school's varsity basketball team are working a half-court pressing drill under the basket at one end of the aging gym. They stop only to listen to Kelso, hanging on his every word and gesture as if he were a prophet of hoops dispensing truths about the game. To be sure, over the last three years of his career as Cooley's basketball coach, Kelso has come to be viewed as the prep game's most eminent guru in Michigan and one of the leading high school coaches in the nation. Kelso's teams at Cooley have won the state basketball championship the last three years running, and at the close of the 1988-89 season, the National High School Coaches Association named Kelso its Coach of the Year.
In the world of Detroit inner-city high school basketball, where so many teams simply run and gun, Kelso's players are something of an anomaly. Well schooled and stringently disciplined at both ends of the floor, the Cardinals play with an organized tenacity, particularly on defense, that helps them win even with inferior talent. "Two of three times he won the championship, Kelso did not have the best team in the state," says Mick McCabe, a veteran writer about high school sports for the Detroit Free Press. "I don't think there's any team in the state that plays defense as well as Cooley. Every possession against them is an adventure."
And it's so different from the way so many other teams play the game. "A lot of coaches around here say, 'The kids are young; let 'em run and play,' " says Maurice Menefee, the athletic director at rival Henry Ford High School. "Not Ben. He disciplines his players to get the shot he wants. He keeps them under control, at least until the game is won. Red Auerbach used to light up a cigar when the game was won. Ben just sits back in his chair and lets 'em run and play. But not until then."
Of course, Ben Kelso is an anomaly himself, sui generis, having arrived where he is today by a route so implausible that even he still wonders how he managed the course—from the rural South, where he lived a childhood of abject poverty, to Flint, Mich., where he pumped gas after high school classes and never played a minute of basketball; from an assembly line at General Motors in Flint to a basketball scholarship at Central Michigan University, where in three years he set every major school scoring record; from Central Michigan to the Detroit Pistons, who picked him in the eighth round of the 1973 draft and kept him, alone among that season's rookies; from the Pistons to the coaching profession and, finally, to the unlikely world he has created at Cooley High.
"You have no idea how far I've come," Kelso says. "Not in your wildest dreams."
He was born in South Pittsburg, Tenn., some 20 miles west of Chattanooga. He was the sixth of 11 children of James Kelso, a foundry worker, and his wife, Mary Louise, who worked as a domestic for white families in town. James left the family in the early '50s, when Ben was about four years old; the boy seldom saw his father after that. Ben's earliest memory was of a fire that swept through the family's wood-frame house after some burning coals fell out of the stove. It destroyed everything the Kelsos owned, except for a litter of puppies that Ben and his brother Charles, in a panic, retrieved from a basket on the blazing front porch. "Only thing left was the chimney," recalls Prudie, one of Ben's younger sisters. "We were left with nothing. All we had were the clothes on our backs."
Husbandless and now homeless, Mary Louise led her children five miles south, across the state border to Bridgeport, Ala., to share a four-room house with a woman friend. The Kelso dozen shared two rooms. They stayed the wind that whistled through the walls with folded newsprint, and the rain that leaked through the roof with tar paper. No electricity, no running water. "In the winter, I bathed in a washtub," Ben says. "In the summer, the Tennessee River."
At night, when the kerosene lamps were out, the rats stole through the cracks and onto the beds. "One night, I remember, I was lying on my back and I felt something in my bed and all of a sudden I felt it gnawing on my hand," Kelso says. "I saw it running after it bit me, and I didn't go back to sleep. You don't forget things like that."
Nor the constant sense of want that tracked the Kelsos' daily lives. In winter, the hardest months, Ben and his siblings used to hop the coal trains that groaned up the surrounding hills and fill burlap bags with coal for the potbellied stove. "Our shoes were cardboard," says Prudie. "Or plastic bags with rubber bands to hold them on."
"Can you imagine what it's like in the dead of winter not to have any shoes on your feet?" says Ben. "Your feet were so hard, so frostbitten, that your toes wouldn't move? I had pants too big and a rag for a belt. It was unbelievable."
Hunger formed the central hollow in their lives, leaving the children's bellies bloated and their wits concentrated on a constant search for food. They subsisted mainly on corn bread and pots of pinto beans boiled on a wood fire. "I knew, going to bed, that I was going to wake up hungry and stay hungry," Kelso says. "Like anything else, you gel accustomed to it." Mary Louise remembers casting for chickens over a fence in Alabama. "There was a field of chickens across the road, and I'd get a piece of corn, put it on a hook, and I'd go over there and fish for chickens," she says. "They'd swallow the corn and I'd pull 'em over the fence. Then I'd pull their heads off and make chicken 'n' dumplin's out of 'em!"
