By now, it was time for Victor Kelly to assume control of the game. The big men had their chance and blew it. "Gotta keep those guys happy," he always says. "Get 'em a couple slam dunks and they'll get you all the rebounds you want." But how long can a man create slam-dunk chances that either go "ker-thunk" off the rim or never get that far?
At 5-foot-g, Kelly is capable of scoring, one-on-one, against any of the Urban Coalition giants: Pat Ewing, Taylor Baldwin, the rapidly improving Earl Jones. He can chop the tallest tree to manageable size. An also tap-dance around such pros as John Duren and Adrian Dantley. On this fast break, he opted to leave the ball for a trailing teammate rather than try another acrobatic layup.
The man fumbled the pass.
Next time, Kelly fed James Ratiff for one of life's locks, an unmolested slammer. Ratiff slammed it off the basket.
Seconds later, Kelly lofted a pass inside that got rerouted to the opposition. That snapped it. End of alturism. The Little Man's Code had been more than satisfied. The fourth time down during this stretch of sins Sunday at Dunbar, Kelly found himself 12 feet from the hoop. There was no hesitation; his 12-footer off the glass got the Jets flying again.
Victor Kelly is one of those athletes who struggle up the sporting ladder, step by step, and then find the last rung coated with grease. For him, the NBA got no closer than several training camps, and at 29 his basketball conjugation seems sadly complete; there is a terrific past and present, but apparently no future.
His dreams still are of serious basketball, but he no longer chases them quite so desperately. To the overwhelming burden he has carried for so long, lack of height, comes another equally heavy: age. At levels higher than casual fans might realize, though, Kelly can play.
Unless a European team offers a handsome quarantee or somebody in the NBA guarantees more than another training-camp experience, Kelly is a working Washingtonian whose play is basketball. He says he has come to terms with not realizing the fame and fortune of his boyhood peers: Thomas Henderson, Gus Williams, Ricky Sobers and the man who is both his close friend and near-idol, Tiny Archibald.
At 6-1, Archibald often has played as well as anyone, tall or small, in his sport. Nine years ago he led the NBA both in scoring (34.9) and assists (11.4). Long before, he was a New York playground legend kind enough to let the littler, by five inches, and younger, by three years, Kelly literaly dribble in his footsteps.
Kelly brought his uniquely New York style fo guard play to Western High School here 12 years ago, he said, because he was tired of waiting for his eligibility to be resumed after transferring to DeWitt Clinton before his sophomore season. From ywestern came junior college at Southern Idaho and major-college offers that were sifted to LSU, Hawaii and Southern Cal.
He chose Southern Cal for what seemed the soundest of reason: Paul Westphal would be a senior and there were scads of underclassmen who could keep up with him and handle his passes. Nothing went quite the way he hoped, then or since.
He played often and well during less than a season as a Trojan, but quit after becoming convinced Coach Bob Boyd was playing him against his pal, Williams. He transferred to Hawaii, where he said the talent was splendid but the coaching sorry enough to make the team ordinary.
"We played the Indiana team that won the ('76) national championship even after getting dwon 12-0," he said. "After five minutes, (Bobby) Knight realized (Quinn) Buckner couldn't handle me and used (6-7) Bobby Wilkerson."
Kelly was drafted by a team (Atlanta) with a squirt coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, but never reported to camp, believing he had no chance after Dean Meminger could not be traded.
"Everybody says you gotta work for everything, and I believe that now," he says.
There followed a series of adventures that included a season in Venezuela and tryouts with the Jazz of New Orleans and the Globetrotters. All had the goal of convincing somebody in the NBA that a player teenier than Tiny could be useful, if not a star.
They kept saying no to Kelly. All the while, a hoop midget Kelly says he can look almost in the eye, Charlie Criss, was getting a chance in the NBA and making the most of it. Criss earned that with a tornado-like rampage through the Eastern League. With a wife, Janice, and two children, Kelly did not want to pay such a price for relatively nothing in the short run and the possibility of yet another long-term rejection.
"I've been about as high as you can go, 'cept the pros," he said. "I've seen guys who were supposed to be good run away from pressure. Everybody likes to be the hero, but they don't want to be burned. I don't mind trying the big plays at all."
That was the reference to the final significant play of the Jet's game Sunday. Down three points with 10 seconds left, Kelly drew a shooting foul from Baldwin. He knew what was necessary for a tie, but did not tell the other Jets for fear someone would tip it off.
Kelly purposely missed the first free throw, but not badly enough to make the Seven-Eleven players suspicious. He then made the second shot, and knew how to convert the bonus foul shot into two points. He heaved the ball off the front of the rim and, perhaps predictably, nobody blocked him out.
With everybody else still or stunned, Kelly leaped down the lane and grabbed the ball. Before he could put it back up, it slipped off his fingers and to a defender. How many times has his career taken such a bounce?
Because he stil wants to win as badly as ever, Kelly was fuming immediately after the game. An interview would hold another day. But he composed himself and left in decent spirits with his wife and their children.
Janice supported him, mentally and financially, for so long that any future dream-chasing will be as risk-free as possible, he said. Their income -- she is a bus driver and he works in a warehouse -- is a fraction of what many of his New York playground buddies command, but he seems happy.
Except when one of them, Lloyd Free, seemed to snub him during an Urban Coalition appearance last year.
"Didn't seem to recognize me," Kelly said. "So I didn't speak to him. But I did get 50 that game."