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A LESSON in SURVIVAL
William Nack
March 05, 1990
From wretched deprivation to Coach of the Year: the rise of Ben Kelso
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March 05, 1990

A Lesson In Survival

From wretched deprivation to Coach of the Year: the rise of Ben Kelso

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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?' "

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