‘King’ Kelly Coleman: Gone, but never forgotten

The KHSAA presented “King” Kelly Coleman with the Player of the Century trophy. J.R. VanHoose first met Coleman when the KHSAA presented Coleman with the trophy recogizing the Top 50 players in state history.

“I miss my friend.”

Sometimes we look at icons and legends as something more than human, but “King” Kelly Coleman was more than just a legendary figure to JR VanHoose.

“For me personally, and my wife (Kayla VanHoose), he was a great friend,” VanHoose said. “People know him for basketball and he is a legend, but our relationship was so much more. He was my best friend. I know it is tough for people to lose an icon and legend because he was those things, but personally, my wife and I, lost a great friend.”

Sometimes, you find friends in unexpected places.

Coleman and VanHoose were two of the best high school players in the state’s history and their excellence on the basketball court first brought the two together. Coleman and VanHoose were both named Kentucky Mr. Basketball.

“To be honest, I first met him in either 2000 or 2001,” VanHoose said. “I was in college and the KHSAA was honoring the 50 greatest high school players in state history. It was an honor for us all, but he was the biggest name of us all. When I first met him, he was a bit guarded because he wasn’t sure of most people’s intentions all of the time. He saw that we both had basketball in common and after that, he saw that I didn’t have any ulterior motives. After that, I became close with him when his book came out and then I got involved in the Mountain Sports Hall of Fame and got to see him more and more with that.”

Basketball and being named Kentucky Mr. Basketball may have been the thing that brought VanHoose and Coleman together, but their friendship was based on much more than the sport.

“He knew a lot about my career and really kept up with some of the players over the years,” VanHoose said. “He knew who all the Mr. Basketballs were. He knew about Ervin Stepp. Basketball opened a lot of doors for me, but our relationship wasn’t just about basketball. A lot of times, we didn’t even talk about basketball. He loved to golf and he loved fishing. Our friendship kind of developed over things not related to basketball. We would just sit and talk about life and I think I made him feel at ease because I wasn’t trying to get anything besides friendship from him.”

The title Mr. Basketball meant a lot to Coleman. He took pride in being the first-ever Mr. Basketball in the state.

“He took pride in that,” VanHoose said. “Kelly (Coleman) was the first Mr. Basketball and that was a huge honor for him. He knew who all of the Mr. and Ms. Basketballs were. That group of Mr. and Ms. Basketballs in Eastern Kentucky was such a select few fraternity. It’s special. We might not see each other often together, but we kept up with each other. Kelly felt the same way about that. There are so few of us in Eastern Kentucky. It creates a lot of camraderie. We get to talk and tell stories. That wasn’t just between myself and Kelly, that was with Ervin Stepp and Elisha Justice. He was the same with Geri Grigsby who was Ms. Basketball at McDowell, close to his school at Wayland. It’s a special bond that not many people get to share. It’s led to some great friendships and we are such a tight knit group being from Eastern Kentucky. Those were special friendships to him and he did anything he could to help any of us out.”

You hear the stories of “King” Kelly Coleman on the basketball court. Some are true, some aren’t, but they all added to the lore of the “King.”

“The thing about Kelly (Coleman) is that he loved to tell stories,” VanHoose said. “My wife and myself loved to hear his stories. I’ve heard so many stories and sometimes, I’d just ask him questions about stories I’ve heard. He loved to talk about big events or players he played against. One of the best jokes we shared is that he had 28 points and 28 rebounds in the state tournament, but it wasn’t recognized. I guess the KHSAA overlooked that and I had 27 rebounds against Lexington Catholic and everybody thought the record was 25, but when they looked, Kelly had the record with 28. I would often joke and say, ‘You had all of those scoring records, why can’t you give me one more rebound and give me the rebounding record. He’d often say, ‘I would give you one of those rebounds if I could.’ But I’d reply, ‘We should just watch the tape again and say you had 27 rebounds, so we can share the record.’

“Just being able to joke with him and hear his stories is one of the many things that I’m going to miss about my friend. He was drafted sixth overall by the Knicks. He played for the Washington Bullets when they were in the Eastern League. He also played for the Chicago Natures who were owned by the guy who owned the Globetrotters. He’d tell stories about playing against them and against all those great pros. I loved hearing all of those stories. He accomplished so much. It would hit me every once in a while that I’m sitting next to a legend. I guess the historian in me made me feel like he’s a legend and this is unbelievable to be sitting so close to an icon. But at the end of the day, I’m going to miss my friend telling his legendary stories.”

VanHoose plays a big role in the Mountain Hall of Fame at Coleman’s former gym in Wayland. Now, VanHoose will keep his friends memory alive for generations to come.

“”It does become more important for me to preserve his memory with the Mountain Sports Hall of Fame,” VanHoose said. “Wayland mayor Jerry Fultz and the Mountain Hall of Fame will help allow me to help preserve his memory and not let people forget him. Everybody tells the stories about him, some are true and some are not, but that’s how he got that legend status. With the Mountain Hall of Fame, I felt like it was my job to tell the stories of mountain athletes over time.

“Athletes from the mountains have done some great things. You have your ‘King’ Kelly Coleman’s, your ‘Wah Wah’ Jones’s, your Earl Combs’s who batted leadoff for the 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth and the murder’s row. If we don’t tell their stories, kids won’t understand that they can be from Eastern Kentucky and still achieve their dreams. We have had someone from here to play almost every professional sport. People from Eastern Kentucky have played at the highest levels. I hope this will help motivate the youth and educate them. If they can earn a scholarship at any level and help pay for their education, that is huge.”

The ‘King’ may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.

“The Mountain Hall of Fame has done some special things and we get to preserve Kelly’s memory,” VanHoose said. “It’s been special, but have some great ideas and would love to get money to do more things. Maybe we can get some corporate sponsors or whatever to help us continue what we’ve started at the Mountain Hall of Fame.This is a special place and we want more to come.”

Sometimes friendships live on and as long as VanHoose can help preserve Coleman’s memory, their friendship will live on.

“I miss my friend.”

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