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Posted on Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 5:45 a.m.

Ex-Pioneer basketball star commits to Sweet 16 bound Miami after overcoming academic struggles

By Pete Cunningham

In January of 2010, Pioneer High School basketball coach Rex Stanczak walked over to the scorers table of a midseason game to report a roster change.


Former Pioneer High School basketball player James Kelly, right, has verbally committed to play at the University of Miami.

Melanie Maxwell | file photo

“We have one addition,” Stanczak said. “Number 32 is James Kelly.”

It was the last time anyone following the team could possibly claim to not know who Kelly was. If not for his sheer size -- 6-7, 226-pounds a the time -- then for his highlight reel dunks and blocks.

Soon, the rest of the basketball world may get an introduction to Kelly. Over the weekend, Kelly made a verbal commitment to play for the University of Miami.

Though primarily known, athletically, as football powerhouse, Miami's men’s basketball team has been in the national spotlight of late after the Hurricanes won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament championships this season. Miami is still alive in the NCAA Tournament and will play Marquette on Thursday (CBS, 7:15 p.m.) in the Sweet 16.

Kelly spent the past two years playing for Owens Community College and expects to sign his letter of intent in April with two years of eligibility remaining.

“I made my decision before they made (the Sweet 16), but it really helps when they’re having success,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “(Miami) Coach (Jim Larranaga) has been in contact with me for a long time and has really made me feel like I’m wanted there, and that I’ll be part of a family.”

With the numbers the 6-7, 238-pound forward was able to put up at the junior college level and as a senior in high school, it’s hard to believe halfway through his junior season he’d never played in a varsity game. As a senior at Pioneer, Kelly averaged 16 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, 2.5 steals and shot 59 percent from the field. This year at Owens, Kelly averaged 18.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, and the Express made the National Junior College D-II National Tournament semifinals.


James Kelly, pictured dunking, helped Owens Community college reach the NJCAA D-II National Tournament this season.

Courtesy of Owens Community College

Basketball was never the issue with Kelly. It was everything else. He was academically ineligible the first half of his junior year and for the postseason his junior year at Pioneer.

“You have a young man who has incredible talent but needed a lot of direction on and off the court. Needed a lot maturity and a lot of people to help him along the way,” Stanczak said.

It was a team effort - players and coaches - to help Kelly in his studies.

“I think we gave him structure,” Stanczak said. “When he was younger, had some real focus issues. Needed to be in a structure and I think our basketball program provided that.

“Give a lot of credit to Ben Edmonson and the folks over at Roberto Clemente (Student Development Center) in the small classrooms. That really helped him.”

Kelly grew as a senior at Pioneer, but the process was far complete. At Owens, class attendance was mandatory, as was 10 hours of study table a week and tutoring sessions.

Owens coach Dave Clarke said it was a struggle the first year. Kelly was phenomenal on the court - averaging 17.5 points and 9.8 rebounds - but when the offseason hit, his commitment dipped.

So Clarke took basketball away.

“At Owens, it’s either you do it (academically) or you’re done and we gotta move on to the next kid. There was a time I didn’t think he was going to make it,” Clarke said. “We took basketball away from him, and I think that was a big wakeup call.”

After refocusing his efforts, Kelly will graduate from Owens with an Associate’s Degree in the spring.

“It helped me mature as a person to see how much I needed school more than I needed basketball, so I buckled down,” Kelly said. “It feels pretty good just to know that everybody helped me and what I had to get through the to get this point.”

Miami isn’t best place in the world to live if you’re susceptible to distractions, but Kelly said he believes he’s better equipped to handle himself now and Clarke agrees.

"They've proven in their recruitment that there’s structure there like what we’ve provided for James and I believe he’s grown up a lot,” Clarke said. “But I told him, the works not over. The next two years is going to be even harder.”

It was a crushing feeling for Stanczak to have to tell his team in 2010 that Kelly was ineligible. The team went 8-2 with Kelly in the lineup, including a win over eventual Class A state runner-up Huron, but three hours before an opening round playoff game, Stanczak found out Kelly was ineligible and the season ended that night.

It was a sinking feeling to know Kelly had taken a step backwards and that the entire team suffered.

Three years later, at Pioneer’s postseason banquet, Stanczak announced to the 2013 team and a room full of supporters that Kelly would be joining one of the nation’s top teams.

“That’s going from the complete opposite ends of the emotional spectrum right there…This isn’t just he went from here to Miami, it’s been a long process,” Stanczak said. “It’s really hard to put into words how good of a feeling it is.

“It validates exactly why we coach high school basketball, and everything we do to try to help these young men.”

James Kelly on ESPN's SportsCenter:

Kelly made the ESPN SportsCenter Top Ten earlier in the month for the dunk below. Anchor Stuart Scott said of the play, "It was called an offensive foul...but we don't care."

Pete Cunningham covers sports for He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.


MrPinkyRing 734

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 6:50 p.m.

Great story! Don't be so quick to high five Stanczak he let a lot of good kids slip away in his Ypsi High coaching days.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 9:14 p.m.

Having met and discussed sports with Rex in days long past, that doesn't sound like him. He's in it for the right reasons.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 8:43 p.m.