When the "fishing" wasn't good, the family could usually count on Ben and his brothers and sisters to beg a meal or two from the white families who lived, literally, across the railroad tracks that ran through town. Ben's sisters say he was an irresistible barefoot urchin, pulling a red wagon door-to-door and showing a note, written by Mary Louise, that asked for cans and bags of food. "At each house I would go up on the porch, knock on the door and hand the people the note," he says. "They'd give us a can of soup. Or beans. By the time I was nine years old, I'd really become self-sufficient. I knew how to survive. I knew when every person in town bought groceries—Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. I'd go there on those days. We used to pick through people's garbage for something to eat."
In school he routinely filched lunches from other kids until, one afternoon in the seventh grade, some children caught him and turned him in. "There are times when someone comes into your life and changes it," Kelso says. "It might be just a moment, but they change it forever." Henry Wiggins, a math teacher, saved Kelso from the taunts of his peers and the shame of expulsion, defending him as a boy who had nothing but who had persisted in school. For young Ben, Wiggins's defense of him was a revelation. Even today, about 30 years later, he chokes when he speaks of it.
"It was the first time that someone told me I was going to make it," he says. "He gave me courage. I really feel that if Mr. Wiggins had jumped all over me and embarrassed me and kicked me out of school, I may never have gone back. It made a big, big difference. You have to have something to keep pushing you, keep pushing you, someone who believes in you."
That same year, when Kelso was 13, he found another supporter in A.C. Peoples, a coach and teacher from Zion College in Chattanooga whom Kelso had met at high school football games in South Pittsburg. By then Kelso had run away from home once, returning only because he had no place to go, and he was set on leaving his hand-to-mouth existence behind. "It was like something was chasing me," he says. "I hated every second of that place. Every second. There was no future there. I just had to get out." To be sure, worse than the poverty and the hunger in his family's house, more stinging than the cold winds, were the rebukes he suffered from people because he was poor.
"When I was a kid, the poorer I was, the worse I was treated," he says. "I remember standing outside people's windows in our neighborhood, in the cold, watching television on the inside. And people wouldn't let me in. Kids and grown-ups would say, 'Get out of here!' Parents wouldn't allow me in their houses because of how poor I was. I can't understand why people treat so badly those who don't have anything. Why do people have such contempt for those who have nothing?"
When Peoples invited Kelso to live with him and attend school in Chattanooga, the boy quietly packed what few things he had and headed for the city. "It was sad," says Sarah, a younger sister. "He left with a duffel bag and a basketball under his arm."
Chattanooga and Peoples changed Kelso's life. The city expanded his world beyond the rural Tennessee Valley, and Peoples, who was like a father to him, taught him civility and made him a boy of some means for the first time in his life. Peoples bought Kelso a lawn mower and sent him out to earn spending money for himself. For the first time, too, Kelso lived in a home with electricity, a flush toilet and, most marvelous of all, a refrigerator that hummed to him in the dark. "I wasn't used to opening up a refrigerator and having all that food in it," he says. "Imagine what it was like, after all your life having no refrigerator and going hungry most of the time, and all at once you have this magic box that you open up and the light goes on and it shines on all this food."
He ate like a starving boy. "I didn't know how to sit down and eat and stop," Kelso says. "I'd never had to do that before. If there were eight eggs left, I cooked them all. If there was a pound of bacon left, I cooked it all. When I went there, I weighed 152 pounds and was six feet tall. When I left, a year and a half later, I weighed 185. No fat."
Of course, the boy derived more than mere sustenance there. Peoples lectured him on the virtues of hard work. "He was the first person to take some of the wildness out of me," Kelso says. "I didn't know anything. And one thing he did tell me was this: 'Ben, anything you want to be, if you decide you want it and are willing to put forth the work, you can do it.' I knew after Chattanooga, after he took me in and believed in me, that there was no stopping Ben Kelso. I wasn't afraid of anything anymore."
After 18 months in Chattanooga, and a summer spent back in Bridgeport working in the hot pits of the foundry where his father had once worked, Kelso knew more surely than ever that the place for him was anywhere away from home. An older sister, Sophie, had moved to Flint, and so he decided to join her. With $3.75 in his pocket, he boarded a bus heading north. He moved in with Sophie, who was pregnant, got a job pumping gas to help pay the bills, and enrolled in the 10th grade at Flint's Central High School.
