A FAREWELL THAT DETROIT WILL REGRET

Later today, he plans to load up his van and drive to Manhattan, Kan. He doesn’t know the streets there, not the way he knows them in Detroit. He has never been inside the basketball arena there, even though he has mopped or painted every gym he has ever worked in. He doesn’t know the kids there, not yet, even though his gift always has been in knowing all his kids, seeing their troubles, digging them out.

Still, he’s loading up that van, because Kansas State is a big opportunity and a big program and it’s hiring him as an assistant coach and it’s willing to pay him and, quite frankly, at 58, he’s tired of fighting for his everyday existence.

There goes Ben Kelso. He’s finally had enough. One of the best high school coaches ever to grace our city is heading to the flatlands now, and there’s not a person in this town who can blame him. But there are plenty of people to blame – starting with the forces in the Southfield school system that chomped onto Kelso a few years ago and, like a dog with a bone in its mouth, never let go.

Some of those people are gone now, but the damage they did to Kelso goes on. They were convinced they had captured a local legend in an illegal act and, dang it, they were going to bring him down. When the facts didn’t corroborate their claims, when the courts didn’t corroborate their claims, when the people who knew Kelso wouldn’t corroborate their claims, they did the only thing they had left to do: They tried to humiliate him.

He kept his head high.

But he’s had enough.

More than a coach

“No, I don’t think I would be leaving Detroit if all that hadn’t happened,” Kelso said of the accusations a few years ago that he had taken money from a concession stand at a football game – accusations that were never proved, but that officials used to take away his job and ultimately reassign him to far less worthy positions.

“At the same time,” he said, “I feel elated that I’m going to do the thing I love to do – and to do it constantly.”

Kelso was once the national high school basketball coach of the year. He won three consecutive state championships at Cooley High in Detroit. But that’s the least of it. What’s important about Kelso is not how he worked the court but how he worked the corners, how he drove the city streets after hours, checking on his kids, visiting their homes, taking wayward teens under his wing, giving them work, steering them from the gang world, helping them or their family members get off drugs.

It is the reason that so many people are upset, even shocked, that Kelso is leaving town. He is a part of Detroit. One of the better parts. The irony of his story is that certain folks in Southfield wanted to stop paying him for stuff any coach can do. But it’s the stuff he never got paid for that was most precious.

A difficult journey

I saw Kelso a few days ago at a Southfield deli. He had a 9-year-old kid with him. That was typical. Kelso always seemed to have kids around him. He always was giving them rides, taking them to and from this game or that gym. This particular 9-year-old lives near Kelso and has formed a bond with him. He has been spending his summer days with the coach at a city high school gym. When Ben told him about his new job, the kid, Kelso said, “went home and told his parents, ‘I’m moving to Kansas.’ “

It doesn’t work that way. Kelso goes alone. He is not scared. He has been through worse. As a teenager, he left home in Tennessee and worked his way up to Michigan by taking a bus to some town, getting off, finding a job with Manpower, gathering the money, sleeping in a park, then taking another bus to another town and another job. Eventually, he got to Flint, then to Central Michigan, then the NBA.

You survive that journey, one more road trip doesn’t scare you.

Still, it’s a trip he didn’t have to make. Kelso should be here, in this city, where he made his mark. But a man can take only so much, and the stones and hurdles he has endured at the hands of certain school officials are more than most of us would take. Whatever lawsuits remain will somehow be resolved. But a few months ago, they had Kelso working out of a broom closet in an alternative school. How long would you put up with that?

“Hey, I’ve had to scratch for every piece of real estate I’ve ever gotten,” Kelso said. “Just because things aren’t going the way you want is not a good enough reason to give up.

“But I think it’s time for me to try this. People have been rolling down their windows on the street and saying, ‘Good luck, Coach.’ I’m grateful for that.

“But I almost have to go, don’t I?”

You wish the answer were no. Sadly, it isn’t. So he drives to Kansas, where it’s pretty flat and you can see a long way. Maybe one day, Ben Kelso can see his way back to the city he helped make better. In the meantime, a lot of kids – and men who were once kids – will be waving good-bye to a departing van today, if only in their minds.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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