Feb. 22, 2008
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-American football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-American basketball star whose contributions have a major impact today, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of Spartan profiles, longtime writer and radio broadcaster Jack Ebling will present some of the greatest of the great in 2008. The fourth is late 1970s basketball and Academic All-American Greg Kelser.
He has always been part of a team, if not a tandem. And of all the insightful, intelligent things Greg Kelser has said, the best is "I couldn't have done it alone."
All-State player and all-star son, All-American on the court and in the classroom, record-setting scorer and rebounder, national champion and first-round draft pick and basketball analyst for more than two decades - that's all part of the Kelser resume.
But along the way he has stopped to say thanks. If not for his parents, Verna and Walter Kelser Jr.; his coaches, Gus Ganakas and Jud Heathcote; his assist men, Silas Taylor and Earvin Johnson, and his partners, wife Donna and broadcaster George Blaha, you wouldn't be reading this story.
From Okinawa to Detroit Henry Ford High to Michigan State to the NBA to courtside microphones in hundreds of arenas, Kelser knows he has gotten some breaks. He also knows he has made the most of them.
"A military background helped me a lot," Kelser said. "My mother stressed and my dad enforced a respect for authority. It was a time when you knew your place. That transferred easily to the court and the classroom. I always knew who was in charge. It was my job to listen and learn."
Kelser did that as well as anyone in MSU history. To this day he wonders what would have happened if he had been a college freshman one year earlier, when a player walkout laid the groundwork for Ganakas' reassignment.
"I loved Gus Ganakas," Kelser said. "He recruited me and got me started at State. I'd like to think I would've made up my own mind about what was right. I think I would've tried to find another solution."
Kelser could have gone to Minnesota or Arizona State. He might even have made the Gophers better than MSU in the late 1970s, at least until the NCAA stepped in with erasers. But that wouldn't have been the right thing to do or the best road to take.
"I knew I was a special player my first year of organized basketball, as a 10-year-old fifth grader in Okinawa," he said. "I led the team to a 10-0 record, averaged 16 points a game and decided right then I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I never wavered from that goal."
His parents never stopped supporting him in pursuit of his dreams. And when Kelser's dad died in 1984, he had to know how successful he had been as a parent, the most important job of all.
"My parents understood their kid had some ability," Kelser said. "They made a lot of sacrifices so I could play ball. All they asked was for me to stay out of trouble and conduct myself well."
Kelser has done that as well as any son could. If he didn't set out to become the first Spartan basketball player to be an All-American in two ways and didn't know he was the first Big Ten player to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds, the facts speak for themselves.
"I never would've been an Academic All-American if my parents hadn't pushed me," Kelser said. "I give them all the credit. I never thought I was that smart. Lord, no! But I knew how to study. And I had people who helped me."
Taylor and Heathcote were at the top of that list. And if they got their message across in very different ways, they were equally successful in delivering it.
"I give a lot of credit to Silas," Kelser said. "The first time I walked into his office, he pointed to a report card on the wall. It had three 4.0s and a 3.5, I think. He wasn't my academic adviser. But he was the one who helped me navigate how many credits to take, how to position my classes and which professors were best."
Heathcote had a different approach, delivered at much higher decibels. And when Kelser joined the Detroit Pistons without completing his degree, Heathcote never stopped talking about it. Finally, when his last class was complete, Kelser walked into Jenison Field House, told Heathcote and got the last laugh.
"Coach Heathcote stayed on me and showed me he cared," Kelser said. "It would've been easy for him not to worry about it. Instead, I had no choice to get it over with and get him off my back. I wasn't going to walk at commencement. But my mom said, `Oh, yes, you are!' I'm really glad I did. And I remember Jud being there to watch me, Terry Donnelly and Gerald Gilkie."
Kelser is just as glad he had the chance to play with Johnson, the best passer in basketball history, and team with Jay Vincent, Ron "Bobo" Charles, Terry Donnelly, Mike Brkovich and his Spartan teammates.
"I'd like to think I could've won just as much at Minnesota with Mychal Thomson, Kevin McHale, Ray Williams and Flip Saunders," Kelser said. "But it wouldn't have been the same. Being a Michigander, it wouldn't have meant as much. To go to college in your home state and achieve what we did gave me lifelong opportunities."
The final win in going 25-5 and 26-6 as a junior and senior will never be forgotten. The 1979 NCAA title game, a 75-64 win over 33-0 Indiana State and superstar Larry Bird, was the most-watched game in history.
"As I travel the NBA landscape, fans always bring it up," Kelser said. "People who weren't even born then come up to me and talk about it. Sometimes I wonder if the game would mean as much today if we'd beaten DePaul. The fact that Larry and Earvin went on to be two of the greatest players in NBA history meant a lot.
"And I wonder what would've happened if I hadn't picked up my fourth foul when I did. We would've won by 25 points. It wouldn't have had the same significance as `The Game the Changed the Game.'"
Kelser's life changed when injuries turned a No. 4 overall pick into a shell of the player Coach Dick Vitale expected. But after some other stops, Kelser came home and found a new love. He has broadcast close to 1,500 high school, college and NBA games and, best of all, pursued his passion.