Kelso had never played anything but playground basketball in the South, and that mostly alone. "All they wanted to play down there was football and baseball," he says. "I never could get up a full-court game." Of course, at a basketball powerhouse such as Flint Central, Kelso wanted nothing more on earth than to play varsity hoops. Under Peoples's influence, he was already thinking of going to college—and, perhaps, if that worked out, of playing professional basketball someday. "I knew it was the way out of the ghetto for me," he says. "It was something that I loved. It was something I could do."
It was the endless torment of Kelso's three years in Flint—two at Central and his final year at Southwestern—that he never clocked a minute of high school ball. He tried out at Central for the 1964-65 season, but because he had no legal guardian to sign a release—a requirement in Michigan inter-scholastic sports—he never got the chance. The coaches knew Kelso had talent. "He was awful good," says Stanley Gooch, then the junior-varsity coach at Central and now the head coach. 'He was good enough to play football, too."
For three years, Kelso performed nowhere but on the playgrounds around Flint, learning the run-and-gun game. Off the court he ran loose for the first time in his life and he became the leader of a band of street toughs, Tennessee's Southside Gang, named in his honor. By the end of his junior year, he was being drawn into so many fights around Central that he transferred to Southwestern. It was another act of survival. His transfer also got the school administrators at Central off his neck. Not only hadn't they let him play sports, but also they had tried repeatedly to ship him back to Alabama. "As a runaway," Kelso says. When they threatened to put him on a bus, he told them, "I have no place to go. I'm taking care of myself."
Kelso was determined never to return to the Tennessee Valley. "Even though I wasn't on the high school teams, I continued to think, It's gonna happen, I'm gonna get out of this, I'm gonna get a better way of life through basketball," he says. "So I kept going. And nothing, nothing, nothing broke my belief."
He graduated from Southwestern in 1967, by then a married man with a child on the way, and he went to work on an assembly line at a Buick foundry in Flint, knocking scrap metal off newly cast engines. That same year he started playing basketball in the Flint recreational league, a keenly competitive assortment of teams that attracted many former college players and serious gym rats. Kelso played for Julie's Pawn Shop, and one of his teammates was South-western's jayvee basketball coach, Keith Richardson, who had played at Central Michigan. Kelso had been writing letters to colleges in a desperate search for a basketball scholarship. "I wanted to go to college in the worst way," he says. "I wrote to dozens of colleges—Florida A&M, Ohio State, Minnesota. All over."
He never got so much as a postcard back. One day, Richardson called Dick Parfitt, then the freshman basketball coach at Central Michigan, and told him about Kelso. Parfitt came to Flint to see for himself. There was Kelso, now 6'3", working the low post against a guy 6'7", taking feeds from the outside, turning and sending high-arcing jump shots over the defender's head. "Ben would sky that thing," says Parfitt. "And score! I knew after five minutes that Ben could play for Central Michigan." Central Michigan had never before signed a player out of a rec league, as far as Parfitt can recall. Kelso took the full ride at Central Michigan as no other player ever had. From the moment he walked into old Finch Field-house in 1968, he acted as if those haunting memories of his life in the valley were still stalking him, like rats sniffing at his hand. Kelso came running to Central Michigan, and he kept running right on through.
It was like something was chasing me....
Parfitt remembers the October afternoon in the gym, a few days before practice officially began, when he gathered the basketball players together for the annual mile run. Running first, Kelso and his fellow guards were to shoot for a time of 5:45. The trackmen cleared the running lanes, and Parfitt said, "Go!" Kelso took off in the lead, sprinting clear and dropping to the inside. For 10 laps, for the entire mile, he raced out there all by himself, his arms pumping to the beat of his feet. He relentlessly widened his lead. Parfitt will never forget it: "No one could take their eyes off Ben. We knew how fast he was going." So fast, in fact, that he began lapping the other runners.
"When they wouldn't get out of his way, he shoved them out of the way as he passed them," Parfitt says.
The last lap, with everyone shouting him on, Kelso came sprinting home. He had never run a day of track in his life, but they timed his mile at 4:21. "With gym shoes on!" says Ted Kjolhede, CMU's basketball coach at the time.
"It was unbelievable," says Parfitt. "The track coach came over and nudged me. The milers were probably running in the 4:10's. It was a show!"