MrPinkyRing 734, not sure why you would say that. First of all, my Ypsi coaching days were almost 20 years ago--probably time to let it go--I personally have let go of the injustice of the situation. Secondly, my problems at Ypsi were a result of me NOT giving up on kids, just the opposite of what you suggest. Ask Richard Williams, Steve Patton, Stefan Allen, Terence Maxey, etc, etc. if they agree with your assessment. I have always been on the side of helping kids and giving them chances, and always will be. Either your memory is playing tricks with you or you are seriously misinformed about my days there.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 4:14 p.m.

@ Pete Cunningham, re: "I swear he was wearing #32 that night " No inconsistency there, I'm sure he was wearing #32 that night. They quite often have different numbers in different seasons, sometimes because a "valuable" number is freed up by a graduating senior. My son had two different numbers as well. So James started with #32, and graduated wearing #25. Giving James that jersey suggests that #25 is being retired. Do you know? Or can you find out for sure?


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 8:47 p.m.

I think Pete is right. I believe he forgot his jersey that first night and we had to give him an extra. And no, we aren't retiring the jersey in the classic sense. We were giving him a gift to honor his time with us. Those jerseys were used by the varsity until this season and now the JV uniforms. Also, thank you for the kind words and support!

Pete Cunningham

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 4:39 p.m.

I'll look into it. My guess is that it's not being retired and that Rex was just giving it to James as a gift to remember his high school career. Pioneer had new uniforms this season, so I don't even know if jersey Rex gave James was being used anymore. Kids often buy their uniforms and the team just orders new ones to replace it. Like I said, I'll look into it.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 3:58 p.m.

I wish him well. Hopefully he has overcome his academic issues. Most of those big time athletic schools have an infrastructure in place to keep their athletes academically eligible.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 2:43 p.m.

James was at the banquet Tuesday, and received, from Coach Stanczak, the #25 jersey that he wore for Pioneer. That should not go unreported. Stanczak stood up for James when few others believed in him, as he has for so many others, present players included. There's nothing like the combination of an incentive –– the chance to play the game you love –– and being right in the spotlight, where there is no chance that you will slip through the cracks unnoticed. Teenage boys can be knuckleheads, and having a program to guide them through those rocky years is invaluable. I have seen this to some degree with my own son, who always got better grades when he was playing sports. Luckily, with two Varsity sports to play, that took up a high enough percentage of the school year(s) to get him through. Kudos to Coach Rex, and his entire program!

Pete Cunningham

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 3:19 p.m.

That's awesome. As for him receiving the #25 jersey and having the #25 jersey in the photo, but my original introduction to James being Stanczak saying "Number 32 is James Kelly," I swear he was wearing #32 that night and the quote is accurate. Unfortunately, we don't have any pictures of him from that night.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:20 p.m.

I can understand Stuart Scott's comment on the ESPN top 10. Kelly didn't commit the charge, the passer did. It was a pretty sweet dunk, As for school and attending Miami. I wish him the best at Miami, but lets be real here. There are a ton more distractions at Miami then he ever could have thought of at Owens Community College or at Pioneer. I hope he makes it and has a great final 2 seasons at Miami. Personally I think the coaches would be very smart to red shirt him next year to allow him to get acclimated to college life in Miami, but I doubt that will happen.

Pete Cunningham

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 4:34 p.m.

I'll send you my bills, Craig. I owe more than I have. Larkin's said he's staying all year, but I'd guess he's going pro, but what do I know, really? Food for thought, Larkin is the son of Michigan baseball legend Barry Larkin, can you imagine him in this Michigan lineup?

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Pete can you send me an inventory of everything you own so i can decide whether to take the bet?

Pete Cunningham

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 3:12 p.m.

Miami graduates six seniors this year and I would bet everything I own that Shane Larkin will declare for the NBA. So that's seven players leaving, possibly more. I'd say a red shirt is very unlikely because of that.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:18 p.m.

So refreshing to read these stories (this one and the DECA one) about kids who are overcoming great academic obstacles and really going somewhere. And once again, another testament to RC and Ben Edmonson (thinking of other story with Marcus Buggs) and all the good things happening over there. This story discusses Kelly needing to overcome distractions, would be extremely foolish to move this program to Pioneer, imo. Good luck to him at University of Miami!


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 3:58 p.m.

Sorry Pete, I guess I did imply Davis had academic struggles but that wasn't what I meant (in my head). I guess I mean more along the lines of having caring mentors like the business teacher. Also what I meant about Pioneer is that, personally, I think it would be a lot easier to slip out of Pioneer if one were so inclined and you would be closer to distracting opportunities than if RC were housed in say, Skyline. Probably should sticking to afternoon posting when my head is clearer, lol. Again, apologies for implying Mr. Davis was struggling academically.

Pete Cunningham

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 3:28 p.m.

Nothing we've heard about Lavonte Davis, the Ypsilanti student/DECA participant you're referencing, suggests he's had academic struggles. Ypsilanti doesn't have a great reputation as a district, but we've never heard anything bad about the academics of Davis, who is a national honor society member. As for the move to the Pioneer building, from what I've heard of Kelly's academics, it was the one-on-one help, smaller class sizes and structure of Roberto Clemente that he benefitted from. His "distractions" weren't so much in the hallways, but in the classroom and at home. If Roberto Clemente's programs can be maintained within the Pioneer building, which has room now that about 1,500 fewer students attend there than when it was at its enrollment peak, than I believe the same great work can be accomplished.