The coach sits in a janitor’s closet. Two mops rest in yellow buckets. A faucet and drain are in the corner. There are no windows. No desk. A telephone, tethered to the wall with a loose gray cord, sits on the floor.

“My office,” Ben Kelso says with a chuckle.

And you should see the gym.

The gym is a tile floor, dirty white linoleum, with tape marking lanes from the 1950s, before Wilt Chamberlain forced them to be widened. There is one basket hanging loosely on a tin backboard. The whole “gym” is the size of a large classroom.

As prep venues go, it’s the end of the world, a throwaway court in a euphemistically labeled “alternative school,” the final stop for troubled teens before they’re booted out of the system altogether.

Once, Ben Kelso was Detroit’s most-celebrated high school basketball coach. This is his new place of exile, in a saga too weird to be believed. The short version? The Southfield Public School District hired him from Detroit to improve its victories and its pocketbooks, then accused him of being a thief and fired him. In time, Kelso was cleared and the district was ordered to take him back. It has been fighting that order ever since, like a petulant child who refuses to go to bed.

Its latest interpretation: As long as it gives Kelso a job, while appealing the decision, it says it is meeting requirements.

So here’s your job, Ben. The one-basket gym. The office with mop buckets.

Have fun.

“They want to destroy me,” Kelso says. “But I’ve been in worse places than this.”

He shakes his head.

“They will not destroy me.”

Instead, Kelso has done something they never expected. He has created a basketball team. He didn’t have to do it. He is being paid only to teach gym at the Southfield Regional Academic Campus, a job the district claims is “comparable” to his former position as athletic director at Southfield High.

Funny. He never worked in a mop closet as athletic director.

“Ben was supposed to be reinstated,” argues his lawyer, Bob Lahiff, who has filed a suit. “Reinstated does not mean give him ‘some’ job or put him ‘somewhere.’ It means you go back to the position you had.”

Meanwhile, Kelso showed up for work, and teenaged boys flocked to him. They saw this former NBA player, college star and exceptional coach at Cooley High — where he won three consecutive state Class A championships and literally saved the lives of dozens of inner-city kids — and said, “C’mon, Coach, why not us?”

“I wasn’t looking to start a team here,” he says. “But they kept asking. Finally I said, ‘All right, we’ll have a practice in November, see if anyone shows up.’ “

There are about 180 kids in the school.

Forty-two showed up.

“What am I gonna do with 42 kids?” Kelso says, laughing. “We only had one basket!”

Now understand, these kids may never have played high school sports. Some are there for disciplinary reasons, for legal troubles, for drugs, for violence, for academic “challenges.”

There were kids who couldn’t make a shot. There were kids who couldn’t grasp the three-man weave. One night, Kelso was talking to a senior who asked him for some extra coaching, because he planned on “playing for Georgia Tech next year.”

Kelso’s jaw dropped. This kid had no more chance of getting to Georgia Tech than he had of getting to the moon.

But something sympathetic stirred the 56-year-old coach. Maybe it’s the way his reputation has been dragged through the mud the past two years. Maybe it’s the way the school district accused him of stealing ticket money from a football concession — even though its “proof,” a secret videotape, proved nothing.

Maybe it’s the way old friends averted their eyes, even after the police cleared him, the prosecutor cleared him and the tenure commission cleared him. Maybe it’s the way, last June, when he showed up at Southfield High to take his old job back, as ordered, he was escorted out of the building like a gambler banned from a casino.

Maybe it’s the way a few high-ranking administrators keep insisting Kelso is unworthy, even though the line of people testifying to his character would run from here to Cleveland.

“They’d like me to quit,” he says.

But Ben Kelso — who grew up on a dirt floor in rural Tennessee, with no money, no father and 10 siblings — doesn’t quit, not on himself, and not on his kids.

His new team’s first game is Jan. 10.

To date, Kelso hasn’t cut a single player.

Which makes things a bit bulky. For one thing, Kelso previously had agreed to coach afternoons at Detroit Central, so that time is committed. Plus, in order to practice he needs to arrange time at other schools’ gymnasiums — if they’re empty.

“What’s the name of your team?” he is asked.

“We don’t have a name yet,” he admits.

“What about uniforms?”

“Don’t have those, yet, either.”

Their “home” games must be played at a middle school a mile away. So what? The measure of a team is how it plays together, not where. And the measure of a coach is how he molds what he is given — even if it’s a lump of coal.

In a few days, 2004 will be over. You want a New Year’s story? Here’s a New Year’s story. Ben Kelso is still standing. They keep trying to crush him. His life, already turned upside down, is now in the slow contraptions of the legal system. His bank account is depleted. It could be, with appeals, another year and a half. But one day, if this truly is a smear campaign, the forces behind it will be held to the fire.

For now, Kelso takes the hand he is dealt. The old joke is that those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym. But here, amidst the mops and buckets, a gym teacher hangs on, hangs in, and forges a team from a tempest. And in so doing, he is teaching something precious; that the heart that believes can overcome anything.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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