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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.