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March 26, 2010

Slimmed down Kelly steps up game

SALT LAKE CITY -- Somewhere around pound 270, Curtis Kelly lost his food-ordering privileges. From that weight forward, when K-State players went hunting for grub, his teammates acted as his date, surveying the menu for him before coming to a decision about what the forward would be dining on that day. It wasn't particularly empowering, nor was it much of an ego boost, but when Kelly was a redshirt sophomore in his first season at K-State, desperate measures were necessary.

Taco Bell, Burger King, the campus dining center, you name it, the 6-foot-8 Bronx, N.Y. native didn't both glancing at the specials. For a while, it was reactionary; when meal time came, he involuntarily deferred to the rest of his party, which used the opportunity to not only help mold him, but as fodder for a string of jokes.

The smiles rush back when they recall it today.

"When he got to our campus and he was like 270, I'm looking at him like, what?" Jamar Samuels said. "Why did we get this guy?"

"Fat boy." It was a name the University of Connecticut transfer didn't take long to start answering to in Manhattan, as his new peers tossed it around with the same reckless abandon Kelly once put on display at the Sizzler.

"We'd go to Wendy's, and he'd try to get a burger with us, but we'd order him grilled chicken and just hand it to him," Samuels said, thinking back a year. "(Jacob Pullen) and I would have Baconators up in the front and laugh at him while we ate them. He was mad about that for a while, but we'd always go to the drive-thru. If we went inside, we knew he'd get something he wanted."

It wasn't just about the Wendy's window, however, as the scene is merely part of an illustration depicting what the Wildcats' third-leading scorer now calls "The Old Curtis Kelly," a 270-pound, undisciplined figure lacking in self-control and stamina. It's a far cry from the man that helped will his team into the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight with 10 overtime points in an exhausting double-overtime victory.

"I was tired of sitting on the bench," said Kelly, who now sits just one win away from being a starter on a Final Four team. While perched on a media-surrounded podium on Friday afternoon at EnrgySolutions Arena, he added: "Eventually, you get tired of doing things the wrong way and you want to do it the right way. Frank Martin getting me here helped me a lot. I've got great teammates that push me here. I never really had that at UConn."

Still, his Connecticut experience and his decision to cut it short wasn't all about quarter-pounders and milkshakes. With a discouraged future Hall of Fame coach peering over his shoulder and a mountain of a depth chart that included the names Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien fixed in front of him, Kelly simply lacked the desire to make it.

These days, he admits it freely. Lazy? Well, if the wide-sized shoe fits …

"He needed to change some of his actions and some of the commitments he wasn't making," K-State head coach Frank Martin said of his junior transfer. The Wildcat head coach's impression of the old Kelly isn't a rare one.

"He was a package of mixed talents, the sum of which was never a Big East caliber player," Hartford Courant UConn beat writer Mike Anthony wrote of the New Yorker upon his release. The popular take isn't one the new, slimmer and more-driven Kelly disagrees with. Looking back, he can pinpoint every root cause for the modest 2.4 points and 2.2 rebounds he averaged in his two seasons under Jim Calhoun and does so almost as if he was reciting a script.

"Back then, I was a stubborn little kid," he said. "I wanted to feed off my talent instead of working."

So what changed? Well, the most obvious answer is the combination of Martin and Wildcat strength coach Scott Greenawalt, the Jason Voorhees to a lackadaisical player's 20-something college coed. But while the hard-nosed duo certainly played a part, according to everyone present in K-State's Salt Lake City locker room, at its core, the transformation from old to new was one of the internal variety.

"Insecurity set in," Kelly said. "I started to be a little unsure about my work ethic and my body. When I ordered three cheeseburgers, guys would look at me like, 'Come on, Curt. What are you doing?' After a while, I'd be like, 'Ok, give me one.' That happened to me a lot. I had to slow down my eating, stick to a stricter diet and just work harder."

An effective Curtis Kelly showing up down the stretch of a double-overtime NCAA Tournament win? Until this year, the thought was laughable, but few, especially members of the Xavier team whose season Kelly and the Wildcats ended late Thursday night, are chuckling now.

For a player whose lethargic reputation arrived in Manhattan in his back pocket, it's a fact as unlikely as it is true. As K-State's single-season blocks leader and a legitimate scoring threat, averaging better than 11 points in more than 25 minutes per contest, Kelly has become a certifiable game-changer.

"I'll tell you the reason I took Curtis Kelly," Martin said. "I offered him a scholarship because not once during the recruiting process did he blame UConn for everything that happened. He took all the responsibility. He realized that the reason he didn't have success at UConn was because of his actions.

"You can't change your life unless you accept responsibility, and Curt definitely accepted it."

Today, he calls it a "career-changing" decision, and when asked what sparked the choice to abandon the East Coast and travel to Manhattan, Kelly, a smooth and jovial personality, recalls even more laughter. It's not that a transfer halfway across the country was some kind of joke, at least not to him, as the giggles he remembers came from those around him.

"People said I was crazy to leave for here because Calhoun and UConn is such a great tradition," said Kelly, who says he still watches and roots for his old team. "People had certain things to say about it. They said, 'Oh, you do one great year at UConn and you're an NBA pro.' I didn't want that, though, I wanted to take the harder route."

That harder route, as it turns out, boasts Martin as the gatekeeper. Demanding as it may have been, however, it has now led the once-touted high school player to Utah and the cusp of college basketball's largest stage.



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