SPRINGFIELD - Sometimes you travel around the world just to end up back home.
Back in March of 1985, Kevin Ellery was being fed all around Springfield.
Ellery was an emerging sophomore basketball standout on the Washington County team that had just earned the school's first - and, to this day, its only - trip to the Boys' Sweet Sixteen.
"It seemed like we had conquered the world," Ellery said last week. "Every day, it seemed like there were lunches or people having dinners for us. It was unbelievable."
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Twenty-three years later, it is Ellery's job to make sure that Washington County's children get at least one good meal every day.
Ellery, 39, is the Food Services Director for the county's public school system. He oversees five schools, four cafeterias and 16 full-time employees.
"Basically it's my job to make sure the kids get something good to eat every day," Ellery said.
In between these two food-related life points, Ellery spent his senior year of high school (1987) dueling with John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus to be considered the state of Kentucky's best basketball player.
He earned a basketball scholarship to Notre Dame, where he became a starter on Digger Phelps' final Fighting Irish team. After South Bend, Ellery traveled the world to play or coach hoops in countries ranging from Australia to Ireland to Mexico.
"When I was growing up, I would have never believe that I would spend years overseas," Ellery said. "I, basically, never left Springfield when I was growing up."
See the world. Find your way back home.
Snubbed by UK
In the winter of 1987, the battle to be considered Kentucky's best high school basketball player was a duel among three forwards - Paintsville's Pelphrey, Mason County's Feldhaus and Ellery.
At 6-5, Ellery was the shortest of the three. At roughly 225 pounds, he was also the thickest. Ellery's was the perfect body - for football.
But basketball was always the sport in his heart.
Both of Ellery's parents died by the time he was 9. His grandmother, Isabelle Ellery, raised Kevin.
"She made it a lot easier for me," Kevin said. "She was the backbone. The person who held everything together."
Kevin also had basketball.
"I loved to play. We had a court right by where I lived," Ellery said, sitting in his office inside the Washington County Board of Education. "That's pretty much all I did.
Looking back, I think it was basketball that kept me out of a lot of bad situations, away, maybe, from the wrong people. I played three, four hours every day."
As a sophomore on that state tournament team, Ellery and Co. ran into Paintsville and Pelphrey in the Sweet Sixteen's first round.
Paintsville beat Washington County 54-51. Pelphrey had 13 points and 15 rebounds. Ellery had 12 points.
Afterward, Ellery recalls watching his senior teammates cry in the Rupp Arena lockerroom. "I wasn't really upset like that," Ellery said. "I knew we'd get back to the state tournament."
They never did.
By the time he was a senior in 1987, Ellery had become an unstoppable scorer. He led Kentucky in scoring, averaging 30 points.
Because of his lack of height, the college recruiters were sparse. Midway through his final high school season, Ellery had scholarship offers from Western Kentucky, Morehead State and Kentucky Wesleyan.
The school he wanted to hear from was UK.
"If you look at Louisville back then, they had really athletic teams," he said. "That wasn't really my game. But I thought I could have played at Kentucky."
UK never called. In a surprise, Notre Dame did. Ellery committed to the Irish before his senior season was over.
He then concentrated on leading Washington County back to the Sweet Sixteen. That dream died in an upset loss to LaRue County in the finals of the 5th Region.
"I still think about that game," Ellery says. "I couldn't hit a shot. I was so frustrated. I couldn't make anything. Even now, I've never watched that game."
After the season, when the Herald-Leader counted coaches' votes for its 1987 All-State team, eventual Mr. Basketball Pelphrey led with 152; Feldhaus had 144; Ellery 140.
Feldhaus and Pelphrey got the scholarship offers from Kentucky that Kevin Ellery wanted.
Playing for Digger
When his grandmother, an aunt and uncle and a family friend took him to South Bend for school, Ellery says he didn't want to stay by himself.
"They were leaving and I was like, 'Hey, where are you guys going,'" he says. "I'd never been anywhere but Springfield to stay."
But stay he did.
In four years, Ellery played in 88 games at Notre Dame and started 23. His first three years in South Bend, the Irish made the NCAA Tournament three times.
In his sophomore year of 1988-89, Ellery enjoyed a particularly sweet moment. He scored a team-high 15 points to lead ND to an 81-65 pasting of Eddie Sutton's final UK team.
"I took it a little personally, Kentucky not offering me," Ellery says. "I never was bitter. But I did want to show them that I was capable of playing at that level."
Ellery says Phelps "was a dictator. He was not gonna open up and be a real players' coach. Once you got a handle on that, there wasn't any problem playing for him. I think he's a great guy. We still talk about every three months."
Most of Ellery's starts at Notre Dame came in his senior year (1990-91). Yet it is not an especially sweet memory.
Notre Dame finished 12-20. Phelps was fired.
"I thought he'd be at Notre Dame forever," Ellery said. "He really loved everything about Notre Dame." Rainy Ireland After graduating from Notre Dame, Ellery took a job with an underwear manufacturer in Campbellsville. But he didn't have basketball out of his system.
He began seeking chances to play professionally overseas. The guy who was homesick before his family had even left him at Notre Dame started out playing in Australia and then New Zealand.
Ellery wound up playing for four years (1995-99) in Dublin, Ireland.
"It rained 30 days in a row once," he said of life in Ireland. "The food was way different, no seasoning at all. If you got potatoes, there'd be no salt, no pepper, nothing."
When he was playing, Ellery says his team provided him with an apartment and a car (a Toyota) as part of his deal. Even though there weren't many people in Ireland who look like he does, Ellery says he came to love it.
"I'd go back to Dublin in a heartbeat," he says.
Once his playing career wound down, Ellery transferred his basketball passion into coaching (including a team from Mexico City) and conducting youth camps.
He wound up in Lexington, managing the Foot Locker store in Fayette Mall.
Ellery has a fiancÃ©e and two young sons. He still lives in Lexington.
The former Washington County basketball star was interested in returning to his hometown as a coach when he saw the food services director job advertised.
Obviously, the school kids eating the meals being prepared by the staff Ellery supervises do not remember the days when No. 35 was the biggest thing in Washington County sports.
They do, Ellery says, sometimes ask him about the retired jersey that hangs in the high school gym.
What he's noticed being back in his hometown "is that the kids don't play basketball every day like we used to," Ellery said. "In the black community, I'm not sure they have a place to play like we did. The court I played on isn't there anymore."
That bothers him.
"I don't know if the kids have the same opportunities I had," he said.
To remedy that, Ellery says he'd like to play a role in bringing a recreation center to Springfield.
In the meantime, his job is to make sure Washington County's kids eat well when at school.
"I get in at 8," he says. "I check all my sites, talk to the managers. I spend a lot of time OKing purchase orders. You name it, I do it all."