HONOLULU -- Mel Kennedy knew all along what he wanted for Christmas. He knew that Terry Holland could contribute and that his friends and Virginia teammates all wanted him to be happy on Christmas morning.
But in the end, only one person could give Kennedy what he had been wishing for, and it wasn't Santa Claus. The bearer of this gift had to be Melvin Ralph Kennedy.
"I've learned a lot these last few months," Kennedy said on Christmas Eve after he had scored 20 points to lead the Cavaliers to a stunning 87-54 victory over Georgia. "Last spring and summer I lost something that I'd worked a long time to get -- respect. I know I'm not going to get it back overnight, but at least now I feel like I'm back on the right track. I've still got a lot more work to do. It's all in the effort with me."
It was lack of effort in the classroom that almost cost Kennedy his college basketball career. Last spring, after he had finished his junior season with averages of 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game, Kennedy caught the springtime malady that afflicts some seniors, the don't-bother-with-class blues.
Holland and his coaching staff were less than thrilled when Kennedy repeated this act in summer school. Finally, just before fall classes began, Kennedy was called into Holland's office. Holland is a man of few words in disciplinary situations. His message was clear: go to class or don't play.
Kennedy listened, but didn't hear. Two weeks later, he was back in Holland's office. His attendance had gotten worse. Threats hadn't worked for Holland. He decided to act. Kennedy was off the team until at least Jan. 1.
Kennedy is not one of those athletes who avoids class because he finds it humiliating. He was an honor student at Power Memorial in New York City and even now, after all his problems, will be less than a semester away from graduation this spring if he goes to class.
"With me, it's always the little things," Kennedy said. "I know I can do the work and I see it sitting there and I say, 'Oh, I can do that tomorrow.' And then it's tomorrow and I find another excuse. The fact is, I'm lazy. That's always been the killer with me. I'm still a long way from getting it just right."
But he has made progress, enough progress that Holland shortened the suspension to allow Kennedy to play here. As recently as November, Holland had said that one didn't punish a player by taking him off suspension for a trip to Hawaii but a number of circumstances combined to change that.
First, and perhaps foremost, the Cavaliers desperately needed Kennedy. They came here 4-4 (now 5-5 going into a Christmas night game against Chaminade), a team with little firepower in the front court. The team's potent guards, John Johnson, Richard Morgan and John Crotty, were being asked to do too much, and it was affecting their play.
Beyond that, there was some behind-the-scenes negotiating. When he found himself looking at an 11-game suspension (if the ban had lasted until Jan. 1), Kennedy thought about redshirting. "I just thought that might be the best way to go," he said. "Come back next fall with a full year to do everything, schoolwork and basketball. But a couple weeks ago, I talked it over with my parents and the coaches and decided I should play."
The coaches wanted Kennedy to play for three reasons: they need him right now; he is not that far from graduation, and they felt playing right now would be a spur to keep him in class and, frankly, no one -- not Kennedy or the coaches -- wanted to go through another year of this.
"Initially, we weren't sure exactly what would happen," Holland said. "At first, we weren't sure we were going to let him practice. If he hadn't practiced, it would have been very hard for him to play this year. And, we felt he needed the basketball as an incentive to go to class."
Even though he was allowed to practice, Kennedy's weight ballooned. He played his first three seasons at 225. By November he was up to 250, causing Johnson, the team's designated giver of nicknames, to start calling him, "Swoll," short for swollen body.
"It got bad," Kennedy said with a wry grin. "I was eating everything: McDonald's, Hardees, every kind of fast-food chicken, you name it. I just got heavier and heavier. At first, I wasn't too worried because I knew they wanted me to play inside and carrying some extra weight wouldn't hurt. But it got out of control after a while."
The coaches were concerned about Kennedy's weight, but more concerned about getting him to class. "We certainly noticed the weight," Holland said. "But remember, he wasn't even going to play if he didn't go to class. It was a case of first things first."
The responsibility of dropping the weight fell to Kennedy. He began doing aerobics in the morning and riding a stationary bicycle in the afternoon. Still, the process has been slow. Kennedy is back under 240 but wants to play at between 225 and 230 even if he is going to be asked to play power forward at 6 feet 5.
"I don't mind going inside and I don't mind being looked to for a lot of different things by this team," Kennedy said. "I want the burden. I want the guys to count on me to do things.
"Sitting and watching was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. When we lost to Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth last week, I just knew that we would have won if I had played. Not that I'm a savior or anything but I think I could have helped enough that we wouldn't have lost those games."
No one could have saved Virginia from Oklahoma in its opening game over here. The Cavaliers were outscored 27-0 at the start of the second half and suffered the worst loss in Holland's 14 years at Virginia, 109-61. Kennedy, clearly rusty, was just one for eight and had eight turnovers. But he also had eight rebounds.
Twenty-four hours later, after a lengthy team meeting, it all turned around. Kennedy looked strong and comfortable inside in the rout of Georgia and there were a lot of smiles in the Virginia locker room when the game was over.
"This has to be a starting point for us," Johnson said. "Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can turn things around and we definitely did that against Oklahoma. We all tried to do too much too fast, including Mel. I think some of us forgot that it was just his first game."
Kennedy forgot, too. His frustration on the court was apparent throughout. But he is that type of player: extremely volatile, a leader when he is at his best, a pouter when things are going poorly. At one stage during the Georgia game, he began arguing loudly with an official when he was called for a foul he didn't think he had committed. Holland was off the bench in a flash. "Just play ball," he yelled sternly. "You fouled him. Forget it and keep playing."
Kennedy did that and the Cavaliers headed toward Christmas Eve dinner in a jolly mood. The happiest of them may have been Kennedy.
"I wondered if I would have this feeling again," he said. "It's been a very long fall for me. I've learned a lot -- the hard way. I hope I'm older and wiser now because there is still a long way to go."