Rashard Kelly wanted to stay at Chancellor High School in Fredricksburg, Virginia. Transferring after his freshman year meant leaving his friends, giving up a starting spot on the basketball team and trading a 100-yard walk for a 56-mile drive to his new school.
He fought the decision, all the while knowing the outcome. His mom wanted him in a better school and on a better basketball team. He knew Tammy Kelly would win the argument.
“At the end of the day, no matter what he said, it was what she said,” said his stepfather Troy Martin. “He could state his reasons. His reasons didn’t overpower her reasons.”
So after excelling for Chancellor as a freshman, Rashard Kelly transferred to Bishop O’Connell, a Catholic school in Arlington, Virginia. That move started him on his path to Wichita State and a growing role as a key reserve on the nation’s No. 11 team.
“If I would have made the decision, I would have settled for average and done the local stuff,” Kelly said. “She pushed me.”
Tammy Kelly raised her son with an unwavering focus on discipline and motivation. She knew Rashard possessed unusual athletic ability and she wanted him to attend the best college possible and play at the highest level.
“I was a single mom raising two kids,” she said. “I knew for them to actually succeed, you have to be tough on them. I always made sure he made great decisions and always reached high.”
Rashard Kelly started playing basketball at age 4 and usually played on teams with older athletes. He transferred to Bishop O’Connell in search of better academics and better basketball. He played his senior season at Massanuten Military Academy, transferring from O’Connell because he wasn’t happy with his recruiting attention, and did a post-graduate year at Hargrave Military Academy.
Kelly’s stepfather drove him to O’Connell, a commute of almost two hours, before school and back home after practice. His mother paid for personal trainers. Her look, when Rashard and sister Shanda distracted her from the back seat of the car, brought an immediate halt to the uproar. After Rashard lied about hitting a classmate during recess in fifth grade, she took basketball away from him and he cried himself to sleep.
“Growing up, she was my mom and my dad,” Kelly said. “She was the mentor, the best friend. Also, the punisher. Only fear I ever had from any other human being, growing up, was my mother.”
“They’re mother and son, and they’re like brother and sister,” Martin said.
— Rashard Kelly
Martin and Kelly left each day around 5:30 a.m. and pointed the 1997 white Nissan Maxima to I-95 North from Fredricksburg to Bishop O’Connell.
“He mostly slept or studied,” Martin said.
Martin dropped Kelly off 45 minutes before school started. Martin needed to drive 30 minutes back to his job as a quality control inspector and reach work by 8 a.m. He got off work at 5 p.m. and picked Kelly up after practice. Most nights, homework kept Kelly up until after midnight. He grabbed a few hours of sleep before hitting I-95 again.
“I wanted to do everything else I saw everybody in the neighborhood doing,” Kelly said. “My mom told me if I wanted to go somewhere else — they were always going to be here — if I wanted to go somewhere else, I’ve got to make that sacrifice.”
Kelly recognized his step-father’s devotion and that kept him motivated to make it work at his new school.
“If he missed too many days or was late, he could get fired,” Kelly said. “We had to go hand in hand. I couldn’t slack off, because I know I could jeopardize him with being late.”
Rashard Kelly’s basketball education also included playing with the DC Assault, a high-profile AAU team based in Washington, D.C. and famous for producing players such as Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley. Kelly foreshadowed his time at Wichita State by doing the rebounding work others declined.
“Everybody wanted to score,” he said. “That’s how I started getting recruited. They were always looking for the shot, and I was the cleanup guy. It helped us win.”
Kelly is doing the same things at WSU. He averages 4.3 rebounds in a mere 15.9 minutes. His 19 offensive rebounds rank second on the team. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall considered Kelly the best rebounder open to his recruiting pitch. Kelly is patiently adding offense to his game, making his first 3-pointer against Detroit and scoring two crucial baskets in Tuesday’s 53-52 win against Alabama.
Marshall hopes the other newcomers can follow his example.
“Rashard’s certainly taken the lead,” he said. “He’s got the sled rope in his mouth and … the other guys now just have to take his lead and continue to evolve as players.”
Rebounding and defense always satisfied Kelly, a 19-year-old freshman for the Shockers. He was always big for his age and always played center, even when playing up in age division. Coaches wanted him to play defense and rebound.
“He was always the youngest, but always the biggest,” Martin said. “They tried to take advantage of him because of his age, but they couldn’t because of his size. When he’s getting those rebounds, those loose balls, running the floor — he’s a complete player.”
Kelly came to WSU in the summer and started making his mark by outhustling others to rebounds.
“From Day One, he was really, really physical, surprisingly for a new guy,” WSU junior Ron Baker said. “He wasn’t shying away from contact. He really liked going to the glass, and we knew that was something Marshall was going to like.”
Kelly’s coaches say he plays better when his mother and stepfather are in the stands. His stepfather’s voice carries a distinctive D.C. accent and Kelly swears he can hear Martin no matter where he sits, encouraging him, calling out picks and telling him where the ball is.
WSU’s biggest chore in recruiting came in convincing Kelly to leave his family for four years in Kansas. He considered several schools closer to home, including George Washington and George Mason.
His mom and stepfather told him he needed to play without them in the stands. WSU’s family atmosphere, he said, impressed him and his parents.
“She wanted me to get the best education and the best coaching staff,” Kelly said. “She had a lot of influence on my decision, because she didn’t want me to make a mistake and go to school for all the wrong reasons.”