Catching Up With...Greg "Special K" KelserThis article originally was originally published in the May 2007 issue of Basketball Times
The 1979 NCAA Championship Game will forever be remembered as Magic versus Bird but a glance at the boxscore quickly reveals that another player had a very significant impact on the outcome: Greg “Special K” Kelser contributed 19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in Michigan State’s 75-64 win over Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, who entered the game 33-0. Magic Johnson’s 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists grabbed the headlines but Michigan State probably would not have won without Kelser’s near triple double.
“I fully believe that if I don’t get in foul trouble then we win that game by 25 points,” Kelser says. “We were certainly on our way to doing that, as we did in the other four games that we won. We were winning those games by more than 20 points, on average. When I got in foul trouble that gave them an opportunity to cut a 16 point lead down to six points. When I got my fourth foul we were rolling and we were just about to really bust it open. They had no answers. We were doing pretty much what we wanted to do, we were executing, we were shooting a very high percentage, we were not turning the ball over. That fourth foul was very damaging in that sense but, you know what, when I look back at it maybe it was a good thing. If that had been a 30 point game then it probably wouldn’t still be talked about, they wouldn’t be doing stories and documentaries on it, calling it ‘The game that changed the game.’ That game needed to be competitive and I think that when I picked up that fourth foul and had to go sit out the game then became competitive.”
Kelser, a senior, did not resent being overshadowed by Johnson, a sophomore. “He was a great winner, great enthusiasm for the game, tremendous teammate, I loved him without question,” Kelser explains. “Wherever he went the spotlight went. I understood what my role was and I understood how important I was to the team and I also knew that if I played well that I could be a difference maker in that game. But that game really was not any different than any other game we played during the year; if I played well along with Earvin then we usually won. And that was certainly the case that night. I needed to play well in order for us to win. When I look back on it, if you just briefly mention the game it’s always going to be ‘Earvin Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird’ but if you get into discussion about the game then my name has to come up because I think that I played that significant of a factor in the outcome.”
Michigan State laid the foundation for the 1979 championship run with a trip to South America in the summer of 1978. Johnson, Kelser and the Spartans represented the United States in a tournament that included seasoned teams from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Brazil was led by Oscar Schmidt, the legendary star who was still active 14 years later and gave the Dream Team fits in the Barcelona Olympics. “I had never heard of him but, obviously, after watching him play one time you knew that he was a guy that you certainly had to defensively game plan for,” Kelser says of Schmidt. “He was phenomenal. He had tremendous range on his shots. You felt like every shot that he took was going to go in. That Brazil team was very experienced and they had guys who were older than any of our players. I was the oldest player on our team; I turned 21 during the trip to Brazil. They had plenty of guys who were older than that. It was a great opportunity for us to see exactly how we stacked up against a team that was certainly as good as any college team that we were going to face.” Michigan State won the gold medal game against Brazil in double overtime. Kelser scored 27 points and Johnson had 25. Later, Michigan State defeated the powerful Soviet national team 76-60 in an exhibition game. Kelser had 24 points, 10 rebounds, six steals and three blocked shots, while Johnson had 13 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and five steals. Those victories against experienced international teams showed that Michigan State would truly be a force to reckon with in the 1978-79 season.
Kelser was just 6-6 ½ and 185 pounds at the start of his collegiate career but he often played center and was able to grab rebounds against opponents who were much taller and heavier. Throughout basketball history, great rebounders have come in all shapes and sizes, from 6-3 Fat Lever to 6-6 Dennis Rodman to 6-11 Bill Laimbeer. “Anticipating, positioning and then of course if you have jumping ability that is even better but I think that a lot of it is just instinct,” Kelser says when asked to describe the traits that great rebounders must have. “I don’t know that it is something you can teach. Some guys just have it and it is such a valuable part of the game. I always enjoyed rebounding. My very first game as a freshman in the Big 10—I think that it was the tenth game of my freshman year but it was the first Big 10 conference game that I had ever played in—I got 27 rebounds. At the time I didn’t think anything of the number because I had done that in high school a few times and I thought that was what I was supposed to do. That is a very tough thing to do, as I found out later because I never did it again—not that number.”
