Love of family spurred Winthrop coach Kelsey’s plea after shootings

bmccormick@heraldonline.comDecember 19, 2012 

  • On the web

    Visit heraldonline.com for a video interview with Pat Kelsey Wednesday in Rock Hill

— Winthrop men’s basketball players heard their coach Pat Kelsey talk often about the importance of family, about the Eagles being a family, about his own family.

During a four-day visit to Ohio, Kelsey’s native state, those players experienced that firsthand while visiting with Kelsey’s family in Cincinnati.

Tuesday night, after the Eagles battled to a 10-point loss at No. 7-ranked Ohio State, the entire country got to see how important family is to Kelsey.

He answered a smattering of questions about how his team was able to slow the Buckeyes, and then seized the opportunity to talk about the Newtown, Conn., school shooting that claimed the lives of 20 students and six teachers Friday.

“I’m gonna walk into my house, and I’m gonna walk upstairs, and I’m gonna walk into two pink rooms, OK, with a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old laying in that pink room, with a bunch of teddy bears laying in that room,” Kelsey said, gripping an unopened water bottle. “And I’m gonna give them the biggest hug and the biggest kiss I’ve ever given them. And there’s 20 families in Newtown, Conn., that are walking into a pink room with a bunch of teddy bears with nobody laying in those beds. And it’s tragic.”

One of the primary reasons that Kelsey spoke out Tuesday night at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio, was the thought of his two daughters, Ruthie and Caroline, both approaching the ages of the 20 Connecticut shooting victims.

“I remember turning around and asking (assistant coach) Brian Thornton, ‘How old were they?’ Kelsey said Wednesday. “He said, ‘I think it’s a kindergarten class.’ And I froze, I just froze. That’s what really shook me.”

Those that know Kelsey weren’t surprised at all he would use his postgame news conference to speak out.

“He’s a guy that has a great depth of feeling,” said Mike Bobinski, Xavier University’s athletic director and a longtime friend.

It’s something that Winthrop’s basketball players knew before but understand all the better now after the Ohio road trip.

Kelsey took the players to his parents’ house for a family gathering after their Saturday night upset win at Ohio University, giving the Eagles a look at the home their coach grew up in.

“The kids are all energetic, just running around the whole time and trying to play,” said sophomore guard Derrick Henry. “Real competitive. That’s definitely a trait we see in coach Kelsey every day, whether we’re playing a Division II school or Ohio State. He wants to win.”

After hearing Kelsey constantly extol the Montgomery Inn as having the best ribs in the world, the Eagles went and saw for themselves. After hearing their coach preach about how important family is practice after practice, the Eagles got to see that for themselves, too.

“I feel like we did learn a lot about coach being around his family,” said fifth-year senior Gideon Gamble. “It just helped us all grow closer as a team.”

That was before Kelsey’s remarks Tuesday night. Winthrop’s players had no inkling their coach was about to make his plea for people to be “an agent of change,” but they found out as they watched the news conference displayed on the giant video board at the arena.

“He caught us by surprise,” said Gamble.

While the team returned to Rock Hill in the wee hours Wednesday morning on a quietly rumbling bus, the video of Kelsey’s remarks spidered its way around the World Wide Web. It exploded on social media producing a outpouring of support, surprising Kelsey – even embarrassing him slightly.

“I’m nothing special,” he said. “I’m just a normal guy that had an opportunity to say something that everybody’s thinking. I’m glad it stirred up a little bit of discussion.”

That kind of humility is another Kelsey trait, one he also harps about to his players. Tuesday night he could have raved about his overmatched team’s performance against one of college basketball’s best squads. Instead, he chose to bring to the forefront a topic that many people were thinking about, but weren’t sure how to discuss.

How do you begin the conversation about Newtown? You start by simply talking about it, Gamble said.

“Whenever you have influence you should say how you feel in important topics like that,” said the senior, who was awakened early Wednesday by family and friends repeatedly calling about the video. “If you just say how you feel, it might make other people feel comfortable saying how they feel also.”

It’s not the first time that Kelsey has been out front speaking about what others were thinking.

When Kelsey was 32, his mentor, the late Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser, died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Prosser’s widow, Nancy, selected Kelsey to speak at Prosser’s funeral in Cincinnati.

Despite the gravity of the situation, the passing of his mentor, Kelsey opened with a joke.

“It was to this day, the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever heard, under the circumstances,” said Bobinski, Xavier’s athletic director. “The delivery, the depth of emotion, the words he was able to muster up, it was incredible.”

When Bobinski watched the video of Kelsey’s postgame talk Tuesday night, he saw the same raw emotion on a determined face.

“He’s a special guy, and this doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

Bret McCormick 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T

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