The death notice, as it appeared last week in the
Post-Gazette, would have meant little to anyone other
than those closest to him.
"Kelley, Robert L. Sr., 54, of Hill District," it
Just another anonymous person from Pittsburgh's mean
streets who died too young.
But if the name he'd been known by publicly more than
30 years ago had been included in the death notice, it
would have struck a chord with many.
Inside the game of basketball, Jeep Kelley was one of
those legends in his own time, a young man whose
basketball prowess was well known before he even
played a high school game.
This is the story not of Jeep Kelley but of a wondrous
Schenley High basketball team that won the PIAA
championship in 1971 and is arguably the best to ever
come out of this region. It's the story of where
basketball can take you and where drugs can take you.
Two members of that team used basketball not just to
get out of The Hill but become millionaires.
Three others stayed home and got involved in drugs. Of
those three, one escaped through the Army to build a
better life in another state. Two stayed behind: One
lived, barely; the other died.
There was a service for Kelley Thursday at the Jones
Funeral Home on Wylie Ave. They talked of him in the
kindest way, of his belief in God, his kind spirit,
his laugh, his basketball talent and his well-known
fear of the water. There was a lot of laughter, a lot
Among the speakers was Ricky Coleman, who called
Kelley "my brother." Indeed, they were close -- in
basketball and on the streets.
Coleman was the best player on that Schenley team and,
in these eyes, the best to come out of Western
Pennsylvania. There's was nothing he couldn't do --
shoot, slash, distribute, lead. And he did it all with
such a cool that he didn't seem to work up a sweat. He
was recruited by everyone and accepted a scholarship
to Jacksonville, at the time one of the elite programs
in the country. This was a guy destined to be a pro.
Coleman, though, is not one of the millionaires. He's
the one who barely survived drugs.
He tore knee ligaments at Jacksonville and never was
quite the same after rehab, although still good.
Against better advice, he left with a year of
eligibility remaining and was taken in the sixth round
of the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. He made it to
the last cut. He was cut again the next year by the
New York Knicks.
"That's when I went into the drug spiral," said
Coleman, who had been using even earlier. "I suffered
for 20 years. In 1993, I turned my life over to God
and have been clean ever since."
Coleman is married, and his son will be playing at
Schenley next season. He's a credit to himself and his
community. He's well-spoken with a large heart. He
works for the city in the Parks Department. He's doing
good, trying to steer young kids down the right path.
Jeffrey Matthews was at the funeral, too. Matthews was
the other guard beside Coleman, steady and dependable.
He's the one who escaped the drugs to make a
successful life for himself in Rochester, N.Y.
"I tried college [California, Pa.] after high school
but didn't last," Matthews said. "I got jobs in the
steel mills. I worked in Homestead. I worked in
Braddock. I was living in The Hill and getting hooked
up with the wrong people. I kept getting in trouble. I
was messing with drugs."
Matthews joined the Army, got into rehab, served three
years and came out clean.
"It changed my life," Matthews said. "I got out, went
to work for a company and eventually bought it."
He owns a janitorial service company that employs 15
"I'm one of the lucky ones," he said.
Anyone looking at the '71 Schenley team would have
projected Coleman and Kelley as going the furthest
with basketball. Maurice Lucas would have been third.
Lucas was still growing into his body in high school.
He was a work in progress as a junior and blossomed as
He matriculated at Marquette, where he had an
outstanding career under Al McGuire and made it to the
national championship game in 1974. He played in the
ABA and the NBA, and although best remembered as a
tough guy, an enforcer, he was a good player who
scored more than 12,000 points in the NBA. He was
highly instrumental in the Portland Trail Blazers
winning the 1977 NBA championship.
Lucas, currently an assistant coach with the
TrailBlazers, is one of the Schenley millionaires.
Tom Thornton, a 6-foot-5 forward, is the other.
Thornton earned a basketball scholarship to Detroit
but gave up the sport after two years.
"I thought I should be hitting the books more," he
said over the phone Friday. "I went to my coach and
told him. He said, 'If that's the way you feel, I
respect what you're doing.' "
The coach was Dick Vitale.
Thornton got a degree in electrical engineering from
Detroit and later a master's degree in business
management at Central Michigan. After working for
several major corporations, he started his own
company, Thornton Enterprises LLC. He owns and
operates more than 100 apartment units.
Did drugs tempt him when he lived in Pittsburgh?
"Oh, no," he said. "My parents would have none of
that. They instilled hard work and discipline in me.
Coming up I saw what drugs did to people. I wanted
none of that."
The four living members remain in touch.
Lucas was in Coleman's wedding about 10 years ago.
Thornton recalled a recent phone conversation he had
with Lucas. Matthews saw Lucas in New Jersey several
months ago at a Trail Blazers-New Jersey Nets game.
"We've got to get the group together," he said to
Lucas, "before it's too late."
They're hoping to come back home in the summer to have
a good time and to remember Jeep Kelley and what might
Bob Smizik can be reached at