When Jack Donohue took a young Howard Kelsey and his father Ian on a four-hour drive around Vancouver in 1975, the Canadian national basketball coaching legend couldn’t have known the rough diamond he had riding in the Kelsey’s Studebaker. Then again, maybe he did.
Sure, Kelsey led his lowly-ranked Point Grey High School team to a city championship, an overachieving fifth-place finish at the 1975 BC boys provincial championships, and was named tournament MVP. Kelsey may have been determined to make it, but he was skinny and green and Donohue had to be sure Kelsey passed his own character test up close.
Hence the extended car ride. Apparently Donohue liked what he saw and heard. Not only was Kelsey one of only four Canadian high school players added straight to the national team, but he also remained a fixture of the program for eleven years (1977-88). The period was a golden age for Canadian basketball internationally. Kelsey had a lot to do with that.
Born in Vancouver, it wasn’t until the seventh grade that Kelsey took up basketball in a church league. Looking up to pro players like Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Jerry West, Pete Maravich, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he styled parts of his game on elements of theirs. Abdul-Jabbar’s famous running sky-hook became a staple Kelsey move, a rare shot for a shooting guard to use regularly.
His play in high school began to turn heads. Kelsey still holds the all-time highest BC high school career scoring average of 37.5 points per game. In university he lettered twice and started at Oklahoma State, then earned Conference MVP honours at Illinois’ Principia College, where he finished as the third leading scorer nationally amongst NCAA small colleges (29.2 ppg). Professionally, he played for Leones Negroes in Guadalajara, Mexico, averaging over 29 career points per game.
However it was on the Canadian national team under Donahue where Kelsey truly shined. One of the top players to represent Canada internationally at his position, Kelsey appeared in over 400 games at a time when Canada was consistently ranked in the world’s top-five. The two-time Canadian Olympian (1980, 1984) stands as one of only two native British Columbian basketball players to represent Canada in two Olympic Games.
Among Canada’s best results with Kelsey aboard include a fourth-place finish at the 1984 Olympic Games, gold at 1978 Commonwealth Basketball Championships, and gold at 1983 FISU World University Games at a time when all national ‘A’ teams competed. While facing the best American players of his generation including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and Isiah Thomas, Kelsey was a key starter for Canada’s first-ever victory over the US in a major international competition at the 1981 FISU Games. The Canadians followed it up with another defeat of the US in the 1983 FISU games.
Beyond his playing career, Kelsey served as athletic coordinator under Ken Shields at the University of Victoria from 1983-90, producing thirteen national basketball championships, sixty-three UVIC Olympians, and sixteen Olympic medalists in that time. Today, he serves as executive vice-president of Canada Basketball, committed to engineering a resurgence in Team Canada’s men’s and women’s programs.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.