While he had good all around skills, Kelser took special pride in his abilities as a rebounder. “It speaks to one’s commitment to doing whatever is necessary to get your hands on the ball. I think it’s just the desire to want to get to the basketball. I always had that,” Kelser says. “It was one of my strongest assets from the very beginning, even when I first got on the varsity team at Henry Ford High School. They certainly weren’t looking for me to score but they certainly needed me to rebound. That was just something that carried over. Rebounding is something that I’ve always taken a lot of pride in. Guys who do rebound are people who are driven. It doesn’t just happen. You have to be willing to go in there and take some bumps and some bruises and you have to be willing to go in there again and again and again and be consistent with it. I felt so strongly about my rebounding throughout my career that I am almost 50 years old but I could probably go into a game right now and get 10 rebounds. I might not be able to score, I would probably be winded after a few trips up and down the court but I could get you 10 rebounds.”
Kelser averaged 17.5 ppg and 9.5 rpg during his Michigan State career. His scoring went down after Magic Johnson arrived at Lansing--from 21.7 ppg as a sophomore to 17.7 ppg as a junior and 18.8 ppg as a senior—but his field goal percentage soared from .492 to .610 and .545. Kelser made the AP All-American Third Team as a senior.
The Detroit Pistons selected Kelser with the fourth overall pick in the 1979 draft. He showed a lot of promise in his rookie season—averaging 14.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg, with a high game of 34 points, but knee injuries limited him to just 50 games and hampered him throughout his professional career, which lasted just six seasons and 305 games. “I really don’t have too many regrets,” Kelser says. “I truly enjoy that which I am doing, which is broadcasting. I love it. It is what I saw myself doing after my playing career was over. It is what I prepared myself for while I was still playing.”
L.A. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson recently suggested that the length of the NBA season causes excessive wear and tear and leads to injuries. However, Kelser, who was a very durable player during his college career, does not believe that the 82 game NBA season had anything to do with shortening his career. “I think that the biggest thing with me is that I played very, very hard and I played through injuries, probably to my detriment, when I probably should have been taking a step or two back and letting things heal. I sought not to do that,” Kelser says. “I don’t think that the length of the NBA season had a whole lot to do with it. I incurred some knee injuries, some knee problems, that sustained over a period of time but even with that I was still able to get four more years in after I had the surgery. Though I was not able to play at the 100% capacity that I had grown accustomed to in college and prior to college, I was still a pretty solid pro and for that I think that I can take a lot of pride. I would have loved to have been able to enjoy a 12-15 year career but that wasn’t meant to be. I think I got more out of it than I was ever owed and probably more out of it than I had anticipated.”
Taking the frustrations of his injuries out of the equation, Kelser preferred NBA-style basketball to the slower paced NCAA game. “It (the NBA game) is much more wide open or it was back then, anyway,” Kelser explains. “I think that the game has slowed down now, unless you are Dallas or Phoenix or a few other teams in the NBA that really get up and down and free flow. The NBA game allows you to be more expressive out there on the basketball court, if you’re truly athletic and innovative. The college game is a bit more contained, it’s a shorter game and it’s a game in which you can be defended in a certain way so that you can be pretty much eliminated from the game or at least have your major strengths taken away. I like the pro game a whole lot better, as far as playing it. I enjoyed playing at the pro level, that style, but please don’t take that to mean that I favor it over the college game. I love them both. I really, really do. I find that the enthusiasm that the college game possesses and how every possession seemingly is a critical one and the rabid nature of the home town fans in the college arenas—you cannot match that. But for the sheer greatness of the players overall from player 1-12 on every roster, the NBA is where it’s at.”
