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Stand outside the Southeast corner of Thomas M. Cooley High School on a winter afternoon, when the setting sun paints the old brown bricks a light yellow, and you can hear the squeak of gym shoes on a hardwood floor. Go inside and climb the stairs toward the landing on the second floor, and you begin to hear the rhythmic thump of basketballs, the slapping of hands, the shouts. And then, gusting out the gym door, comes that drill sergeant's voice.
"DEE-fense! You're not picking up your man. You're just standing around.... Loose ball, pick it up!"
Ben Kelso—the voice behind the door, the man behind the voice—is there in his black Reebok jogging suit, holding his clipboard like a scepter as he exhorts and teaches, implores and scolds: "No! No! You're standing straight up and he dribbles right around you. Crouch! Get down where the ball is! Deny the pass in. Force the lob and pick it off!"
It is early January at Cooley High, in northwestern Detroit, and 15 members of the school's varsity basketball team are working a half-court pressing drill under the basket at one end of the aging gym. They stop only to listen to Kelso, hanging on his every word and gesture as if he were a prophet of hoops dispensing truths about the game. To be sure, over the last three years of his career as Cooley's basketball coach, Kelso has come to be viewed as the prep game's most eminent guru in Michigan and one of the leading high school coaches in the nation. Kelso's teams at Cooley have won the state basketball championship the last three years running, and at the close of the 1988-89 season, the National High School Coaches Association named Kelso its Coach of the Year.
In the world of Detroit inner-city high school basketball, where so many teams simply run and gun, Kelso's players are something of an anomaly. Well schooled and stringently disciplined at both ends of the floor, the Cardinals play with an organized tenacity, particularly on defense, that helps them win even with inferior talent. "Two of three times he won the championship, Kelso did not have the best team in the state," says Mick McCabe, a veteran writer about high school sports for the Detroit Free Press. "I don't think there's any team in the state that plays defense as well as Cooley. Every possession against them is an adventure."
And it's so different from the way so many other teams play the game. "A lot of coaches around here say, 'The kids are young; let 'em run and play,' " says Maurice Menefee, the athletic director at rival Henry Ford High School. "Not Ben. He disciplines his players to get the shot he wants. He keeps them under control, at least until the game is won. Red Auerbach used to light up a cigar when the game was won. Ben just sits back in his chair and lets 'em run and play. But not until then."
Of course, Ben Kelso is an anomaly himself, sui generis, having arrived where he is today by a route so implausible that even he still wonders how he managed the course—from the rural South, where he lived a childhood of abject poverty, to Flint, Mich., where he pumped gas after high school classes and never played a minute of basketball; from an assembly line at General Motors in Flint to a basketball scholarship at Central Michigan University, where in three years he set every major school scoring record; from Central Michigan to the Detroit Pistons, who picked him in the eighth round of the 1973 draft and kept him, alone among that season's rookies; from the Pistons to the coaching profession and, finally, to the unlikely world he has created at Cooley High.
"You have no idea how far I've come," Kelso says. "Not in your wildest dreams."
He was born in South Pittsburg, Tenn., some 20 miles west of Chattanooga. He was the sixth of 11 children of James Kelso, a foundry worker, and his wife, Mary Louise, who worked as a domestic for white families in town. James left the family in the early '50s, when Ben was about four years old; the boy seldom saw his father after that. Ben's earliest memory was of a fire that swept through the family's wood-frame house after some burning coals fell out of the stove. It destroyed everything the Kelsos owned, except for a litter of puppies that Ben and his brother Charles, in a panic, retrieved from a basket on the blazing front porch. "Only thing left was the chimney," recalls Prudie, one of Ben's younger sisters. "We were left with nothing. All we had were the clothes on our backs."
Husbandless and now homeless, Mary Louise led her children five miles south, across the state border to Bridgeport, Ala., to share a four-room house with a woman friend. The Kelso dozen shared two rooms. They stayed the wind that whistled through the walls with folded newsprint, and the rain that leaked through the roof with tar paper. No electricity, no running water. "In the winter, I bathed in a washtub," Ben says. "In the summer, the Tennessee River."