Hoping to inspire his University of Miami basketball team for Saturday’s daunting road game against No. 2 undefeated Syracuse, coach Jim Larrañaga took players and staff to see the movie, Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on New Year’s Eve afternoon.
“It was very meaningful for our players to see what people are willing to sacrifice for their principles,’’ Larrañaga said. “I think he was an incredible leader and person, had a great impact on society, and is a great role model for all of us. Hopefully, it helps us as a team, reminding us the importance of sticking together.’’
Larrañaga has made a career of taking underdogs to heights they never thought they could reach. He led unheralded George Mason to the 2006 Final Four. Last season, a UM team predicted to finish middle of the pack wound up winning the ACC and making a Sweet 16 run.
On Saturday, he will try to convince his collection of inexperienced Hurricanes (8-5) that they can fight through the Orange’s vaunted 2-3 zone at the 49,000-seat Carrier Dome, and beat a 13-0 Syracuse team, one of just seven unbeaten teams in the nation. He will remind them that anything is possible with faith and hustle.
That message rings particularly true for forward James Kelly. On a team of underdogs, he is one of the biggest underdogs of all.
As of four years ago, Kelly had never played organized basketball. He was a wayward kid in Ann Arbor, Mich., had gotten “in big trouble’’ at age 11, hung out with the wrong crowd, liked to sneak away from home, and didn’t feel any incentive to excel as a student or an athlete.
“I was just a regular kid, sitting around watching TV, didn’t really think I had any talents,’’ Kelly said.
Then, he caught the eye of Ann Arbor Pioneer High coach Rex Stanczak.
“I’ll never forget the first day I saw James play,’’ said Stanczak. “It was his sophomore year and we had open gym one morning and our JV coach called me and said, ‘You’ve got to come see this kid. He doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing, but he’s special.’ ’’
Kelly was attending Roberto Clemente Student Development Center at the time, a small alternative school for students who need extra care. That school had no basketball team, so he was allowed to try out for the team at Pioneer. Kelly, who was already 6-7 and boasted highlight-reel dunks, made the team with ease.
But his grades were poor, and he was academically ineligible. With Stanczak’s prodding, and the nurturing of teachers and administrators at the Clemente school, Kelly picked up his grades. He joined the team midway through his junior season, and in his first game scored 24 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
His grades slipped again toward the end of the semester, and he was ruled ineligible for the playoffs. He got serious his senior year, and earned a scholarship to Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio.
There, coach David Clarke took over the project. Kelly was raw, had no post moves, and poor fundamentals. With a lot of hard work, Kelly excelled, averaged 18.2 points and 10 rebounds, and was wooed by Miami, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Mexico.
“In all my 25 years as a coach, I have never been more proud of anything as I am about seeing James Kelly at UM, playing in the ACC,’’ Stanczak said Thursday by phone. “If you had told me his junior year of high school that he’d one day be playing in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse, I’d have said, `No way.’ That was not even in the realm of possibility. It is amazing the miles he has come, as a player and a person. This is why you coach, for guys like James Kelly.’’
Stanczak said that when he first started working with Kelly, the kid acted “like a really, big 10-year-old rumbly, tumbly boy. Very immature. It definitely was not an overnight fix. It took a lot of people and a lot of patience. Hillary Clinton said, ‘It takes a village’ to raise a child. Well, it took a village with James Kelly. All hands on deck. His parents loved him very much, but didn’t have the resources or experience to know what to do with him.
“It was a couple steps forward, a step back, for a while, but we grinded through it together, and look at him now.’’
UM coaches have been stunned by Kelly’s progress, particularly his strength.
“When he got here, he had never lifted a weight a day of his life,’’ Larrañaga said.
“He still tested very strong, 215 pounds on the bench press, and within four months he was benching 315. That improvement is unheard of. Normally, you improve five pounds a month. He improved 100 pounds in four months.’’
Teammates have come to depend on his sense of humor and athleticism. Kelly has started nine games, is the team’s most accurate shooter at 53.8 percent, and averages 9.2 points and 5.5 rebounds.
“He can knock down short and mid-range shots, catch lob passes, put back dunks, rebound,’’ guard Davon Reed said. “He does a lot of the dirty work we need without asking him to. And he’s always laughing, non-stop.’’
That smile wasn’t always there.
“I wasn’t sure I had what it takes, felt like an outcast sometimes, but I fell in love with basketball and it changed my life,’’ he said. “I’m not scared to play at Syracuse. I’m excited.’’