A big change in the basketball landscape since Kelser’s playing days is the parade of players who have gone straight to the NBA out of high school or after just one collegiate season. “I think that the overall talent of the (NCAA) game has declined because you don’t have a fifth year Larry Bird or a fourth year Ralph Sampson or a fourth year Patrick Ewing,” Kelser says. “If those guys were playing now you would have never seen them in college and those are some of the greatest college players ever. So that’s what the game is lacking now. The game is still a great game and the players are still good players but the greatest of the great—LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady—it would have been pretty nice to see them in college competition. That is what you miss now.”
Still, Kelser is not 100% in favor of limiting a player’s opportunity to bypass college and go directly to the NBA. “I’m torn both ways on that,” Kelser says. “I remember when freshmen became eligible to play varsity basketball back in 1973 and I was ecstatic that they did that because I felt that if you are capable of playing as a freshman then you should be allowed to play and not have to sit out or spend a season on the freshman team or the JV team. I guess in that same vein if an 18 year old kid is coming out of high school and he has the ability to play in the NBA, let him play. The problem now is if you make that decision and it is a mistake then it can be a life altering mistake. So with that in mind I am almost of the opinion that it might not be a bad idea to have the kids go to school for a year and maybe even two years. I kind of waver on that. I go back and forth.”
As a college teammate of Magic Johnson’s and a longtime NBA broadcaster, few people are more qualified than Kelser to compare LeBron James to a young Magic. “There are similarities in that they are both 6-8, 6-9 and can handle the ball, can pass it, can score, can do a lot of things and can help their teammates but I don’t think that anybody quite rivals Earvin Magic Johnson when it comes to putting all of those things together on a night in, night out basis and just being an incredible winner. I know that Magic probably has the edge because early in his career and throughout his career he always had great players surrounding him. I think that Jud Heathcote probably put it best: his supporting cast got better at every level; he had a certain supporting cast in high school, it got better at Michigan State and it got better with the Lakers and it even got better when he went to the Olympics. You know, that was very fortunate on his part. A guy like LeBron, his supporting cast isn’t quite like that but he’s a great player and I would think that in time he will win his championships as well. In fact, I don’t doubt that he will win his championships.”
Magic seemed to have an impeccable sense of what his team needed for him to do at a given moment, more so perhaps than just about any other player. Kelser agrees with that sentiment and adds, “Magic had it in high school. See, the thing is, if going straight from high school to the NBA had been in vogue when Earvin came out then he would have done that, too. He would have skipped college and he certainly would have done well because his basketball acumen was extremely high. The thing that LeBron is going to need is time to get the proper supporting cast. You don’t win a championship by yourself. No question about it; you don’t win a championship by yourself at the NBA level. You need one or two more All-Star players with you to do it. LeBron doesn’t have that yet. When he gets that he will start winning championships. He is a great player, fun to watch, unbelievable talent.”
Kelser prepared for life after the NBA by learning about TV broadcasting. He had a friend who was a broadcaster who showed him the ropes. In 1986, Kelser made his first on air appearance, working for Black Entertainment Television. He soon worked steadily for BET and Pro-Am Sports Systems (PASS), a Detroit based regional cable network. Since then he has done Big 10 games for Raycom, worked briefly for the Pistons radio network and did Minnesota Timberwolves telecasts for four years. Kelser began his current job as a Pistons TV analyst in 1993.
Last year, Kelser and Steve Grinczel collaborated to write Gregory Kelser’s Tales From Michigan State Basketball, which not only discusses Kelser’s Michigan State memories but also his experiences as a young man who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, Panama City, Florida and Okinawa, Japan; Kelser’s father was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, so the family moved frequently. “I was approached by Mike Pearson of Sports Publishing, out of Champaign, Illinois,” Kelser says of the genesis of the book project. “Mike is the former Sports Information Director at Michigan State and the University of Illinois. He contacted me and it’s something that I’d always wanted to do and the timing was perfect. He said, ‘Greg, I think it’s time and it’s a story that people will want to hear.’ So far the book has been well received. I love the response that I have been getting from most people who have read it and it’s been a success. That was a poignant period in my life and that time spent at Michigan State still shapes a lot of the things that I do today and it has certainly impacted the opportunities that I get today.”
posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 AM