Mark Story

Lake Kelly was eyewitness to UK history

In the movie Forrest Gump, the title character had an uncanny knack for being on the spot at significant moments in American history.

Lake Kelly held that real-life role in the narrative of basketball in Kentucky.

Kelly, the longtime college and high school basketball coach who died Thursday at age 75, was directly involved in an amazing number of the events that hold special significance in our state's hoops history.

1. UK's 129-game home winning streak snapped.

On Jan. 8, 1955, an unheralded Georgia Tech basketball team stunned Adolph Rupp's Wildcats 59-58 in Memorial Coliseum.

Before that night, Kentucky had not lost a home game since Jan. 2, 1943, 129 games in a row.

Kelly, a Flemingsburg native, was a reserve guard for Tech.

"When the final horn sounded, nobody got up, nobody moved," Kelly recalled in a 2007 interview. "We were jumping around and banging each other, and those people just sat there. They were totally shocked. I don't think one got up and left the gym."

2. The first NCAA Tournament game in Kentucky history without Adolph Rupp.

What seemed unthinkable to many Kentuckians — UK playing in the Big Dance with a coach other than the legendary Rupp — came to be in 1973.

The opponent for Joe B. Hall and the Wildcats in the first round of the Mideast Region was Austin Peay.

Coached by Lake Kelly.

The star of Kelly's team was James "Fly" Williams, a charismatic 6-foot-5 shooting guard who was a New York City playground legend. With a high-rise of an Afro haircut and a 29.4 scoring average as a freshman, the Fly did things with panache.

"Fly was a completely undisciplined maniac," Kelly said in that '07 interview. "When he got upset, he was ready to fight. He didn't like authority. He loved to trash talk before that was called trash talk. I don't know how I survived it."

With Williams as his star, Kelly was on the verge of ruining Joe B.'s NCAA debut. The score was tied at 92 with time ticking off the clock. Austin Peay held for the final shot.

It missed.

Kentucky won 106-100 in overtime.

3. The saddest numbers in UK basketball history: 3-for-33.

By the time Kentucky made the 1984 Final Four, Kelly was with the Wildcats. He was in his first year as an assistant to Hall.

In the national semifinals, a powerful UK team led by Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin and Kenny Walker took a 29-22 halftime lead on Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas.

What happened next still perplexes Kentuckians from Ashland to Murray.

In the second half, UK hit only three of 33 field-goal attempts and lost 53-40.

How do you explain such a good team having such a bad half?

Said Kelly: "First of all, Kenny Walker got hurt (in the finals of the Mideast Region) and it was his Achilles' tendon. In games we won, about 55 percent of our points would come from him in the second half. We didn't have him out there.

"And Georgetown came at us like buzz saws and got us on our heels. And we just shot so poorly and it snowballed."

4. A King assumes his throne.

By the night of Saturday, Nov. 29, 1986, Kelly was in a second stint as head coach at Austin Peay.

On the Friday before, his team lost at home to Centre College. The next day, they were in Rupp Arena for the UK season opener.

It would be the first game in a Kentucky uniform for high school sensation Rex Chapman.

King Rex scored 18 points in his college debut. Yet, amazingly, the team that lost to Centre trailed UK 71-69 as the last seconds ticked off.

At the final buzzer, Austin Peay had a potential game-winning three-pointer in the air.

It, too, missed.

"I guess I just wasn't meant to beat Kentucky," Kelly said. "We never got that last shot to go. But we almost spoiled Rex's first game."

5. Present at the birth of the legend of Pitino.

Later that same season, the Austin Peay team that lost to Centre upset Illinois in the first round of the 1987 NCAA Tournament. It set up a second-round matchup with Providence and a young, up-and-coming coach.

Guy by the name of Rick Pitino.

Austin Peay led by 10 with under six minutes left. With two seconds left in regulation, the game was tied.

An Austin Peay forward, Bob Thomas, was fouled going for a rebound. He had the front end of the bonus to win the game.

Thomas missed.

Providence won in overtime and made a Cinderella march to the Final Four. The arc of Pitino's coaching career was launched upward with all that would subsequently mean to basketball in the commonwealth.

In a 1999 interview, Kelly said that, after Pitino became UK's coach, the two had occasion to talk. "Rick told me, if I lose that game, there is no telling where I would be. I lose that game, I might still be at Providence."

Even with everything he was involved in as a college head man, Kelly said in his later years that nothing meant more to him than coaching his hometown high school, Fleming County, to back-to-back Boys' Sweet Sixteen trips in 1998 and '99.

"This is home," Kelly said in 2007. "The people here were so excited. It was very meaningful to me."

When I heard last week that Lake Kelly had passed, I kept thinking of that phrase "a front-row seat for the making of history."

When it came to basketball in Kentucky, he really did have a Gumpian knack for being there when the big moments came.