'King' Coleman dies at 80

Photo submitted Kentucky Wesleyan College men's basketball standout "King" Kelly Coleman balances the ball on his finger in 1958 at the Owensboro Sportscenter. The Kentucky high school basketball legend died Sunday night in Hazard.

"King" Kelly Coleman, probably the most legendary high school basketball player in the history of Kentucky, died Sunday at Noreen and Greg Wells Hospice Care Center in Hazard. He was 80.

Coleman was the first Mr. Basketball in Kentucky in 1956 and is the all-time leading scorer in state high school boys' basketball history.

Coleman only played college basketball for three seasons, and that was at former NCAA Division II national power Kentucky Wesleyan College.

Coleman was a star for Wayland High School, a small far eastern Kentucky school in Floyd County that was a member of the 15th Region before consolidating into Allen Central in 1972 (Allen Central consolidated into Floyd Central in 2017). As a senior he set multiple state records that still stand and led the Wasps to their deepest run ever in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association's annual Sweet Sixteen.

Coleman scored 4,337 points in high school before the 3-point line existed. He is still the only Kentucky boys' basketball player to ever reach 4,000 career points.

His shooting touch didn't cool off at KWC.

Coleman scored 27.7 points a game in three years at KWC, (1958, '59, '60), and is the only Panther to average more than 20 points a game for his career. Coleman put up 2,077 points in 75 games and had a 30.3 single-season points per game average. Coleman also averaged 12.1 rebounds a game at 6-foot-2.

He was a two time All-American at KWC.

"He could see where the ball was coming off, when he missed he knew exactly where they would be," Bennie Horrell, a former KWC teammate of Coleman's.

Robert "Bullet" Wilson and T.L. Plain were the two KWC coaches Coleman played for. Coleman reached the NCAA Division II tournament semifinals in 1960. His number 45 was retired by KWC.

Coleman also holds the KWC record for points scored in an NCAA tourney game, 46 in a victory over Johnson C. Smith College.

"He didn't look like a basketball player," said Horrell, who still lives in Owensboro. "But he was one of the best I ever saw. He was the best player as far as shooting I ever played with or against.

"He's the only guy I've ever seen who got to center court and could shoot the ball with just his wrist."

Often times in games, Coleman would get just across center court and let the ball fly, and he could make routinely from that distance.

"Yes he could, and he did," Horrell said.

The last time Horrell saw Coleman was at the 2018 funeral of another KWC teammate, Don Gish, who was from Henderson.

"That one really hurt him, they were best friends," Horrell said of Coleman and Gish.

Coleman was known to have a larger-than-life personality, and a lot of that had to do with his mountain heritage.

"He understood his role and how important he was, not only to the state, but certainly to his beloved mountains of eastern Kentucky," KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said. "He knew the value he held. ... He had a skill set that a lot of people didn't necessarily associate with that region of the state, and so he just became heroic."

"He was a typical eastern Kentucky guy, he either liked you or didn't like you," Horrell said. "We really hit it off."

Coleman committed to West Virginia University out of high school despite a scholarship offer from the University of Kentucky and Adolph Rupp, who once described Coleman as a "combination of Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Alex Groza." He referenced a conversation with another former eastern Kentucky basketball standout when speaking to the Lexington Herald-Leader's Billy Reed in 1991.

"I talked to Lincoln Collinsworth," Coleman said, "and I think about two days is as long as Rupp and I would have lasted."

Coleman was not admitted into WVU due to academic issues and impermissible benefits, and eventually starred for KWC. He was a two-time All-American with the Panthers, in 1959 and 1960, before being selected by the New York Knicks with the 11th overall pick in the second round of the 1960 NBA Draft.

A preseason disagreement with Knicks coach Carl Braun led to his dismissal from the team before the 1960-61 season. Coleman proceeded to play for the Chicago Majors in the American Basketball League, and was the league's third-leading scorer before it folded in 1963, but he never got another opportunity in the NBA.

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