By Grant Miller
Todd Kelly wore a red T-shirt and shorts with matching sneakers as he stepped onto the Keating Sports Center basketball court. He bent his knees, widened his arms and shuffled his feet to prevent the opposing point guard from dribbling around him. When his man passed to the corner, Kelly jumped and intercepted the ball with one hand and clapped it against the other.
He then passed it back to his point guard.
“See, that’s how you do it,” Kelly, 36, said to the 10 players on the court. “You’ve got to be able to see that coming.”
After practice, Kelly shot a couple jumpers. All net. He then gathered his 6-foot frame and dunked the ball two-handed.
Kelly is the head coach for the Illinois Tech men’s basketball team, the youngest team in the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association Division III conference, and he believes he can keep up with his eight freshmen and four juniors this season.
“Anytime I play someone in one-on-one, I don’t care if it’s Steph Curry or if he weighs 500 pounds, I think I can beat him,” Kelly said. “I’ll put it like that.”
Kelly honed his competitive nature growing up in the Beverly and Morgan Park neighborhoods on the South Side. He played his first organized basketball game at age 10 in the South Central Community Center.
He was hooked from that day forward.
“Really competitive league,” Kelly said. “[Memphis Grizzlies guard] Tony Allen played in it. I’m very competitive, and basketball was the first sport I was exposed to, so it was fun.”
Kelly realized he had a talent for the sport in the eighth grade before he headed to St. Martin de Porres high school. He competed against local legends like Jannero Pargo, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Corey Maggette, who played for the Los Angeles Clippers.
In three years at Division III Millikin University, Kelly scored over 1,000 points. Then an ankle injury sidelined him for his final season. He got his first taste of coaching as a volunteer at Decatur MacArthur freshman boys basketball team, taking over full time when the head coach fell ill around Christmas Eve of 2000.
“It was a little bit overwhelming,” Kelly said.
When Kelly attended graduate school at East Central University in Oklahoma, he used his final year of eligibility to play Division II before earning his master’s degree in sports management from Western Illinois in 2004.
“[Managing grad school and basketball] wasn’t that difficult because I was already a pretty solid student in undergrad,” Kelly said. “It was all about time management.”
Kelly coached DuSable High School girls’ basketball in Chicago from 2003 to 2004 before landing an assistant position at Keystone College in Pennsylvania.
There he decided he wanted to coach as a career.
“I originally wanted to be a broadcaster,” Kelly said. “When I started coaching at the college level, that’s when I knew. I really enjoyed the recruiting and player development. I enjoyed helping players get better. The fact that we were 24-4 when I first got out there was a factor, too. Winning is addictive.”
Kelly heard about a job opening at Illinois Tech through word-of-mouth and returned to Chicago for an opportunity to be a Division III head coach in July 2014. He moved to Glendale Heights, Illinois, with his wife, Adrianne Kelly, now a regional manager for PepsiCo.
When Kelly started looking for assistants, his name spoke for itself, said current assistant coach Roy Ramos. “I was surprised at how many people tried to get the job. Coach Kelly has a good reputation and standing.”
Assistant coach Ebenezer Noonoo said he heard about Kelly through Chicago State men’s basketball coach Tracy Dildy.
“A lot of Chicago dudes know Coach Kelly,” said Noonoo. “He’s known as just a Chicago guy. He brings top talent to every program he’s in.”
Kelly said he saw Illinois Tech’s winless basketball program as exactly the challenge he wanted.
“I knew that if I could turn this program around, there would be absolutely no question that I am a great basketball coach, especially when the program has had no winning tradition,” Kelly said.
During Kelly’s first season, the Scarlet Hawks won two games. In his second, they won four.
Kelly’s first goal for Illinois Tech was recruiting college-level players, but his coaching philosophy is about more than winning basketball games. He said he wants to train students for the “next level,” meaning employment after college, by teaching accountability, discipline and open-mindedness.
Kelly coaches players from Denmark, Mexico, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.
“Having a diverse team [is important] because when these guys graduate and get jobs, they’ll be in a diverse work force,” Kelly said. “Our basketball team needs to be a representation of the university, and our university is very diverse. Some of our guys may have never had friends from India or friends who are European like Anders [Bybjerg]. For example, Jake Digirogio’s from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A lot of guys never met someone from there. It allows you to learn more.”
Digiorgio said Kelly coaches him on and off the court.
“Coach Kelly taught me to hold myself more accountable and only expect the best from myself, even outside of basketball,” Digiorgio said. “He’s going to help me become the person I want to be, become a better person over all.”
Kelly still thinks Illinois Tech men’s basketball needs improvement. He said its “defense was awful” last season, and he wants to bring in a new recruiting class with more three-point shooters. But he hasn’t lost sight of what he said is a coach’s greatest responsibility: “building lifelong relationships.”
When asked if any of his players can beat him one-on-one, Kelly said: “I wish they all could.”