In all the countless wind sprints and quarter miles that Kelso ran against his teammates in his years at CMU, he never was beaten. "We must have run hundreds of them in his time at Central Michigan, and he never lost one—not one," says Parfitt, who was the varsity coach during Kelso's last two years. "During the season, we would have our regular practice, and he would come back at night and play pickup games. The track was open behind Finch, and I'd come back and I would hear him out there: chick-chick-chick. I knew it was Ben Kelso. He would be running laps in the dark. By himself. I coached sports for 31 years, and he's the best-conditioned athlete I've ever been associated with, and he was the greatest competitor I've ever had the privilege of coaching."
In his five years at CMU—he lost a year to knee surgery—Kelso served the basketball team very well. "I really started from scratch," he says. "When I came to Central Michigan, I thought you grabbed the ball and ran it down and put it up. I had learned on the playgrounds. I didn't pass to anybody. I'd get it, I'd shoot."
The art of defense was as arcane to him as a foreign language. And it showed early on. In one game during Kelso's first year on the varsity, Illinois State's Doug Collins made a fool of him. "Collins kept back-cutting me," Kelso says. "He'd come out front, and I'd follow him real tight, and then he'd go for the basket, get a bounce pass and lay it up. He scored 32 points on me."
Kjolhede sank the barb into Kelso at a team meeting the next day. "We have some players who can play offense," said Kjolhede, "but they can't play defense at all. They get back-cut all day."
Stung, Kelso blurted, "I quit," and walked out of practice. "I went home and I started thinking about it," he says now. ' "What do I mean, I quit? The man wants me to play defense. Is that too much to ask?' "
Kelso returned to apologize and began paying as much attention to his defense as to his conditioning. "I worked hard at it," he says. "I was determined I was gonna learn how to move my feet and deny, deny, deny. I learned to deny everything, the baseline and the wings. Cut them off. Shut them down. I learned all the techniques. It was a valuable lesson to me."
His whole game eventually came together, and he became the best defensive player on the team. Of course, he could always score, and he put up some big numbers. By 1973, at the close of his three varsity years—freshmen did not play in those days—Kelso had scored more points, 1,627, and had a higher career scoring average, 22.5 points per game, than any player in the school's history. He was named first team All-Mid-American Conference his senior year, when he led the team in scoring, with 620 points. That spring the Pistons called.
But not for his scoring. "He had a tremendous work ethic," says Ray Scott, the Pistons' coach at the time. "And those are the kind of players you look for to fill out the bottom of the roster. They keep practice going, and you put them in a game for five minutes and they're the best players on the floor." Since the odds were against him from the start, it was enough for Kelso simply to make the team, and make it he did on the final day, when he was the only Piston draft choice left on the gym floor.
Scott was only the third basketball coach Kelso had ever had, and to Kelso's lingering regret he was also the last. Consigned to defensive bit roles, Kelso played only 298 minutes during the Pistons' 1973-74 season and scored but 85 points in 46 games, earning his $33,000 salary in sporadic appearances and as a practice player. He lasted the year, though, and he was expecting to play a second season when Scott cut him. Scott chose to release Kelso when Dave Bing, a leading scorer, decided to hold out in a contract dispute and the Pistons suddenly needed a shooter with more range. Kelso vanished as a player as quickly as he had appeared at Central Michigan just six years before.
"I was disappointed, because I had worked so to get to the NBA," he says. "I had been through a lot. But I think it worked out perfect. You end up doing what you really want to do, and I always wanted to coach."
After a decade spent working a string of jobs—he coached in high school and college and even ran his own food-catering business—Kelso arrived at Cooley High in early 1985, taking over as coach in midseason. Athletic director Mathis Epps, an old friend and colleague of Kelso's, hired him out of Detroit's Redford High. Cooley's basketball program hasn't been the same since.
What Kelso brought to the Cardinals is the same kind of basketball he learned to play under Parfitt and Kjolhede at Central Michigan. His offensive strategies require thoughtful execution, and they can appear, even to fellow coaches, bewilderingly complex. "Ben's got offenses that I don't understand," says Menefee.
"Even today, I can take the things that Kjolhede and Parfitt taught and they work extremely well," Kelso says, "because they are fundamentally sound." He is fanatical about defense, and nothing will bring him howling to his feet faster in a game than lackadaisical defensive play. His assistant coach, Gary Green, recalls a game in which Cooley was winning by 20 points when a Cardinal carelessly lost the ball. "Ben jumped up and slapped me in the chest, knocked me in a back somersault over the chair and split his pants up the rear," says Green, a burly Wayne County deputy sheriff. "He had to wear his coat tied around him the rest of the game."
