Obituary: Robert 'Jeep' Kelley / High school basketball legend
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The story has been told and retold through the years in basketball circles throughout the city to keep alive the legend of Robert "Jeep" Kelley, a playground phenom who never quite fulfilled what seemed to be unlimited promise on the courts.
Mr. Kelley, a sinewy 6-foot-2 eighth-grader, was a ball boy at the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, a national all-star basketball game for high school seniors. He was shooting during a break in one of the practices when Maryland coach Lefty Driesell stopped to watch.
Mr. Driesell, coach of one of the Roundball teams, came away wondering what college the kid was going to. Told that Mr. Kelley wasn't yet in high school, Mr. Driesell smiled and said, "He's the best player out here."
"He was one of the five greatest City League players of all-time," said Bill Neal, longtime local basketball buff, CEO of Champion Enterprises and director of the Connie Hawkins League. "He could have gone the distance ... but he didn't."
Mr. Kelley, who died of cardiac arrest March 9 at the age of 54, mostly will be remembered as a standout on Schenley High School's 1971 state championship team, considered by many the finest ever from Western Pennsylvania.
He never reached his potential in college, playing briefly at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of Hawaii before disappearing from the basketball scene. Later, he would serve jail time on drug charges.
"When he took his physical at UNLV as a freshman, he was diagnosed as suffering from malnutrition," said Tony Morocco, the men's basketball coach at Seton Hill University and longtime adviser to and friend of Mr. Kelley.
"On every level when you talk about Kelley, the word 'unfortunate' is used. He never had the same bed to sleep in as a child and everything around him was unstable. He didn't have positive things to gravitate to."
"He could jump out of this world. He was way, way advanced for a young fellow. When I found out that he had died, it was a deep personal loss for me because I go back to the early days with him," said Tom Thornton, a member of the championship Schenley team who now lives in Detroit.
Mr. Kelley was given his nickname by the director at Ammon Recreation Center because he circled the bases so fast playing baseball as a youngster. When Mr. Kelley played in the Roundball Classic at the Civic Arena, the public address announcer introduced him in a booming, staccato voice, "Beep, beep, here comes Jeep."
Mr. Kelley, who drove a bus and worked at Warrington Recreation Center at times over the past decade, joined Kirk Bruce and former teammate Ricky Coleman the past couple years to run a summer basketball camp and clinics for youths called "Old School Basketball Camp" at Ammon.
A funeral was held Thursday in the Hill District.
First Published March 16, 2008 12:00 am