Men's Basketball

Mark Story: After latest kidney surgery, Kelly Wells yearns for a 'feel-good' hoops season

Pikeville coach Kelly Wells spoke to his team during a game at Georgetown College in Feb. 2013. Around Christmas of that year, Wells accepted he would need a second kidney transplant.
Pikeville coach Kelly Wells spoke to his team during a game at Georgetown College in Feb. 2013. Around Christmas of that year, Wells accepted he would need a second kidney transplant. Lexington Herald-Leader

Kelly Wells' reaction after the University of Pikeville lost to LSU-Shreveport in the first round of the 2013 NAIA Division I national tournament ran contrary to the coaching genome.

The UPike men's basketball head man was relieved his team's (very good) season was over.

"I just felt so bad (physically)," Wells said Friday. "I was ready for it to be over."

At the relatively young age of 42, Wells has already compiled one of the more accomplished hoops coaching résumés in the commonwealth. He's done so working under the constant prospect of kidney failure.

The most challenging season in Wells' coaching career began last November. Pikeville was in the KFC Yum Center to face Louisville in an exhibition game. Before the opening tip, Wells began passing blood.

Once Pikeville lost, the coach checked himself into Jewish Hospital in Louisville. He didn't get out for eight harrowing days.

The coach's season of adversity ended in Kansas City, site of the NAIA national tourney, with Wells in his hotel room before Pikeville played lying with his legs elevated in the air.

He was trying to get the swelling in his feet to recede enough that he could put on shoes to go to his team's game.

"It was the toughest year I've ever had coaching," Wells said. "All year, I just felt so bad, felt like I didn't have any energy, and I think the medications I was taking made me feel worse."

For Wells, kidney issues and basketball first intersected before his senior season as a basketball player at Morehead State in 1994. Then, he underwent what he expected to be a normal pre-season physical.

"It was as routine as could be, just peeing in a cup," Wells said. "But the trainer noticed there was an elevated level of protein in my urine. That's a warning sign of what I have, Berger's disease. It knocked me out of playing, but thank heaven he was on point and followed through."

According to the Mayo Clinic website, Berger's disease occurs when an antibody (immunoglobulin A) lodges in the kidneys. The result can be inflammation to such an extent the kidneys are hampered in their ability to filter waste, excess water and electrolytes from the blood stream.

In severe cases, end-stage kidney failure is possible.

"It's not hereditary, there was nothing that ran in my family," Wells said. "I was just one of the unlucky ones that drew this in my life."

With his basketball playing days cut short, Wells launched a high school coaching career. At the tender age of 26, he led Marion County to a berth in the 1997 boys' Sweet Sixteen. He parlayed that into one of the best high school coaching jobs in the state, Mason County.

In 2003, Wells coached the Royals, led by the sharp-shooting Chris Lofton, to the 2003 state championship. The following season, Mason finished as state runner-up.

Yet by the 2004 season, Wells' kidney condition had deteriorated to the point he needed a transplant. His wife, Shawne, a former Morehead women's basketball player, became his donor.

"At that time, the doctors said a transplanted kidney is good for 15 years, 18 years at the most," Wells said. "So I've known all along this is something I'll probably I have to deal with again."

After the transplant was successfully done, Wells went looking for a new professional challenge. He broke into college coaching, spending two years at Hawaii Pacific, the final one as head coach.

Even living in a tropical paradise, he and his family (Kelly and Shawne have two children) felt the pull of home. A former Rowan County High School star, Wells came back to his native Eastern Kentucky as head man at Pikeville.

By 2011 at UPike, Wells built the Bears NAIA Division I national champions.

Yet last winter, not long after his greatest coaching achievement, Wells faced his most trying season.

There were signs of Wells' body rejecting at least a part of the transplanted kidney. Doctors also detected a growth on one of the coach's native kidneys which they feared was cancerous.

Once the Pikeville season ended, Wells took a few months to rebuild his strength for a surgery. On July 29 at Lexington's St. Joseph Hospital, doctors removed the native kidney with the growth on it. "The mass on it was 90 percent carcinomas," Wells said.

Still, the news subsequent to the surgery has been good.

"The term (the doctors) used was 'zero margins,'" Wells said. "That means (the cancer) didn't spread anywhere else."

Just as important, since the surgery, Wells said the condition of the transplanted kidney has improved. "That's been a big relief to me," he said.

So now Wells is again looking ahead. Pikeville recently announced its men's basketball roster for the 2013-14 season. It includes transfers from Long Beach State and Wichita State, as well as a familiar returnee in Elisha Justice, Kentucky's 2010 Mr. Basketball at Shelby Valley and a former Louisville guard.

If the new pieces fit, Wells thinks the Bears are capable of another good year. After what he went through last season, "a good year" for the coach would involve more than winning games. It would also mean working without passing blood and enduring swollen feet.

"I don't ever," Wells said, "want to go through a season like I did last year again."