Ever since he saw his older brother Ryan Kelly put on a Duke jersey and walk in front of the Cameron Crazies with thousands screaming his name, Sean Kelly dreamed that he could somehow do the same.
For Sean Kelly, though, the likelihood of that dream was rather slim.
He was eight inches shorter than his brother and not nearly as good an athlete. He played some basketball in high school but his best sport was baseball.
But after three years as a manager on Duke’s basketball team and a summer of intense workouts, Kelly, 21, a senior now, is a walk-on member of the Blue Devils.
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He’s even had a chance to play in a few games, including the nationally televised Feb. 7 game, when Duke blew out Notre Dame 90-60.
“That was great,” Kelly said. “Any time you get in is always fun, especially in front of all the fans at home. They cheer so loud.”
But playing time, he said, isn’t the reason he joined the team. He knows walk-ons don’t play a lot.
Kelly felt that by playing this season he could help create a sense of unity and togetherness that the previous team lacked.
He said his job is to get those in the rotation prepared for the game by pushing and battling with them in practice. That’s something that Associate Head Coach Jeff Capel said he respects about him.
“(Walk-ons) do a lot of the grunt work that only teammates and coaches appreciate,” Capel said. “It’s the definition of sacrifice.”
Supporters, not rivals
Growing up in Raleigh, Sean and Ryan Kelly took up basketball after being around it their whole lives. Their father, Chris Kelly, played professionally for a few years and coached.
Their mother, Doreen Kelly, is the headmaster at Ravenscroft, a pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, college preparatory day school.
“So we always had the keys to the gym,” Sean Kelly said.
Sean Kelly and his brother would play pick-up games with the area’s top prospects, like John Wall and N.C. Central’s Emanuel Chapman.
“Every Saturday morning growing up, every time they came home on break, they were in that gym,” Doreen Kelly said.
Sean Kelly and Ryan Kelly weren’t your typical sibling rivals, though, their parents said. And Sean Kelly didn’t necessarily want to be like Ryan Kelly. Separated by only two years, the Kelly brothers have always been close. But it has grown as they have gotten older. Ryan Kelly, once a star player at Duke, is now a forward for the Los Angeles Lakers. While at Duke, they spent a lot of time together.
“Ryan and I got really close freshman and sophomore years,” Sean Kelly said. “Me being manager and him being on the team, I understood what he was going through. I spent a lot of time at his apartment and we got really close. Me being his biggest fan I’d be going crazy watching the game.”
They played together and supported each other.
And when Sean was playing baseball in high school at Ravenscroft, Ryan was there cheering for him.
“They had different skill sets, different personalities,” their mother, Doreen Kelly said. “They just kind of respected each other’s stuff.”
“It was never a kind of that clutching at your brother just to be a part of that world,” Chris Kelly added. “He had his own life.”
Sean Kelly’s journey from manager to player on one of the top programs in the country wasn’t easy.
Listed as 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Sean had to work to get to where he is. He changed his body.
The months leading up to him making the team were some of the most grueling of his life.
He started working out his junior year to get in shape. He played a lot of pick-up basketball and lost weight.
“At that point I started thinking I should take it seriously,” Kelly said.
At the end of the Duke’s season after his junior year, Kelly went to Capel and told him that he thought he could help the team out in a different way. By being a walk-on.
The team had been looking for a couple of walk-ons for the next year.
“When he came to me with the idea I was a little bit surprised,” Capel said. “I didn’t know that was something that was coming. I went to coach (Mike Krzyzewski) about it and he was on board.”
Capel told Kelly that he would have to work for it and that the coaches wouldn’t make a decision until after summer session two in July.
So Kelly got together with the strength and conditioning coach, Will Stephens, and asked for help in reaching Kelly’s goal of getting in shape for Duke basketball.
Quinn Cook helped
Working all day as a camp counselor at Duke’s Youth basketball camp, Kelly lifted weights in the early morning and played pick-up basketball at night. He changed his diet.
“In the weeks I wasn’t working, I worked out with the guys, running,” Kelly said. “It was the hardest month of my life. I would hit the track, lift (weights) three days a week and had to do sprints.”
When he didn’t make his sprint times, he would get discouraged.
But there were guys like senior guard Quinn Cook, who helped and encouraged him through.
“Quinn was an awesome leader in trying to catch me up to speed,” Kelly said. “By the end, I was making times. He kind of took me under his wing. He could have not done that and thought ‘this is the manager.’ And ‘he won’t make the team.’”
By the time camp for the team rolled around, Kelly felt he was prepared. He was stronger, faster, quicker and more conditioned.
“He’s a very hard worker,” Cook said. “We came into school together and he’s helped me a lot. So I just wanted to give back and help him because he’s a brother. He’s humble and he’s one of my close friends.”
Halfway through the second week of camp, Capel came up to Kelly and told him that he didn’t have to work for them anymore. He told him he had made the team.
“It’s a difficult transition to go from student manager to player,” Capel said. “The commitment he made to change his body and the work he did in the summer earned the respect of his teammates and certainly the coaches.”
Sean Kelly immediately called his parents and brother to let them know.
“He was bursting, he was so excited,” his father Chris Kelly said. “He was just really really happy and so were we. We were happy for him.”
It was about a year ago his duties included washing jerseys, loading the plane and filling up the water bottles for the Duke University basketball team. Now he’s wearing the jersey, living his dream.