KELSO’S REPUTATION, FUTURE ON THE LINE

If Ben Kelso wanted to be a thief, why choose a career in high school basketball? There’s not much to steal in a gym.

But that hasn’t stopped some powerful forces from accusing Kelso of being crooked, and it is a sad and difficult chapter in Michigan prep sports.

Tonight, a school board will raise its hands to fire Kelso, a 20-year celebrated veteran of our high schools, a guy who has kept more kids alive than most cops, a guy who shared his roof, his bedrooms, his food, and mostly his endless time with young athletes who often had no place else to go.

The charge before the Southfield Board of Education is that Kelso, Southfield High’s athletic director, took money from a football game he was working, pocketing cash from tickets and food instead of turning it over to the school.

And all I can say is: The board members had better be damn sure they’re right, because they are dragging this man through the mud.

And if they’re wrong, all the apologizing in the world won’t make it better.

A caring coach at Cooley

Now, I have known Ben Kelso for 15 years. I have seen him at Detroit’s Cooley High, where he built a national reputation from some pretty nasty streets. I have seen him there on Saturdays, on Sundays, at night, in the early morning, in the winter, in the summer, putting in hours with kids that were never compensated.

I have seen him at kids’ houses, talking to their parents. I have seen him riding the streets like something out of “Baretta,” trying to find a student who wandered off into trouble.

I have seen him take money out of his own pocket to rent an apartment for a teenaged player whose mother was on crack cocaine and needed to escape her dealers. I wrote a column about that kid. So many people were moved, they sent money to help the family.

That money went through Kelso. Lots of it. Hundreds and hundreds. If he were a thief, there’d be no better chance.

Instead, not only did he give all that money to the kid and his mother, but months later, when extra money came in, he sent it back.

Kelso is a strong personality, a former NBA player, a terrific coach with three state titles and more than 400 victories under his belt. When he does things, they get attention. And in the sometimes petty world of high school sports, that makes him both popular and unpopular.

But it doesn’t make him a thief.

So when I saw the news stories, I went to Kelso, who has been suspended for the last six weeks. He had a table full of receipts and documents, trying to account for every penny. I looked him in the eye. I asked him point-blank whether he had taken money improperly.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

Had he ever stolen money from the school — in any way, shape or form?

“No, no, no,” he said.

Someone’s gonna have to prove to me he’s lying.

Leading the way at Southfield

Here is what Southfield school district officials charge. They say Kelso pocketed money from a football game. They say he resold used tickets and kept the concessions money. They say there were 1,000 people in the stands, by their estimate, and he turned in money for less than half that.

And they have videotapes to prove it.

They put that in the media. It has been written for days. The school has tapes! Kelso, under the advice of lawyers, has kept silent — which of course makes him look guilty.

But I saw these tapes. And folks, nothing I saw is a smoking gun. The video often seems inconclusive, and fairly easily explained.

As to the 1,000 people in the stands — an estimate made by Southfield police liaison Ureal Vinson — well, they might want to count again. It looked more like 500, which would refute most of the charge right there.

So I called Cecil Rice, the superintendent who is calling for Kelso’s dismissal. He did not return my call. I called Officer Vinson. No reply.

So. The obvious question. Why do all this if Kelso is innocent? You tell me. Kelso rubs some people the wrong way. He gets stubborn. Perhaps his methods aren’t as trim as protocol would like.

But this is a guy who unquestionably puts students first. In just four years, he has turned around the Southfield athletic program in amazing fashion — including its financial situation. Even the board members can’t deny that.

So before they go smearing a most precious commodity, a coach who cares, they had better be sure he’s guilty beyond question. Could I be wrong? Could Kelso be lying? Yes. If he is, I’ll return in these pages and say so.

But if he isn’t, the damage is immeasurable. Perhaps before the board raises its hands, it ought to look him in the eye.

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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