The tale of the 1971 PIAA champions
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The death notice, as it appeared last week in the Post-Gazette, would have meant little to anyone other than those closest to him.
"Kelley, Robert L. Sr., 54, of Hill District," it read.
Just another anonymous person from Pittsburgh's mean streets who died too young.
But if the name he'd been known by publicly more than 30 years ago had been included in the death notice, it would have struck a chord with many.
Inside the game of basketball, Jeep Kelley was one of those legends in his own time, a young man whose basketball prowess was well known before he even played a high school game.
This is the story not of Jeep Kelley but of a wondrous Schenley High basketball team that won the PIAA championship in 1971 and is arguably the best to ever come out of this region. It's the story of where basketball can take you and where drugs can take you.
Two members of that team used basketball not just to get out of The Hill but become millionaires. Three others stayed home and got involved in drugs. Of those three, one escaped through the Army to build a better life in another state. Two stayed behind: One lived, barely; the other died.
There was a service for Kelley Thursday at the Jones Funeral Home on Wylie Ave. They talked of him in the kindest way, of his belief in God, his kind spirit, his laugh, his basketball talent and his well-known fear of the water. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of tears.
Among the speakers was Ricky Coleman, who called Kelley "my brother." Indeed, they were close -- in basketball and on the streets.
Coleman was the best player on that Schenley team and, in these eyes, the best to come out of Western Pennsylvania. There's was nothing he couldn't do -- shoot, slash, distribute, lead. And he did it all with such a cool that he didn't seem to work up a sweat. He was recruited by everyone and accepted a scholarship to Jacksonville, at the time one of the elite programs in the country. This was a guy destined to be a pro.
Coleman, though, is not one of the millionaires. He's the one who barely survived drugs.
He tore knee ligaments at Jacksonville and never was quite the same after rehab, although still good. Against better advice, he left with a year of eligibility remaining and was taken in the sixth round of the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. He made it to the last cut. He was cut again the next year by the New York Knicks.
"That's when I went into the drug spiral," said Coleman, who had been using even earlier. "I suffered for 20 years. In 1993, I turned my life over to God and have been clean ever since."
Coleman is married, and his son will be playing at Schenley next season. He's a credit to himself and his community. He's well-spoken with a large heart. He works for the city in the Parks Department. He's doing good, trying to steer young kids down the right path.
Jeffrey Matthews was at the funeral, too. Matthews was the other guard beside Coleman, steady and dependable. He's the one who escaped the drugs to make a successful life for himself in Rochester, N.Y.
"I tried college [California, Pa.] after high school but didn't last," Matthews said. "I got jobs in the steel mills. I worked in Homestead. I worked in Braddock. I was living in The Hill and getting hooked up with the wrong people. I kept getting in trouble. I was messing with drugs."
Matthews joined the Army, got into rehab, served three years and came out clean.
"It changed my life," Matthews said. "I got out, went to work for a company and eventually bought it."
He owns a janitorial service company that employs 15 people.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," he said.
Anyone looking at the '71 Schenley team would have projected Coleman and Kelley as going the furthest with basketball. Maurice Lucas would have been third. Lucas was still growing into his body in high school. He was a work in progress as a junior and blossomed as a senior.
He matriculated at Marquette, where he had an outstanding career under Al McGuire and made it to the national championship game in 1974. He played in the ABA and the NBA, and although best remembered as a tough guy, an enforcer, he was a good player who scored more than 12,000 points in the NBA. He was highly instrumental in the Portland Trail Blazers winning the 1977 NBA championship.
Lucas, currently an assistant coach with the TrailBlazers, is one of the Schenley millionaires.
Tom Thornton, a 6-foot-5 forward, is the other.
Thornton earned a basketball scholarship to Detroit but gave up the sport after two years.
"I thought I should be hitting the books more," he said over the phone Friday. "I went to my coach and told him. He said, 'If that's the way you feel, I respect what you're doing.' "
The coach was Dick Vitale.
Thornton got a degree in electrical engineering from Detroit and later a master's degree in business management at Central Michigan. After working for several major corporations, he started his own company, Thornton Enterprises LLC. He owns and operates more than 100 apartment units.
Did drugs tempt him when he lived in Pittsburgh?
"Oh, no," he said. "My parents would have none of that. They instilled hard work and discipline in me. Coming up I saw what drugs did to people. I wanted none of that."
The four living members remain in touch.
Lucas was in Coleman's wedding about 10 years ago. Thornton recalled a recent phone conversation he had with Lucas. Matthews saw Lucas in New Jersey several months ago at a Trail Blazers-New Jersey Nets game.
"We've got to get the group together," he said to Lucas, "before it's too late."
They're hoping to come back home in the summer to have a good time and to remember Jeep Kelley and what might have been.
First Published March 16, 2008 12:00 am