First, they pulled him off the bus. Literally. Suspended him from the job he loved, accused him of stealing money, said his team of high school girls, looking anxiously out the bus windows, would have to play its championship game without him.
Then, over the next 18 months, like crows plucking at a carcass, certain forces in the Southfield school system slowly took away everything else Ben Kelso had worked for.
They took away his whistle. They took away his gym. They took away his job and paycheck. Worst of all, they took away his reputation. Called him a thief. A man who once reveled in driving through the meanest streets in Detroit and hearing mothers and sons call his name — “Hey, Coach Kelso!” — suddenly had to hide in the suburbs, worried that people would point and whisper, “He’s a crook.”
Well, Ben Kelso is not a crook. Not according to police, who found nothing. And now, not even according to the state school system. After a mud-drag you wouldn’t wish on an enemy, suddenly, last week, the State Tenure Commission concluded Kelso shouldn’t have been fired and told him to resume his job.
And Monday, he is supposed to walk through the doors of Southfield High.
After 18 months of hell?
A life of good deeds
“The worst moment since this happened?” he said last week, after the commission’s decision. “Maybe when I had to turn my car in because I couldn’t afford it anymore. Or maybe when I was walking through a mall and a guy said, ‘That’s Ben Kelso. I saw him on TV ducking the police.’
“Or maybe . . .” He stopped. His voice choked up. “Maybe when my wife was in school” — she’s a teacher at Detroit Central — “and someone came up and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Your husband got arrested for stealing money.’ “
Understand, this is a man used to being talked about, but in a grateful way. For 14 years at Detroit’s Cooley High, he not only won state championships, he was a one-man salvation crew, taking kids with no chance and giving them a basketball and a direction. He didn’t do it for attention. He did it because he grew up dirt poor, without a father, and basketball saved him. Got him to college. Got him to the NBA.
I’d known Kelso for years. I’d seen him working nights, weekends, summers. I’d seen him with money, but only when it went from his pocket to some needy kid or family.
Then, in December of 2002, a few years after he’d taken over as coach and athletic director at Southfield High — and had done what that school wanted, raised its victories and fund-raising enormously — certain forces somehow concluded he was pocketing money from tickets and concessions at football games. The details are too long and murky to go into here, but here’s the long and short of it: They produced a videotape, they made a lot of claims, they got the cops involved, and they tossed Kelso overboard.
And it was up to him to try to swim back.
Damage has been done
In time, the astounding details of this will come out. How people allegedly changed stories, clipped tape and pointed enough fingers to make you run like a madman from ever working in a high school.
But for now, Kelso deserves his reputation back. For nearly two years he has been out of work, holed up inside his house, away from kids, away from sports. For what? Jealousy? Pettiness? How can they ever make it up to him?
Last week, as all this was happening, Kelso got a letter from a former player. He was writing from overseas, where he was stationed as a soldier. He wrote that being over there made him appreciate all that Kelso had done for him, and if he made it home, he wanted to thank him.
It’s that sort of thing that will guide Kelso on Monday back to the school parking lot where this whole mess began. His wife, understandably, is worried. But Kelso told her, “What can they do to me that they haven’t already done?”
That’s easy. Apologize.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org