Even Brian Kelly's closest friends came to be among the doubters. It has been said that an athlete spends the better part of a lifetime gripping a ball, and then in the end realizes it really was the other way around all along. It was not long ago that Kelly's pals were urging him to admit that early in life, asking him to consider ending his basketball odyssey before he devoted too much time and effort going down a path that seemingly led to nowhere.
They were not without cause. After all, by Kelly's own estimate, he had not seen more than five minutes of court time all told during a less-than-illustrious high school career in which he unceremoniously was cut from the team in his senior year. He had to coax his way onto his local junior college team, and a letter-writing campaign to some of the nation's big-name schools produced as many coaching applications as recruiting interests.
So it seemed absurd that this 6-foot-6 mound of determination, already a basketball journeyman at age 21, would have his sights set on playing at Georgetown. Yet Kelly never listened to the naysayers, and when the junior forward takes the floor for the 21st-ranked Hoyas Sunday at Pittsburgh, his thoughts might turn briefly to all the times he was told he wouldn't be able to take the next step.
"I think a lot about how amazing it is that I'm where I am," he said. "I keep a journal, and the first time I put on a practice jersey that said 'Georgetown' on it, I rushed home and wrote that down. It was an incredible feeling. . . . It's still exciting, every day."
In this era when seemingly no recruiting stone goes unturned, the Kelly story is both unique and endearing. He is the kind of player with which Hoyas Coach John Thompson always has been enamored -- someone who survived a period of hard knocks through gritty perseverance.
"Brian's a tough kid," Thompson said earlier this season. "It's good to have kids who you don't have to worry about being fragile."
The Kelly tale began at Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati. Kelly was cut from the varsity as a freshman, then sat on the bench during a sophomore season in which the team won the state championship.
Kelly played football during his junior year, and a late-season injury kept him from trying out for basketball. Instead, he played on a CYO team with players who had been cut and began coaching a team of grade-school kids. Going into his senior year, however, he was determined to make the team.
He stopped playing football. The Purcell Marian coach, Jim Stoll, told Kelly when school began that he'd probably be better off not trying out because he'd likely be cut. But Kelly, after some consternation, didn't pay attention to the warning.
"I went home that night and I was very upset . . . but I decided not to give it up," he said. "I said, 'I'm going to stick it out; he's not going to be able to cut me.' I ran sprints, lifted weights, went to all the open gyms. I really thought I was going to make it."
On the final day of tryouts, Kelly was on his way out of the locker room when Stoll called him back inside. "I knew what it was right away," Kelly said. "I ended up being cut from the team and it was my senior year. That really hurt me bad because I really felt I belonged on the team, but again I decided not to let that hold me back."
He formed the same CYO team as before, this time with two players who also had been cut. Both of them, like Kelly, now are playing college basketball. "Kids who played for me when Brian was here come around and they're just amazed," said Stoll, who's now at Cincinnati's Princeton High and has remained friendly with Kelly. "They say, 'Coach, he wasn't even our 12th-best guy.' . . . It's the kind of story that every coach and every kid in America wants to believe, but it's just too amazing for them to think it can happen to them."
With no scholarship offers, Kelly went to the University of Cincinnati. His family was middle class, and his father wanted him to learn to support himself. So Kelly paid for his education by going to classes in the morning, then working a construction job in the afternoon; he continued to coach youth basketball at night.
Problem was, his expenses overran his income by the spring of his freshman year, and he had to withdraw from school. A friend went to try out for a junior college team in Sarasota, Fla., and Kelly joined him. That bid was unsuccessful, but Kelly's appetite for basketball was whetted once more.
He called all of the colleges in the area, asking simply for a chance to try out for the team as a walk-on. Only Coach John Hurley at Cincinnati Tech was responsive, and after a few conversations with Hurley and some promising open-gym showings, Kelly was offered a scholarship.
His contributions were modest during his freshman season, but his scrappiness and hard-nosed rebounding drew recruiting overtures from Kent State, Indiana State, St. Louis and Dayton. A 14-point, 10-rebound-per-game sophomore season attracted interest from Seton Hall, Wake Forest and The Citadel. He also was Cincinnati Tech's student body president.
But Kelly wanted more. So, despite the skepticism of Hurley and just about everyone else around him, Kelly composed a resume-like letter and sent it out last March to a handful of schools -- including Georgetown, of which he had been a fan since the Patrick Ewing days. In it, he detailed his playing and academic credentials, and he advertised that he was oh-so-available.
"You always hear guys saying, 'I can play for this team, I can play for that team,' " Kelly said. "Usually, it's a matter of timing and what a team needs. . . . I just wanted to let it be known who I was and where I was, and I thought I could help some teams out."
Those around him were less optimistic. "Sure, I was skeptical," Hurley said. "I mean, I get a lot of those kinds of letters myself. And let's just say that they don't usually work out." Stoll was even more emphatic: "When Brian told me he was interested in Georgetown, I said: 'Brian, you must mean Georgetown College in Kentucky. . . . You've got something screwed up.' "
In fact, many of the schools to which Kelly wrote sent back coaching applications, thinking that he was applying for a graduate assistant position. But Georgetown responded. Hoyas assistant Craig Esherick telephoned Hurley and asked him to send a transcript and videotapes of Cincinnati Tech games. Later, Thompson called Hurley at home and the two spoke for over an hour.
"We get a ton" of letters like Kelly's, Esherick said. "In one way or another, we follow up on all of them." The Hoyas' coaches have received plenty of recent positive reinforcement for doing so: Senior center Dikembe Mutombo and freshman forward Vladimir Bosanac also came to Georgetown through unsolicited contacts.
The Hoyas asked Kelly to visit the campus, and he had committed to attending Georgetown before he boarded the airplane to go home. "It was a very pleasant visit," Esherick said. "Brian never stopped talking the whole time he was here. He has a deserved reputation as a talker."
Kelly has proven to be a valuable addition to the Hoyas -- providing 3.3 points and 2.1 rebounds per game in 15.7 minutes, starting three times in Alonzo Mourning's absence and filling the hustling, bruising, tough-guy role sorely needed alongside Mutombo. Kelly helped harass Syracuse's Billy Owens, perhaps the best all-around player in the nation, to five-of-15 shooting in the Hoyas' 58-56 loss Monday night.
And, now that he's firmly entrenched in one of the country's most glamorous programs, Kelly can't help but gloat just a bit. "I've never claimed to be any kind of superstar or all-American, but I've always really wanted to play the game," he said. "It takes a lot of hard work and determination to play, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes and whatever the coach wants.
"Even your friends, the friends who normally stand by you, start to question you. Every once in a while, it was like: 'Brian, you've done what you could. You tried. Let it go.' . . . Even when I got to Georgetown, it was like: 'That's great, Brian. At least you get to practice with them. Are you on the traveling team?' "
Finally, Brian Kelly has the last word. "I play basketball because it helps me get a free education," he said. "But it's been an education in itself. I've had to come a long way."