By Gary P. West
King Kelly Coleman had become bigger than life, but he was able to back it up.
The stories were enough to fill a book and basketball junkies can’t seem to get enough.
One of the good ones was the night Wayland was playing Maytown. During a timeout one of the Maytown players complained to his coach, Ed Stewart, that Kelly was under the influence. He could smell alcohol and he was sure the Wayland star was drunk. Coach Stewart told the player to “find out what brand Kelly was drinking, because he’s already scored 52 on us.”
King Kelly finished the game with 75 points and 41 rebounds.
“That stuff was exaggerated,” Coleman said. “I never drank during a game.” Our team was accused of having more than just water in our bottles, but it wasn’t so. Now don’t get me wrong, after the game was a different story.”
But wait a minute. There may have been some truth about that Maytown defender smelling liquor on Kelly’s breath. Frankie Francis was a sophomore player at nearby Garrett High School that year. It just so happened that his team didn’t have a game that night, so he and a buddy were hitchhiking to Wayland to see the King play.
“We were at Mullins Service Station in Estill about a mile and a half from Wayland, looking for a ride,” laughed Francis. Apparently you could get a lot more than gas at Mullin’s, as Frances continued. “Kelly walked in and said he wanted a half pint. I think he gave Mr. Mullins a couple of bucks. It was a bottle of Bond-Lillard. Kelly twisted the cap off, took a big swig, put the cap on and threw it in the waste can. As he was walking out the door Mr. Mullins said, “Hey King, how many you gonna get tonight? “ Kelly looked back over his shoulder and said, “sixty-five”.
Francis, who later coached Wheelwright High School from 1966 to
1976, recalled those “three-on-three cut-throat pick up games” on the outdoor court at Wayland. “I was younger and I was just glad they let me play. We played for Pepsi’s and the game was to 16,” recalled Francis. “If you got on Kelly’s team you drank a lot of Pepsi’s.”
Francis remembered how hard Kelly played, even in pick-up games.
“He was such a competitor,” he said. “He worked on his change of pace jump shot. And, I do remember, when Kelly decided to leave, so did the crowd.”
Gordon Moore, the writer, knew Coleman well. Although several people have taken credit, it was Moore who hung the “King” label on Kelly Coleman.
“I resented it. I was just a kid,” says Coleman. “Think about it. Why would anybody want that?”
Kelly was no dummy though. He knew what the fans wanted and he knew he could do it – – score.
But what was basketball giving to Kelly in the mid-50’s, when his dad was bringing home $50.00 per month working in the coal mines? King Kelly’s success meant dignity, respect, acceptance, and attention for him and his family. It came with a price however, because it was the attention Coleman had trouble living with away from the court.
Moore says Kelly drank too much back then, and that he lacked that one person to push him in the right direction. Even in spite of that he still played basketball better than anyone else.
Most of Kentucky is made up of small towns. From one end of the state to the other its tobacco, bourbon, horses or coal, but its one common thread is basketball. Basketball fans everywhere couldn’t get enough of King Kelly.
His coach, Copper John Campbell, was satisfied that, even with Kelly being the only returning starter, Wayland could be very good.
Coleman began the year at Greenbrier Military School in West Virginia. This is where West Virginia University wanted to “hide him out”. If Coleman had not had a dislike for military life, high school basketball in Kentucky would probably not have any kind of history with Kelly Coleman, and there wouldn’t have been a King Kelly for sure. It could have been a disastrous season. Coach Campbell got another break when Billy Ray Fultz transferred in from Wheelwright. Although Fultz has never played on an organized team he looked good in practice and would be a starter.
Billy Ray Combs had never played on a team before either, but senior Elmond Hall and sophomore Melvin Robinson had, and they were pretty good. They knew their roles – – get the ball to Kelly and get out of the way. But, and it was a big but, be ready just in case. Before the season was over they would have their chance.
Everybody wanted to see Kelly play. Many who couldn’t, wrote letters, lots of them. Some even sent him money because they had read he was from the mountains. The perception was, if you’re from the mountains you must be poor, and if you’re poor you must need money. That was ok with Kelly.
With all that was good in Wayland, there was also some bad.
Any college that was anything in basketball wanted the King. Out of state license plates in and around Floyd County were common to see. They weren’t there to look at the mountains.
Kelly scored so many points at such a pace that gamblers gave odds on how many points he would get against a particular team.
He scored over 50 points on twelve occasions his senior year, including that 75-point game against Maytown. It became big news when he didn’t score 50.
Pearl Combs, the coach over at Hindman was so certain that Kelly wasn’t going to have a big night against his team that he boasted that the Wayland player might get 25. The reported betting line was 35 points.
When the yellow school bus pulled up in front of the Hindman gym, Coach Combs greeted Copper John and the Wayland team. As Kelly walked by him, the coach informed him that tonight they were going to “hold him to 25”. “Which quarter?” Kelly replied as he kept walking.
Kelly had 39 at the half.
The King was 17-years-old and West Virginia still wanted him to play basketball in Morgantown
Most of King Kelly’s shots were taken from the top of the key. He was pure, a fantastic shooter, and although his shot was not picture perfect, the end result usually was. He didn’t need but a split second to get free from the defender and fire his shot from slightly toward his right shoulder.
Copper John was asked why he let Kelly shoot so much. “Well, the name of the game is basketball, and no one puts it in the basket better than Kelly,” he responded.
For his size and apparent bulk his speed was deceptive. He dribbled with an effortless style, and with a stop and go move he left the defender, like everyone else in the gym, watching the ball go through the net.
One writer described Kelly’s moves as that of a Sherman tank. Another said he would bull his way to the basket after running over several defenders.
Coleman says that wasn’t the case at all. “They did everything to stop me, they grabbed my uniform, stepped on my toes, pushed and shoved,” he said. “It didn’t matter. It still didn’t work. I could stop on a dime and most of the time they’d fall down and I’d have an open shot.”
But for all of the things said and written about the King, the one common denominator, the one common thing they say about him was his ability to follow his shot. When he did miss from outside, he had an uncanny knack for getting the rebound and putting it in the basket.
“I can’t explain it, he offered.” “I don’t know how I did it”.