- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

COLUMBIA, S.C.

Tre Kelley won’t grab anyone’s attention with boisterous speech or animated theatrics. But don’t mistake the silence for a lack of confidence, passion or interest.

Timid and introverted? Far from it.

Think cool, calculated, focused. A quiet charisma.

The demeanor of the former Dunbar High School star — now a senior point guard at South Carolina and a candidate for Southeastern Conference player of the year — is a byproduct of an accelerated maturation process, the direct result of the obstacles littered along his path to adulthood.

“There are so many aspects that have made me who I am,” Kelley said last week in Columbia, the day before posting 32 points and eight assists in a 99-90 overtime loss to Vanderbilt. “My mother had a big heart and was never afraid. My father either. My grandmother, who only fears God. And just growing up in D.C., it’s a place where you can’t be afraid. If you go out the door afraid, you’ll be taken advantage of.”

Kelley became a man at the age of 11.

With his parents’ marriage in shambles, he sought the refuge of his grandmother Lila Haythe’s home in the Brentwood Apartments — now called Brookland Manor — on 14th Street in Northeast for much of his childhood.

Then one day in August, nearly 11 years ago, Kelley’s mother — who by that time had separated from his father — was murdered.

“What a hurtful day that was,” Haythe recalled. “I had been through it before. I had two other children killed before Monica. But oh, what a painful day.”

The phone rang, and Haythe answered it in her bedroom.

“When she received the news, she started crying and yelling my name,” Kelley said. “I went back there, and she told me they found my mother dead. I couldn’t believe it. I had a piece of cake in my hand and threw it against the wall and ran out the house. After my mother’s death, I began to look at life with more maturity, and my grandmother has a lot to do with that.”

Haythe is a woman of strong faith. A large, well-worn Bible sits open on the 70-year-old’s dining room table, right next to the spot she eats her meals. Gospel radio programming serves as the background to her day. The majority of her conversations are exchanged with the Almighty rather than a mere mortal.

“God gave me the strength, and I was so glad He put Tre in my life so I had someone to be strong for,” she said, smiling.

Kelley moved in with his grandmother on a permanent basis after his mother’s death but remained close with his father, who now lives in North Carolina. Haythe imparted her faith to her grandson, and it helped him overcome his grief.

Basketball also served as an outlet.

A family friend, Delonte Taylor, reached out to Kelley soon after the boy lost his mother. At the time, Taylor, who spent four years in the NBA playing for the San Antonio Spurs and Washington Bullets before playing overseas, had recently returned to the neighborhood after deciding to end his career.

Taylor had grown up in the District, watching playground legends Skip McDaniels, Eddie Jordan, Kevin Tatum and Jeff Harris, all of whom tutored him in the game of basketball.

“I just wanted to do for them what was done for me and give them direction,” explained Taylor, who now counsels at-risk youth. “Growing up in D.C., you have to have focus ‘cause temptation is on every corner. I was fortunate to have guys take me in. So I wanted to do the same thing. And not teach them about basketball but teach them about life.”

Taylor took Kelley and a handful of other boys under his wing, spending hours with them on the court across from their apartment complex and taking them all over the District to play other neighborhood squads.

“Tre was the kid that just worked and worked and stuck with it,” said Taylor, whom Kelley calls after every South Carolina game to get an assessment on his performance to find ways to improve. “He was hungry. He worked harder than any of them. He’d call me, asking me to work some more with him. And if I didn’t answer my phone, he’d come to my mother’s house looking for me.”

Kelley starred at Dunbar, making the city’s Interhigh League conference team three straight years. He was named player of the year while leading his team to the championship as a senior, averaging 29 points, 8.3 assists and five rebounds a game.

Basketball represented Kelley’s ticket to a better future.

“If you know D.C., you know you’re not just gonna get out of there by just going to school,” Kelley said. “You’ve gotta play sports because nobody’s parents have money just to send them to school. So I figured God gave me basketball as my way out.”

Kelley received scholarship offers from Georgetown, Maryland, Miami, Georgia Tech, West Virginia and South Carolina.

Gamecocks coach Dave Odom’s reputation as “a point guard’s coach” and his promise that Kelley would run his team as long as he was at South Carolina sealed the deal.

Kelley has started every game since his sophomore year. The Gamecocks won the NIT championship in both the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons.

As a junior, Kelley ranked second in scoring for South Carolina, averaging 12.5 points a game while dishing out 4.6 assists.

Kelley entered his senior season with added responsibilities. With last year’s leading scorer, Renaldo Balkman, now playing for the New York Knicks, coaches asked Kelley — one of three seniors on a team with six freshmen — to take a greater leadership role and increase his scoring.

