High School Basketball

‘King’ Kelly Coleman, ‘the greatest basketball player Kentucky has ever had,’ dies

Wayland basketball star Kelly Coleman (66) was carried from the floor after he set an all-time scoring record of 185 points in the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen at Memorial Coliseum in 1956.
Wayland basketball star Kelly Coleman (66) was carried from the floor after he set an all-time scoring record of 185 points in the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen at Memorial Coliseum in 1956. Staff File Photo

“King” Kelly Coleman, Kentucky’s first Mr. Basketball and the all-time leading scorer in state high school boys’ basketball history, died Sunday at Noreen and Greg Wells Hospice Care Center in Hazard. He was 80.

Coleman was a star for Wayland High School, a small school in Floyd County that was a member of the 15th Region before consolidating into Allen Central in 1972 (Allen Central consolidated into Floyd Central in 2017). As a senior he set multiple state records that still stand and led the Wasps to their deepest run ever in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s annual Sweet Sixteen.

“The expression larger than life is probably used too often, but he really was such a giant of a man, personality-wise,” KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said. “When I first met him he was still very strong, and he dominated a room when he came in. ... To be from coal country, an area that has lived through so many economic challenges, and to have been a hero there, it’s no wonder that they just adored him.”

None of his records looms larger than the 4,337 points he scored from 1953-1956, well before the three-point line existed. He remains the only boy in Kentucky history to ever reach 4,000 career points.

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Coleman’s name sits on top of the following all-time records: most points in a single season (1,734 in 1956), field goals made in a game (31 vs. Maytown in 1956) and field goals attempted (52 vs. Bell County in 1956). He was one of only 10 players in boys’ history to score 75 or more points in a game; he did that against Maytown, while also grabbing 41 rebounds (second-most in a game, ever).

“He definitely deserved the nickname, ‘King.’ I mean, 75 points and 41 rebounds in one game? Even today you’re just like, ‘That can’t be possible,’” said J.R. VanHoose, a former star at Paintsville High School and Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 1998. “But it seemed like he did the impossible almost all the time. There was so much pressure for him to perform, and he did it. I just cannot imagine.”

Coleman’s 185 points are the most by any player in a single Sweet Sixteen, and his 68 points against Bell County in that tournament’s third-place game are the most ever in a state-tournament game (he also holds the single-game state-tournament record for rebounds — 28 — set in a loss to Carr Creek). He scored the 68 two days after setting the previous record, 50, and was among the reasons the 1956 tournament is remembered as one of the best ever played.

“He understood his role and how important he was, not only to the state, but certainly to his beloved mountains of eastern Kentucky,” Tackett said. “He knew the value he held. ... He had a skill set that a lot of people didn’t necessarily associate with that region of the state, and so he just became heroic.”

Wayland’s “King” Kelly Coleman (66) put up a shot over Carr Creek during their semifinal game in the state tournament on March 17, 1956, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington. Carr Creek defeated the Wasps 68-67 on a last-second shot. E. Martin Jessee Staff File Photo

Gordon Moore of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote in 1956 that “Kelly Coleman is the biggest discovery in the mountains of Kentucky since coal was found 50 years ago.” Prior to the 1956 Sweet Sixteen, thousands of fliers were handed out proclaiming that “King Kelly” was coming to Lexington. Some of them were dropped out of an airplane.

“Some have said that Coleman is overplayed in the local papers. ‘You give one man too much publicity,’ some folks said,” Billy Thompson wrote in the the Lexington Herald in 1956. “It is true that no high school player has received as much publicity as King Kelly, but after he receives all the build-up and then comes through with a 50-point production, do you believe he has been overplayed?”

Coleman committed to West Virginia University out of high school despite a scholarship offer from the University of Kentucky and Adolph Rupp, who once described Coleman as a “combination of Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Alex Groza.” He referenced a conversation with another former eastern Kentucky basketball standout when speaking to the Herald-Leader’s Billy Reed in 1991.

“I talked to Lincoln Collinsworth,” Coleman said, “and I think about two days is as long as Rupp and I would have lasted.”

Coleman was not admitted into WVU due to academic issues and impermissible benefits, and eventually starred for Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro. He was a two-time All-American with the Panthers, in 1959 and 1960, before being selected by the New York Knicks with the 11th overall pick in the second round of the 1960 NBA Draft.

A preseason disagreement with Knicks Coach Carl Brown led to his dismissal from the team before the 1960-61 season. Coleman proceeded to play for the Chicago Majors in the American Basketball League, and was the league’s third-leading scorer before it folded in 1963, but he never got another opportunity in the NBA.

Bell County and Wayland players watched as Kelly Coleman’s free throw broke the state tournament scoring record in the third-place game of the 1956 event at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington. Coleman scored 68 points as Wayland beat Bell County 122-89 and finished the tournament with 185 points. E. Martin Jessee Herald-Leader

“I think that was one of the things that bothered him greatly, that he never got that other opportunity to play in the NBA,” VanHoose said. “ … I hate to speculate, but I can’t imagine if he was able to do some of the things that he did in high school and college in the NBA, what kind of legend status people would think of him today. It would be beyond belief, I think.”

Coleman during the last decade moved back to Wayland, his home town, after a successful post-basketball career in Michigan. He was an entrepreneur — he owned service stations, a wrecker service and a hotel — who made a good living in the stock market. He for a time worked as the circulation manager for the Detroit Free Press. Coleman even taught school for a spell, but never had a desire to coach the sport he loved.

“I think people have this misconception of him that he was just a basketball player and athlete and not very smart, but Kelly Coleman, from just sitting around talking about some of the business things he got into, he was definitely a very smart man,” VanHoose said. “He was able to make some money with his mind.”

VanHoose and his wife, Kayla, befriended Coleman in recent years. J.R. described him as a “best friend” to each of them, and said he’ll most miss their conversations — not only about basketball, but history, golf and life in general.

“If I could go back and tell my 18-year-old self, I never would have thought that I’d be able to approach him, just out of sheer nervousness,” J.R. said. “I mean, what do you say? How do you strike up a conversation with someone that’s a larger-than-life figure? Not only in Kentucky, but I’m telling you man, about almost everywhere you go in the United States, when people start talking about Kentucky high school basketball, people might not know the person but they know the name. They know King Kelly Coleman. To me, that is bona fide legend status right there.”

Bell County Coach Willie Hendrickson, following his team’s loss to Wayland and Coleman in the 1956 tournament, shared a sentiment still expressed by many more than a half-century later. Said Hendrickson:

“Kelly, you are truly the greatest basketball player Kentucky has ever had.”

Visitation services will be held at the old Wayland High School gymnasium in Floyd County from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and at Hall Funeral Home in Martin from 10 a.m. through the start of funeral services at noon Saturday. Burial will follow the funeral service in the Davidson Memorial Gardens in Ivel.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Mountain Sports Hall of Fame (P.O. Box 349, Wayland, KY, 41666) and Bluegrass Care Navigators (57 Dennis Sandlin Md Cove, Hazard, KY, 41701).

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The loss of a loved one can take a physical and emotional toll on you. Grief can produce stress in your body. The process can be different for everyone, and people may even experience “complicated grief." Learn more here.

Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.