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.