But on Dec. 29, he tore cartilage and partially tore the meniscus in his left knee during a game against Jacksonville. Doctors told Kelley and his coaches they would have to operate.

His impending surgery, scheduled for 7 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 31, would force him to miss six to eight weeks for recovery.

Odom arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m. to support his team leader but received a surprise soon after he arrived there.

“I walked into the operating room and looked around and said, ‘Where’s Tre?’ ” Odom recalled. “They said, ‘Coach, he’s down in admissions and needs to talk to you.’ So I went downstairs, and Tre says, ‘Coach, I can’t have it. My grandmother called at 2:15 this morning and said she’d been in touch with the Lord, and I was gonna be OK. Coach, I can’t go against my grandmother.’

“I told him I wouldn’t want him to go against his grandmother or the Lord, but I admit I had some human doubt,” Odom continued. “I called his grandmother, and she was going to church and taking all her friends and were gonna pray all Sunday and come back at 5 o’clock and told me to call her back and we’d decide what to do.”

Haythe maintained her belief God would take care of Kelley.

“Lord told me, ‘By my stripes you are healed.’ And he would give strength to do what he needed to do without surgery,” she said proudly.

Odom agreed to postpone the surgery and wait until that Thursday to see how his star point guard’s knee progressed.

Four days later, Odom and the team doctors took Kelley into the gym. Odom put Kelley through 30 minutes of rigorous drills and left amazed.

“He did everything I asked,” Odom says. “The doctors couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t either.”

The doctors expected Kelley’s knee to swell up overnight following the drills, but he woke the next morning feeling fine.

Kelley returned to action the next week and hasn’t missed a start this season.

“I can’t believe it,” senior center Brandon Wallace says. “I know it bothers him at times, but I haven’t seen any effects from the knee. If anything, he’s gotten better. He’s upped his scoring even though teams are focusing on him more.”

Now just more than two months after his injury, Kelley is averaging team and career highs of 19.1 points, second in the SEC, and 5.1 assists a game as his 14-15 Gamecocks prepare for the SEC tournament, which begins Thursday.

“If he’s not player of the year in this league , then shame on the people that vote,” Odom said of Kelley, the only Gamecocks player averaging in double figures. “He is the player of the year in this league. No question.”

Although many describe him as a “scoring point guard,” Kelley disdains that title. He would rather not be lumped in the same category as Gilbert Arenas or Allen Iverson, wanting instead to be known as a “true” point guard like his idols Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Jason Kidd.

“There’s a difference between a scoring point guard and a point guard who can score,” insisted Kelley, whose 502 assists rank second on South Carolina’s all-time list. “A scoring point guard’s mentality is just to score. My focus is to involve my teammates. I score because I am asked to. But I do that without giving up my point guard role. If I drive the lane, I’m looking to draw defenders and free up a teammate and create for him. But the defenders don’t know what to do. If he stays with me, I pass. If he commits to my teammate, I’ll score. A true point guard has a pass-first mentality.”

But despite his success, Kelley remains hungry.

“There’s always room to improve,” he said. “I wake up every morning thinking, ‘What do I need to do today to come back to this bed tonight a better basketball player? Do I need to work on my shot? Do I need to do something extra in the weight room? Run some more? What do I need to do?’ I wanna be the best I can be, and I don’t want my best to be less than someone else’s best.”

Kelley hopes to take his skills to the NBA next year, and his coaches and those close to him believe he has the potential to do so.

“He’s outplayed every counterpart he has faced this season,” Odom said. And the coach believes if Kelley has surgery immediately following the season, he can recover in time to put on a strong showing at the summer predraft workouts.

“I think Tre definitely can be an NBA player,” said family friend and D.C. native Lawrence Moten, a former standout at Syracuse and the Big East Conference’s all-time leading scorer. “Tre reminds me a lot of Chauncey Billups — he can score and really knows the game. And he’s got a really good spin move. And its hard to tell what he’s gonna do if you’re a defender because he sees everything so well.”

While some might consider Kelley’s diminutive stature (6-foot, 180 pounds) as a detractor, those familiar with him warn against discounting him based on size. Because as Kelley has shown throughout his life, he’s always found a way to overcome whatever stands in his path.

“When you’re dealing with a guy with a heart of a lion, they’re never out of it,” South Carolina assistant Rick Duckett said. “His potential is limitless. When you start saying he doesn’t have this or can’t do this, he finds a way to make up for it. You never wanna count him out.”


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