Commentary

Kelly back home and playing right away

Horrific tragedy brings him from Iowa to Terre Haute, where family resides

Originally Published: October 9, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

They went canoeing together, rowing out into the quiet off Cedar Key, Fla. Dolphins came up beside them and sea turtles swam beneath them.

Afterward they went and saw the sunset, waving to a private pilot and his passengers as their Cessna landed on a nearby airstrip. With an early-morning flight staring him in the face, Jake Kelly decided to tuck in early. He and his younger brother, Luke, went off to the hotel while his mother, Julia, and her sister, Amy Davidson, struck up a conversation with the people on the Cessna.

They needed a ride to a nearby restaurant, and when Julia Kelly and her sister obliged, the pilot invited them to stay for dinner.

During dinner, Kelly asked for a ride in the plane, excited to see the twinkling lights off the west coast of Florida.

The pilot, Frank Gonzalez, and one of his passengers, John Borchard, agreed.

Davidson forgot her camera and ran back to the room to fetch it. By the time she came back, her sister was already in the air.

Minutes later, Davidson saw the plane in the air. Minutes after that, she saw it land in a fireball in the Gulf of Mexico.

"They said she was missing, but we knew what happened," Jake Kelly said of the June 7, 2008, crash. "We went to my aunt's house while they looked. They found the plane about two or three days later. After that, we flew home."


Jake Kelly is home now, living and playing in Terre Haute, Ind., the town he spent the first 12 years of his life. He's a junior at Indiana State and, thanks to a recent waiver from the NCAA, will begin practice with the Sycamores next week.

[+] EnlargeJake Kelly
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireAfter the loss of his mother, Jake Kelly managed to lead the Hawkeyes in scoring last season. But his heart was elsewhere.

But for a while, Kelly didn't know where he belonged.

Where is home when your mother is no longer there?

His father, Bob, still lived in Terre Haute, with an extended family that included a host of aunts and uncles. But Jake hadn't lived there since his parents divorced when he was in the sixth grade. Jake's dad remarried and the two remained close, but his relationship with his mother was different.

She and Luke and Jake had formed a tight pack of three, so tight that Julia never so much as dated anyone else -- "She didn't want to bring someone else in our lives that way," Jake explained.

They moved first to nearby Marshall and then to Indianapolis. As Jake's basketball star grew, Julia always was there. A decent player in her own right -- one who wasn't afraid of a game of H-O-R-S-E in the driveway with her son -- Julia never missed a game as Jake moved from Marshall High School to Carmel High for his final two years of high school.

When Jake enrolled at the University of Iowa, Julia and Luke came with him.

"At first I was like, 'Ohhh, great, you're moving up here,'" Jake said, laughing as he remembered feeling like most college kids would if their mother followed them to campus. "I didn't really want to say anything to disappoint her. But she ended up being like a friend to my teammates and she was my best friend."

When August 2008 came around, just two months after Julia had died, Jake didn't think about where he belonged. He just wanted to dive back into something, anything to help him forget. So he packed up his things and returned to Iowa City.

"We tried to support those boys as best as we knew how," Bob Kelly said. "We'd drive out to Iowa whenever we could for games, but it was tough. It was hard on both of them."

Jake went through the motions of normalcy: He went to class, went to practice, attacked each with the same vengeance and gusto he always had. But by December he knew he had made a mistake.

Iowa wasn't home.

"As the season went by and it started getting further and further from the time she died, I knew Iowa wasn't where I was supposed to be," Kelly said. "Then I went home for Christmas break and it was such a sad time without her. But my family was there. I kind of knew I needed to come back and be with my family."

Kelly would finish his sophomore season with the Hawkeyes, starting the final 24 games at the point. He led the team in scoring, averaging 11.6 points per game, and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors.

He had hinted to the assistant coaches that he might leave the team and, at season's end, made the decision final. During his end-of-season sit-down with head coach Todd Lickliter, he told the coach he wanted to transfer.

[+] EnlargeTodd Lickliter
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIDespite losing three other players to transfer this offseason, Todd Lickliter wrote a letter to the NCAA in full support of Kelly.

