Analyst Billy Packer once labeled Kansas's Christian Moody as the best walk-on in college basketball history. Moody had a dandy game that Billy narrated.
Not close, even for KU, let alone all ball. There have been far better guys, like Allen Kelley of 1952-53-60 fame who parlayed a bread-and-water beginning to stardom. Ouch! KU almost lost both unheralded Al and noted brother Dean to Pittsburg State after Dean's lonesome freshman year here (1949-50). His uncle, Keith Kelley, then a Haskell Institute leader, and coach Phog Allen had to do a real sales job.
Growing up in McCune, Al and Dean were as close as twisted duct tape. Phog saw Dean as a state Class B star and got him a scholarship. But Dean was homesick, felt he was a tiny frog in a big puddle. He was packed to go home and enroll, with buddy Al, the next year at Pitt State.
"Dick Harp (assistant) scouted me and offered a job that would pay for tuition and books, but I wasn't coming without Dean," says Al, now a retired Peoria Caterpillar-Diesel official living in Lawrence. "We worked all summer and managed to get an old car and decided to give it a try, saving money living with our uncle. I finally got a scholarship. But once, neither of us figured we'd be at KU."
The Allen brothers, Mitt and Bobby, were an outstanding Jayhawk sibling combination. The Kelley boys may have been even spiffier, since they were on national title and runner-up teams and starred as Olympic champions. Dean was the only junior starter for the '52 NCAA champs and was one of seven Jayhawks with the Olympic kings. Al, at a mere 6-foot-0, didn't play much as a sophomore, but in 1952-53 he teamed with Dean, 5-11, and 6-9 B.H. Born, 6-2 Hal Patterson and 6-1 Gil Reich. Imagine a team, even then, with a frontline of 6-9, 6-2, 6-0, reaching the national finals and losing by one point.
Dean, who died in 1996 at age 64 from a heart condition, went into the Air Force and wound up as a Cat-Diesel star. Al, as fierce a defender and competitor as you'll ever see, also served Air Force duty. He made the all-victorious '60 Olympic team with the likes of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. He had averaged 12.5 points and steals galore as a KU regular.
Coach Harp used to revel in watching Al cover people. "He'd get that look in his eye, an absolutely lethal glare, then dare you to beat him," Dick often said. "Sometimes he actually scared opponents with his ferocity. We'll never have two finer basketball players and citizens than Al and Dean."
With Reich and Dean gone, the 1954 KU club featured Al Kelley, Patterson and Born with the addition of rookie Dallas Dobbs and Larry Davenport. They were odds-on favorites to take the Big Seven title, particularly after winning the holiday tournament title in Kansas City. But they finished 16-5 overall, and tied at 10-2 in the conference by Colorado.
Only one league team was allowed in NCAA play then and Colorado won a drawing from a hat. Dreams of another NCAA Final Four appearance got dashed when KU was dumped by Missouri in the season finale after carrying an eight-game winning streak into Columbia.
Al Correll, a KU star and captain in the early 1960s, once quipped: "Harp was always talking about the Kelley boys, the Kelley boys, the Kelley boys. I finally looked it up and they WERE that great!"
Al was a brilliant pre-Moody walk-on. Yet don't bother to notify Bill Packer. He's not inclined to let facts override a pithy comment.