Russ Reilly Era: Kevin Kelleher Interview

What attracted to you to Middlebury originally? What attracted you to the team?

It was when I was being recruited. Tom Lawson was the head coach back then and he was recruiting me out of high school. I came up for a recruiting weekend to visit the college. And when you’re a recruit on campus you stay with one of the basketball players and I stayed with Mark Mauriello. And I met most of the players on the team and it seemed like a group of guys that got along, had a lot of fun and were serious about playing basketball. They were all recruited out of their respective high schools and enjoyed being part of the team. In terms of my decision-making process and selection of Middlebury it was that element and the school’s good reputation, but the tipping point was the basketball program, the guys on the team and how they got along. I saw that during that first weekend on campus as a recruit.

What was the transition like from Tom Lawson to Russ Reilly and what was the difference between the two?

Russ was an assistant coach his first year before he became the head coach, so I’m not sure if there was much of a difference with respect to his style of play. I think Russ was a little bit more open to pushing the ball up and [liked] a quicker game while Tom was more about “let’s control the ball” in more of a slow-down game. But I don’t remember that much of a difference.

When you got there as a freshman you instituted a system of sprints after practice was over. What was the impetus behind that?

When you go into practice and you’ve been working on offenses and set defenses you’re not getting a lot of running, so it’s up to individual players to do some real conditioning on the side. I do remember Russ building in the suicide at the end of practices just to make sure that people got their cardio workouts in. Because during the season you’re playing games you’re not going to rely just on your practices to stay in shape. You have to supplement that.

Russ Reilly called you the consummate scorer. Can you break down your game further?

I could play inside or outside, I was pretty aggressive as an offensive rebounder with respect to following shots up and trying to find holes and pockets. If you can shoot the ball from the outside and maneuver inside you have different ways to score and I took advantage of both the outside game and the inside game. A lot of it is just mindset. Every game you have to get yourself ready for it and ready to play and I tried to do that. I took advantage of every opportunity on the floor.

Greg Birsky said that under Tom Lawson they made sure the ball stayed out of your hand for a little while to slow the pace down. Why?

Tom played sort of a disciplined style: move the ball around, get some touches before we shoot. And my attitude was: if you have a good look take advantage of that look because after two or three touches you may not have that same look. You have to take advantage if you’re in transition. Pulling the ball out and slowing it down … that’s fine if you’re goal is to burn the clock and you’re in the lead and you want to protect that lead, but in the flow of the game, if you’ve got a great look out of transition, take advantage of it! Because sometimes you’ll find if you pull it out and the defense gets set, when you finally do have that shot it might be a shot that’s a lot worse than the shot you had initially. The whole thing with basketball is exploiting weaknesses and exploiting if the defense isn’t back and taking some of those easy scores. And that was the style that I played in.

Do you remember some of the times when you took the game out of Tom Lawson’s hands and pushed the tempo?

Greg Birsky was a great leader on the floor and he would push the ball up and he could score and take it to the hoop. And if he thought based on the team we were playing if there was an advantage to pushing the ball up he wouldn’t slow it down just to run an offense — he would increase the speed of the game and make it much more of a transition game.

He got me the ball quite a bit. I ran the court. If we got a rebound I said, “I’m going to be the first one down the court.” It’s just the way I played. Let’s push the ball up the court and see if we can get something in transition that’s better than if we walk it up the floor and run our offense.

Who are some of your teammates that you will remember playing with most vividly?

Lawson was a great recruiter. He brought in a lot of top players who had great credentials out of their high schools so there were a lot of really excellent basketball players. Specific names? There was a guy named Peter Murray in my class who came out of Albany who was a great, great shooter: he had incredible range — and this was a before we had a three-point line. And if we did, with the guys that we had who could shoot from the outside, we would have had a major advantage playing with that three-point line. But Peter was a great offensive deep scoring weapon. Jeff Sather who was out of Brattleboro, Vermont — he was a very solid, smooth forward. He had a lot of ability, a lot of skills. He could score, he was very athletic. My freshman year we had Zenon Smotchrycz who was 6’8’’, 6’9’’ — he was a banger. Mike Wagget was incredibly gifted, he could jump out of the gym. From Dorchester, Massachusetts, great shot blocker, great defensive player and he became a pretty good offensive player as well. And then Bobby Hamilton was out of Pittsfield, Mass. He was a point guard and just a really good ball handler. He could run the offense really effectively. All around we had a lot of really good players with good skills.