It wasn't a new conversation for Lickliter, who had lost his leading scorer in each of the previous two offseasons -- Tyler Smith to Tennessee and Tony Freeman to Southern Illinois. In addition to Kelly, three other players also decided to leave the Hawkeyes at end of the 2009 season.

But when Kelly explained why he was leaving, Lickliter did an extraordinary thing: He helped. Not only did he give Kelly his release without question, but he also wrote a letter to the NCAA on Kelly's behalf, arguing that Kelly should be able to play immediately.

"Sure, it was a difficult thing to do. We would have loved to have Jake as a Hawkeye," Lickliter said. "But I don't think you don't do what's right because you're feeling sorry for yourself or you're going through a rough time. I trusted him. I believed him and I could see nothing gained by making him suffer more."


In the books since 1993, the NCAA waiver rule is there to "provide relief in extraordinary circumstances," said Brad Hostetter, the NCAA's director of academic and membership affairs. It's an attempt to inject a little compassion in the otherwise cold and voluminous NCAA handbook.

Though certainly not the first to be aided by the rule, Tyler Smith gained national attention two years ago when he asked for and was granted the chance to play immediately at Tennessee. He wanted to leave Iowa to be near his dying father, and the NCAA decided that it would grant his petition to forego the year-in-residency rule and let Smith play immediately.

And then suddenly everyone had a sick cousin twice removed, as calculating coaches tried to slip through yet another loophole to gain an edge. Herb Pope applied for a waiver after transferring from New Mexico State to Seton Hall so he could be closer to his Pittsburgh home … six hours away. The NCAA denied his request.

"It's fair to say that last year there was definitely a spike," Hostetter said.

But what of Jake Kelly? On the surface he fit the criteria perfectly.

After his mother died, he asked to transfer to be near his family, choosing not just the vicinity of Terre Haute, but the only university that calls the southwestern Indiana town home: Indiana State.

But he also had waited a full season before making his request. Though Hostetter said the NCAA considers individual cases and not precedent, everyone else seems to be searching for an angle. A request a year removed might just present one.

"It's not like he was shopping around. He said he wanted to be near his family and this is where he wanted to come," said Indiana State coach Kevin McKenna, whose 11-21 team from a season ago certainly would welcome the addition of a 6-foot-6 point guard. "But I learned a long time ago not to worry about things you can't control. I know it was tough on Jake. I'm sure there were a lot of sleepless nights."

[+] EnlargeJake Kelly and Dad
Courtesy Bob KellyBob Kelly and his family won't have to go far to see his Jake play college basketball.

Kelly enrolled at Indiana State, and with the help of Joel McMullen, the school's assistant athletic director for compliance, he began the arduous process of applying for a waiver.

People kept telling Kelly not to worry, that there was no way the NCAA would say no to him.

He couldn't help but fret, though. Always a passion, basketball also became a refuge and a solace and now -- with a chance to play in front of his extended family -- well, he wanted the good news.

"He deserved it," Lickliter said.

On Oct. 1, McMullen walked into the gym where Kelly was working out.

"He looked all sad or mad, like he was going to have to kick me out or something," Kelly said. "And he said, 'Well, the NCAA came down with its ruling today.' I'm thinking the worst and then he said, 'You can play.'"


The phone started ringing all over Terre Haute: in Bob's metal fabricating shop, in court where Bob's brother Danny was trying a case, the news spread like wildfire.

"I called my dad to tell him and he already knew," Jake said.

That's what happens when you're surrounded by family.

And Jake is knee-deep in it. He shares a house with Luke. Bob, his wife and two small children live about five minutes away. Right now the kids are into Batman and Superman, but if Jake has his way, they'll have their hands on a basketball soon, too.

Bob's nine brothers and sisters all are nearby with their families.

"They're everywhere," Jake laughed.

He's not complaining. He's happy.

"It's true, time does heal and helps you put things in perspective," Jake said. "That last day we spent together canoeing, she was having the time of her life and it was the last day of her life. Life is short. I try to remember that and really enjoy every day."

That's easier now.

Jake Kelly is home.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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