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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014

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In Sports

College basketball color analyst Mike Kelley on the job at a Marquette home game. (PHOTO: Gail Sideman)

Mike check: courtside with a college basketball color analyst


Mike Kelley was one of "those" basketball players.

Never flashy, but efficient. Fundamentally sound with leadership qualities oozing from his sweat. Kelley was that cliché, "lets his game do the talking" type of athletes.

No longer an athlete, Mike Kelley now lets his talking describe a game.

"I'm still awestruck at times when I see some of the great players out there and the coaches," said Kelley, a college basketball color analyst for the ESPN Network family that also produces Big East Network telecasts. "There are legendary coaches throughout the Big East and all over the country. So when I get to call a game and talk with these guys and they open up and give you their thought process, now that I'm on this side, you get more involved in the strategy and you see the coaches as people dealing with tough decisions on a day-in and day-out basis."

A former standout at Pius XI High School, Kelley gravitated his way to Madison and played four seasons of tough-nosed, ratcheted-up defensive basketball for Dick Bennett and the Badgers, including a trip to the Final Four in 2000. Always a go-to media guy, Kelley was comfortable talking into a mic, but entertained zero thoughts of ever tossing on a headset when his playing days were finished.

"It was totally off the radar," admitted Kelley. "I never even considered it. I just thought this (would) be kind of a fun thing to do for a few games. I didn't even realize or think there would be any kind of future to it. But it just snowballed."

It was the summer following his senior season at Wisconsin, and Kelley was teeing it up with boosters and backers at a Badgers golf outing. One of the Wisconsin sports information officials approached Kelley and mentioned that ESPN Regional was looking for someone local to commentate on his alma mater's games.

"That first year, I think I did like seven Wisconsin games and that's all it was," recalled Kelley. "But then as the years went by, it got to be more and more games and they started to send me on the road for more games."

Kelley's stock was rising. His calm and clean approach caught the attention of the sports TV suits that watched and listened. But when the Big Ten Network was born, Kelley suddenly had options to weigh: jump ship and call games in a conference with a comfort level, or stay the course on the vessel he rode in on.

"ESPNU was still in its infancy at that point; it really came down to the point of being loyal to the people that employed me for several years," said Kelley. "They made a very strong effort and offering of games and compensation, so that's when I chose to go with ESPN and stay with the people I had been working with."

Second thoughts? Never. But stepping out of his Big Ten security blanket was gut wrenching.

"It was brutal, it was killing me that I wouldn't be able to do Big Ten games, but at the same time, there were limited opportunities at that point just getting off the ground, and ESPN could offer me a lot more games," said Kelley. "I had a comfort level there, but it was hard to know I would be sort of boxed out not doing the Big Ten stuff."

Kelley soldiered on, and his dedication was rewarded with marquee games on some of the biggest stages. His style is poised and polished with insightful nuggets of easy to digest hoops information. When Kelley eye-balls a play for breakdown, his instincts tell him to do the opposite of what most color guys might do.

"I typically view a game through defensive goggles," said Kelley. "If a person makes a great play and scores, as a defender, I typically see things as where did the breakdown occur versus what a great offensive play it was. I have to strike a balance there of seeing the breakdown on the defense versus commentating on the great offensive play that occurred."

That's what his father Tim and defensive guru Dick Bennett have instilled in Kelley, which he now dispenses in easy flow doses over the air. Just as he did when he was running the Badgers squad on the Kohl Center court, Kelley is a gamer from opening tip to the final horn. Never one to take the game for granted, Kelley has approached his broadcasting assignments in a similar vein.

"What surprised me was when you've got to talk for two hours and breakdown what's happening out there it can be more difficult than you think," said Kelley. "When you're sitting on your couch, you don't typically talk during the entire game. When you are there and you're in the fire, you're trying to take in everything like the substitutions, the foul trouble and the timeout situation ... it's much more than just watching a game and saying 'That's a great play.'

"There's a lot more going on then you realize. You're intensity is so high at all times you never get to relax until it's over. And then you say, 'Whew, OK it's over, that one's down and now I can look forward to the next one.'" Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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