My [junior] year we had a really tough loss up at Colby. I think we were down by one and we had the ball. Somebody takes the shot, I remember the time was running out and I was in the position for the rebound, but instead I went up to tap it in because I thought we were going to tap it in and I missed the tap. If I had grabbed it and went up we would have won the game, and there was enough time to do that. So that was a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Our games against Williams and Amherst were always a dogfight. The fans were pretty nasty when you played down at Williams. So that was always a big rival.

We played one game against Bates and they knew they were outmatched and there was no 35-second clock back then so they just went into a four-corners stall offense at the start of the game, which is really frustrating because we could have buried these guys playing an up-tempo game. And I think the score at halftime was like 8-6. So at halftime we said, “we’ve gotta just try to get this game up-tempo.” Which we finally did. We got a lead so they couldn’t really stall and in the second half it opened up a little bit. Russ went ot Bates and it was at Bates so it was a nice win to beat them.

University of Vermont my freshman year. A Division I team, playing at Middlebury. We were completely outsized and outmatched and we beat them. I remember getting an elbow in the first half in my eye, had blood gushing all over, went in, got stitched up and came back and played the second half. And we ended up beating them. And that’s why they stopped playing us because there was nothing for them to gain.

St. Michael’s a Division II team, we beat them two out of my four years. We always played much better against the better quality teams. We just brought more to the game overall.

There was one game my senior year — it was the last game of my college career and the last game of Peter Murray’s college career. Peter went off. He probably played 20 minutes in the game and I think he had 30 points, just shooting rainbows from all over the place. He just couldn’t miss — so that was really fun to watch. We both went out on a big high, beating RPI in our home gym.

What about your memories with your teammates or coaches off the floor like those road trips?

It was a good group. We hung out together quite a bit. And during the season you spend a lot of time with your teammates so you get to know them pretty well. And we had to come back the day after christmas and us and the hockey team were the only ones on campus. And the dorms weren’t open so we’d stay as a group together in the infirmary and we used to have a lot of laughs and a lot of pranks. There was one incident — I forget which year it was — we had a road trip to maine. We were playing Bowdoin or Colby and staying at a hotel and one of these cheap hotels/motels and we left the hotel after breakfast to head to the Bowdoin gym and about an hour on the way a call comes in from the hotel saying that people had taken some stuff from the hotel rooms. So Russ stops the bus, calls me and Peter up because we’re captains and says, “I don’t want to know who did it, but if anyone has anything that belongs to the hotel, I want it brought up to the front of the bus right now and we’re going to bring it back.” There are pillows that just appear at the front of the bus, a piece of artwork from the wall — there was a fair amount of stuff that we brought back to the hotel room and apologized. But it was a good lesson.

Can you embellish on the story of Tex and the snowstorm?

Usually on road trips if we were playing close to the areas where one of the players was from [their families would host the team].

I grew in Worcester, Mass. and my brother played at Worcester Tech. And my junior year, his senior year we were playing at Worcester Tech and it was a big homecoming because we both played high school ball together and the papers wrote up this big rivalry. And they beat us, which was a real tough loss for me, playing in front of your home crowd and getting beat by your older brother. And after that we had a gathering at my parent’s house.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Obviously basketball has come a long way at Middlebury. My daughter played on the girl’s team — she graduated in 2008. My son played on the men’s team and graduated in 2010 so I’ve followed the Middlebury basketball team and back in the late 70s and early 80s there was an incredible amount of quality players back then, similar to what you’ve seen in the recent years, but it’s come a long way. Now you have the postseason play, which you didn’t have back then. Not having those postseason stuff back then was a little disappointing, but the there were some incredible players, similar to what you’ve seen the last 8 or 9 years from Middlebury. It’s been a good program and hopefully it will continue to blossom the way that it has.

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