Kelso will not hesitate to pull even a star for poor defensive play. Last year he benched one of his leading scorers, 6'6" junior Clifford (Silk) Judkins. After that, Judkins played no more than a quarter in any game. "He's still not good, but now he works at it," Kelso says.
The man remains as zealous a competitor as he ever was—so much so, in fact, that he has been known to cross the game's ethical boundaries in order to win. In 1987, in the state championship game against archrival Southwestern High of Detroit, Kelso had his players cheat at the free throw line. Before the game, he told them, in effect: If any of Cooley's poor free throw shooters gets fouled, then the team's best free throw shooter should go to the line in his place. In the game, more than once, the switch was made while the ref turned to the scorers' table to signal who had committed a foul. By the time he turned back, the substitute was at the line. Kelso adds, a bit cynically: "The white refs can't tell one black kid from another anyway." Cooley won in OT, 82-77.
Kelso justifies such conduct on the ground that, three weeks before the state final, Southwestern had beaten Cooley in the city championship and needlessly humiliated his players by running up the score. "We were down by 38 points and they were still pressing us," Kelso says. "I went for the victory to get back at them, I needed it."
But how does Kelso justify his misdeed to his players, young men who are facing ethical choices every day on the mean streets of Detroit? "I don't know," he says softly. "I don't know." Kelso claims that was the only time he had his players break the rules.
Not incidentally, Kelso is regarded as one of the most honest coaches in a city-wide sports system fraught with recruiting abuses and payoffs to coaches. Unlike other coaches, Kelso is known not to recruit players from other Detroit school districts—a common practice—and he has a reputation for rejecting approaches by college coaches or their local talent scouts, who often pay high school coaches to steer players to their campuses. The standard fee for a coach is $5,000 a player, but Kelso says his influence is not for sale. It is not just that the college offering the money might not be the best place for the player to go. Kelso does not want to be beholden to anyone—coach, player or broker. "People who do things for you expect something in return," he says. "They have a hold on you and they use that hold. You can never get out of it."
He does not recruit players, he says, because, in an age of inflated athletic egos, recruits usually bring more problems than their talent is worth. Again, the unacceptable compromise is loss of control, this time over the recruit: "When you recruit a player, he is expecting you to do something for him. He is expecting to be specially treated by you. He walks around the hall like he's somebody special, like you owe him something. How can you ever coach or discipline someone like that? You end up recruiting all sorts of problems. I don't need that."
He has, somehow, gotten to where he is with the players who have come to him. The Cooley Cardinals' 1987 victory over Southwestern gave them the first of their three straight state Class A titles, and since then, under Kelso, the school and its players have acquired a new, polished look. With money raised largely by the students, the athletic department bought new uniforms for the basketball team (three years ago, a few of the Cooley players had uniforms with mismatched jerseys and shorts), new aluminum bleachers and ceiling lights for the gym, and white paint to brighten up sections of the gym's grim interior. Kelso asked his players to do the painting and had an art student paint the head of a cardinal on each of the white back-boards behind the practice baskets.
"Do you know how valuable it is for a kid to have the same things as the other kids at other schools?" Kelso asks. "Like bleachers, lights, fresh paint? We did this all ourselves. You've got to get things that create a feeling of pride within a kid. Now they don't want to lose. Now they expect to win."
For all coaches in the inner city, where the majority of the players are fatherless and many are too poor to buy their own sneakers, fielding a basketball team involves far more than calling practice and handing out fancy uniforms. "The battle is fought mostly off the court," says Posey Williams, the principal at Cooley. "You've first got to get the guy prepared to play. It's a struggle, because a lot of times there's nothing behind the kid at home. There's no support system at all."
Which, in many cases, makes the coach the only authority figure in a young athlete's life, and the school an adjunct of his home. "Some kids come to school early to take a shower before they go to class," says Bill Goldsmith, the basketball coach at Detroit's Western High School. "Meanwhile, the locker-room attendant does their laundry. You do what you have to do to keep the kids off the street."
For Kelso that has meant, during the last six years, being as much a father as a coach, as much a friend as an adviser, as much a protector as a teacher. In 1988 he had to hide one of his players from the gang that had just shot and killed the player's brother in a drug war. "I was afraid if they found out where the player was, they might shoot him, too," Kelso says. He eventually helped the student get a basketball scholarship to Boise State, in Idaho. "It seemed the farthest place I could send him to get him away."
