Leland Stein III

Greg Kelser earned “Special K” moniker

In Detroit/Area Sports, Mich. Sports Hall of Fame, NBA on October 12, 2021 at 7:38 pm
Greg Kelser

(This article written by Leland Stein was first published in 2007 in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame’s Commemorative Magazine.

By Leland Stein III

Getting selected to any hall of fame is a tremendous honor that recognizes a person’s effort at a chosen endeavor, that’s why if you look at Greg Kelser, you’ll likely see a smile that runs from ear-to-ear.

When one is inducted into a Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (MSHOF) class that includes Detroit Catholic Central and Tiger great Frank Tanana, Red Wing and Tiger Sr. Vice-President Jim Devellano, former Pistons General Manager Jack McCloskey, long time WXYZ-TV anchorman Dave Diles, Harper Woods Regina head coach Diane Laffey, former Spartan and Colorado football coach Sonny Grandelius, former CMU Chippewa and NBA star Dan Majerle, it’s no wonder Kelser has a very warm feeling in his soul.

For Kelser, the MSHOF acknowledgement is an affirmation of his own athletic prowess and a step out of the giant basketball shadow Magic Johnson illuminates. Indeed his induction affirms to all, “Special K” did indeed cast a giant basketball and character shadow of his own.

“Anyone that says I made Greg is crazy,” Magic emphatically explained to me. “We helped each other. I made the passes, but he had to finish. Greg was one of the best finishers in college basketball. Sometimes I’d just throw the ball up near the rim and he would go get it.”

Added teammate Ron Charles: “Sure Magic made everyone better, but Greg had already averaged 20 points per game and was one of the Big Ten’s top rebounders before Magic even got to State. Those two were a great combo and they complemented each other excellently.”

In a telephone interview Heathcote interjected: “They made good eye contact on all those alley-oops they threw so often. Some may say he made Greg, but they made each other. Greg could run and jump, but what was even more impressive was that he was an Academic All-American. Being the smart player he was, he understood his limitations and he worked to improve them; he was a self-made Super Star.”

Kelser’s hard work paid off big dividends as he combined with Magic, Jay Vincent, Charles, Terry Donnelly, just to name a few, to propel the Spartans to their first NCAA basketball title in 1979 over the undefeated Larry Bird driven Indiana State Sycamores.

“When I was recruited at State, E.J. (Magic) was a 10th grader and I was a 12th grader at (Henry) Ford,” Kelser recounted. “(Gus) Ganakas was certain he’d get Stuart House and we could be able to put together a very good team. Well, as you now know, we did not get House, but we did get Jay and that worked out very well!”

Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser after NCAA title in 1979.

The union of Magic and Kelser worked so well that in the ’78 NCAA’s MSU almost beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

“Kentucky had been ranked No. 1 all year,” Kelser recalled, “They were bigger and more experienced, but the fact of the matter is we did not use our speed and quickness to our advantage. They only beat us 52-49, so we did play great defense, but it was our offensive effort that cost the game.”

Continued Kelser: “It was a tough loss but we were not devastated by it. We were one step from reaching the Final Four. It clearly showed that we were one of the elite teams in the NCAA, and, we returned four starters.”

Heathcote said the team used that Kentucky game as a measure of what the possibilities could be. “They were very focused and serious about preparing for the next season,” Coach said. “We went into a little slump during the regular season, but that team pulled it together and made a wonderful run through the NCAA’s.”

After reaching No. 1 in the country, the Spartans went into the Big Ten and loss four of its next six games. When Northwestern blew them out, it was the Wildcats’ first conference win.

“After that loss to Northwestern,” Kelser recounted, “it made us look at ourselves and say, ‘What are we going to do?’ ”

The ’79 NCAA field had only 48 teams versus the 65 that qualify for the today’s tournament. As a result it was imperative that the Spartans right the ship and get back in the Big Ten race.

Right the ship they did, and, in a grand way!

“We proceeded to win 10 straight games,” Kelser said. “I think the earlier losses made us refocus.”

The focused Spartans, with Kelser and Magic leading the way, blew through the Big Ten and NCAA’s and met Bird and his 33-0 Sycamores at the Special Events Center in Salt Lake City. At the game’s conclusion it was the most watched Final Four in NCAA history.

“My biggest thrill in basketball was playing in a game that featured Larry and Magic – two of the greatest players in NBA history,” Kelser joyfully exclaimed. “It was the way it should have been, Magic and Bird playing for the national title. That’s why that game is still talked about today. The memory is made more special, because I got a chance to be a difference maker, and, that’s something I’m proud of.”

Heathcote interjected: “I said before the game that, what made us different from Indiana State was that we had two great players and they had one.”

Concurred Magic: “Greg was the difference in that title game. He scored close to 20 points (19) and he rebounded when we needed it.”

Added Charles: “That game with Bird and Magic is one of the most publicized and watched games ever. Bird and Magic got all the pub, but Greg was crucial to our title run.”

Being the first MSU team to win a NCAA basketball title etched the participants’ names in Spartan folklore.

“I do not think at the time, anyone of us realized the magnitude of that game,” Kelser said. “Coach Al McGuire told me, ‘You’ll realize one day how special this moment is.’ ”

Said Donnelly about the hype of winning the title: “I remember getting on the plane on the way back home, and, when we got there, there were thousands of people yelling and screaming.”

Named the captain of the ’79 team, Kelser may not have been the demonstrative individual Magic was, but he was the rock in the locker room and off the court.

“He brought leadership off the court and on it,” Magic gladly recalled, “especially on the court; he was even, never too high or too low. He always had everyone’s back.”

Captain Kelser is fourth on Michigan State’s career scoring list with 2,014 points (17.5 per game), and first in rebounds with 1,092 (9.5 per game), which is fourth all-time in the Big Ten.

Following Kelser’s exceptional stint at MSU that saw him earn first-team All-American, the Detroit Pistons in the ‘79 draft drafted him on the first round. However, a series of injuries led to only a five-year pro career.

After the NBA, Kelser transferred that same basketball moxie and energy into becoming a solid and informative NBA and college analyst.

In 1998, Kelser received an honorary doctorate degree and was Michigan State’s graduation commencement speaker. Also at the NCAA’s 98th annual convention he was among six former student-athletes who received Silver Anniversary awards for their achievements in college and in their 25 years since graduation.

“From day one,” Heathcote noted, “Greg has presented himself with class and dignity.”

He also runs the Gregory Kelser Basketball Camp in Detroit for kids ages 7-15, and relishes his position as a role model. In addition, he has a book out titled “Greg Kelser’s Tales from Michigan State Basketball.”

Leland Stein III is a columnist for the Michigan Chronicle and he can be heard on 107.5 every Sunday from 11 p.m. to midnight. He can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com.

Jerome “The Bus” Bettis makes pit stop in MSHOF

In Detroit/Area Sports, Mich. Sports Hall of Fame, NFL, sports column on September 12, 2021 at 12:08 am
Jerome Bettis celebrates Steelers’ victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL in Detroit. 

(This article was first published in 2011 for the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame commemorative magazine. Bettis was officially inducted in 2011.)

By Leland Stein III

Jerome “The Bus” Bettis has one of the best and most recognizable nicknames. “The Bus” can hold up to other football greats like: Night Train, Hacksaw, Pepper, Hammer and Crazy Legs.

In baseball we have had Say Hey, Babe, A-Rod, