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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 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.'"

Kelley's college basketball craft continued to blossom, and there was always a "next one" on his hectic but adventurous hoops agenda during the winter months. The story twist is this: Mike Kelley didn't pursue more games. He actually subtracted them from his schedule.

Timeout. This rising star doesn't have a master plan to climb the ladder to pursue this elite sports career?

"I don't. And that's the irony," said Kelley. "The past few years I've been doing between 35 and 40 games which was really a lot for me considering I have a real job too and four kids. Just this year I sort of backed away and told them I didn't want to do any traveling and gave up my contractual obligation to doing a certain amount of games. I told them if you need me for local games I'll do it."

Dedication to his full-time responsibilities with his employer, as well as being a husband and father to kids ranging in age from 5 to 8 and 6-year-old twins in between, Kelley dialed back his basketball freelance gig to focus on the agenda at home and office. Leaving basketball behind was a choice Kelley already made once before when his playing days concluded in Madison.

"I signed with an agent, worked out with the Bucks and went to two summer leagues with the Bucks, but the NBA wasn't going to be an option," said Kelley. "The real option was playing overseas or just getting on with the rest of my life and running the family business. I ended up choosing door number two, being done with basketball and starting a family."

With home base in Menomonee Falls, Kelley treks to his job in Hustisford, where the family business, Associate Engineering Corporation, is under the watch of Vice President Mike and his father. It's a workplace the younger Kelley has called home since his senior year in college. And while manufacturing air compressors might not sound as glamorous as sitting courtside during a Big East smack down, Kelley couldn't be more genuinely satisfied and fulfilled.

"In the end I had been gone for three straight months of Saturdays," said Kelley. "My kids are getting older now and they're playing rec hoops so this is the first year I've been able to coach them, and I'm loving that. I'm not missing any more nights at home with my kids anymore, so that's a good thing. I'm real happy with the decision. I'm just way more invested in being a dad than having a second job that takes me away from home."

His assignments now are local in nature, putting Kelley courtside for a handful of Marquette games at the Bradley Center with an occasional Illinois trip tossed in for Big East match-ups involving DePaul. There's now more time in his day for the kids, for his 9-to-5 job, and for pre-game homework to stay sharp and in the loop.

"I like to figure out a match-up where a coach might say 'We've got to take care of this,'" said Kelley. "I always knew that as a player that if you played against a great offensive rebounding team, we've got to own the defensive glass. During the game, I kind of watch that and then comment on what a coach is trying to do and whether it's working or if the players are not able to execute.

"I also enjoy timeouts. That's a fun one for me to talk about ... what the coaches are drawing up and the adjustments that are being made."

The adjustments Kelley has made over the years seem to suit him just fine. The only ones that don't benefit from his unselfish acts are the college basketball fandom watching from their leather sofa in the rec room. Kelley has a gift, but never tries to flaunt it or become bigger than the broadcast itself by creating soon-to-be worn-out catchphrase calls.

"I'm pretty understated," said Kelley. "I'm not over the top or super high-energy. In the beginning, when I first started doing it, I thought the catchphrases were pretty cool, and you're always trying to think of something clever, but I don't think I'm clever enough to do that and make it work. It's not me.

"The biggest thing about personality of a broadcast is I really like working with my play-by-play partners. I've been blessed to have really good partners. When we're able to play off one another and have a good laugh, that's always way better than anything that's sort of forced or planned."

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