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."