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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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"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.

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