COLUMN: Lessons Learned From Dick Kelley, A Friend And Role Model
Published: Monday, February 17, 2014
Updated: Monday, February 17, 2014 02:02
“There is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.” – David Foster Wallace
Despite some relentless questioning, Dick Kelley wasn’t going to budge.
“How good are they? Are they going to be ready to go right away? Do you think they’re going to start?”
They were questions I should’ve known wouldn’t get answered. Kelley just sat in his chair on the other end of a thin table in the Boston College media suite and stared at me like I was crazy. He took a few deliberate breaths and shook his head.
It was the spring of 2012, I was an annoying-as-hell freshman on the BC student newspaper, and Kelley had information I wanted. Two guards, Joe Rahon and Olivier Hanlan, were set to join the BC basketball team in the fall. Kelley was the basketball sports information director, and there was at least mild hype surrounding their arrival.
“Austin,” he said, “you don’t understand. They’re just such good people.”
Displeased, I prodded some more. I asked if Hanlan could play defense and how deadly Rahon was from three, and each time Kelley gave a variation of the same response. He said I needed to meet them when they got to campus. He said that I just needed to talk to them. They weren’t even officially students yet, but Kelley still talked about the two players with pride in his voice. They were going to be Eagles, and that meant they were going to be loved by Dick Kelley.
Kelley died last night at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in September of 2011, and the horrible, unfair disease crippled him until yesterday when he passed away peacefully.
A lot of people are going to say that Kelley, affectionately known as DK, was the true embodiment of BC and everything it stands for—but that wouldn’t be fair, because he set the bar even higher than that. Throughout his fight with ALS, he was an inspiration. Before that, though, he was the best role model I’ve ever had.
It’s a little awkward and potentially uncouth to share stories about DK in a newspaper column after his death, but although he touched plenty of extremely fortunate lives at the Heights, there are still a lot of people who never got to experience his passion and care. So I think some stories need to be told.
As I packed up my stuff to leave the media suite that day, Kelley griped at me with a lovable grin.
“What, you’re just going to leave?” he said. The interview I’d done with a player had ended, my hoops questions were going nowhere, and I had started putting my stuff into my backpack because there was nothing left for me—except DK.
Feeling bad, I stayed and talked. He berated me a bit about how The Heights didn’t print the scores of every game in our sports section. I tried to argue with him, saying that they’re all online and will be online forever, but that just made it worse. I had dug myself into a hole. There was no debating with him when he knew he was right. We were the historical record of the University, and the scores needed to be there. And, well, now there’s a weekly scoreboard in every Thursday print issue.
A few months later, I messed up again. It was way worse this time. The basketball team was doing headshot photos one day, and Kelley said I could come by and interview any players I wanted about their trip to Spain over the summer. It was incredibly generous access, and I was almost giddy when I told then-Sports Editor Greg Joyce about it.
So I got to the media suite that day, and I waited. The headshots were taking place in the interview room next door. I assumed Kelley would come grab me when they were free. Ten minutes passed by, then 20, then 30, and still nothing. I didn’t hear any noise on the other side of the door, but I was a stupid, inexperienced quasi-reporter and I was too afraid to text DK and check in.
“Where have you been?” he asked when he saw me sitting in the media suite nearly 45 minutes after he had told me to meet him. It was the most frustrated he’d ever been with me. The players had come and gone already, and I had missed them. I apologized profusely. I felt like crap. All I wanted to do was leave and not bother him any more, but he wasn’t having it.
We walked through the Conte Forum maze from the media suite up to Power Gym. The ALS had already started to hit, so he walked slowly and with a limp. It didn’t keep him from telling me how dumb it was for me to sit there the whole time and not say anything, though.
Once we got to the gym, he grabbed Rahon and point guard Jordan Daniels and had them take a break from their pre-practice shootaround to answer my (likely stupid) questions about the Spain trip. DK wanted me to learn from the mistake, but he wasn’t going to punish me for it.
Ryan Anderson, a forward in my class, came over to say hi to DK after the interview. They chatted and then DK introduced us, although Anderson and I had talked in interview settings before.
“Why aren’t you guys friends?” Kelley said. “You should be.”
We made excuses about living on Newton and Upper, but that wasn’t the case. I’ve always been awful about connecting with student-athletes on anything except their sport, and that’s not the basis of any sort of real friendship. Although he worked in athletics and loved basketball, DK rarely wanted to talk about it, neither with the media nor with the athletes. He knew that there was so much to people beyond the sports they played or covered, and he found that more interesting and more important.
“Athletes have coaches who instruct them on the game,” Kelley wrote in an email last May. “They don’t need me weighing in on their play or rehashing the recent games. I hope to engage them in non-sports talk. I take an interest in their lives away from the athletic arena. I have other interests and so do they.”
Kelley was responding to questions I had sent him for a feature I was working on. The Heights had selected him for its Person of the Year, and since he couldn’t speak anymore because of the disease, we did the interview over email. I sent him four questions. It took me more than two hours to write them. I knew if I did one little thing wrong—if I misspelled something, got my grammar wrong, or asked something dumb or trite—he’d never let me hear the end of it, and I’d also in some way be letting him down.