In 1988, right after Cooley won its second state title, the mayor's office invited the players to City Hall. Kelso had to spend hours searching out shoes and shirts and suits for the boys to wear for the occasion. "We had a lot of guys who didn't have a pair of shoes," Williams says. "Ben had to go to their houses to find them because they didn't want to go. They were embarrassed."
"We were borrowing and buying and trying to match things up," Kelso says. "We dressed them all as best we could."
He has spent thousands of dollars of his own money playing father-coach to his players. Last summer he came up with $600 to pay the way to summer school for six of nine players who were trying to stay academically eligible for basketball. He even went to school with them. When classes were over, he would drive them to basketball camp at Eastern Michigan University in a 15-passenger van that he bought last year for $2,000 and donated to Cooley to transport small athletic teams to events. Just as he wanted the boys in basketball camp to hone their skills as players, he wanted them in summer school to keep them academically eligible.
"If I didn't put them through summer school, if I didn't sit there with Clifford Judkins and the others, I wouldn't have had those kids to put on the court," says Kelso. "I'd have had a whole new team. They have to get through academically. That's why I started the study-hall program before practice. Two hours every day. They have to be there. They have to get their grades. No pass, no play. So I'm helping them and they're helping me. I want to field good teams, too."
That might be the obvious quid pro quo in his relationship with his players, but there's more than that underlying the bonds he has formed with many of the boys over the years. Judkins and Ken Conley, Cooley's 6'7" forward, come from particularly impoverished homes, and Kelso sees reflections of his own mean childhood in their lives. It moves him to think of them hungry or without. He has given them not only clothes but also spending money, and last year he bought Judkins a pair of Reeboks for the state championship. Kelso does not consider these handouts. He lives with his second wife, Joyce, a schoolteacher, and their seven-year-old daughter, Jennifer, in a three-bedroom colonial in Southfield, a suburb north of the city. He has often had players over to his house to do odd jobs in payment for goods he has given them. Judkins had to earn the shoes.
"I cut his grass and washed dishes," Judkins says. "I love him. He's like a father to me. I don't have a father at home, and he always checks on me. I was sick one day and I wasn't in school. I figured he'd come over. Sure enough. He brought me five hamburgers, two orange juices and two apple pies.... He kept me in school, told me to get an education. If it weren't for him, I'd have hit the streets a long time ago. Next fall I'm going to college somewhere."
So is Ken Conley, to the amazement of his mother, Joyce. Two years ago Conley was at Henry Ford High, lost in the system's cracks and going nowhere. He was disruptive and unmanageable, and his grades were so poor that he was never eligible to play sports. Joyce Conley had heard about Kelso at Cooley—"I heard Ben Kelso emphasized grades," she says—so she asked him to work with her son. "Kelso agreed to help me if I agreed to help Ken with his grades," she says.
Ken transferred to Cooley 18 months ago. He could jump like a flea, but he had no skills. "He couldn't shoot a layup," says Kelso. "Couldn't make a free throw." Ken learned all that fast enough. His problem was discipline. At times he was incorrigible. "He wasn't going to listen to anyone," Kelso says. "A mean streak. Very defiant. He has probably been my hardest case yet."
It got so bad one day that Green, the deputy sheriff, picked Conley up, threw him down on his back and wouldn't let him up. Ken left that day in tears. "I'm never coming back here," he said. A few days later he returned, a contrite and quieter kid. "He changed 360 degrees," Kelso says. This year, Conley is the team's leading rebounder and its second-highest scorer, behind Judkins. If Cooley has any chance for a fourth straight state title, Conley and Judkins will have to lead the way—last year's team leader and best player, Michael Talley, has graduated and is playing for Michigan.
Joyce Conley has a pile of letters from schools expressing interest in her son, among them Notre Dame, Penn State, Illinois and Michigan State. He is planning to attend a junior college in the fall to raise his grades. "This has fulfilled him," she says. "In a year and a half, what a difference! Without this, who knows what would have happened to him? It has changed everything, from his attitude to his destiny."
Kelso has sent players to colleges all over the country. He is part of the vast system that feeds high school players into intercollegiate sports. He wants to coach at the college level someday, but he has tasted a sweet fulfillment in his work at Cooley.
"When I take a kid and teach him how to play basketball so he can go out and make it, I feel great about it because I know I have prepared him," Kelso says. "I think if you can get kids to believe in you, believe in what you are trying to teach them, phenomenal things can be done with them. They can reach unbelievable heights. I like to think I've made a difference."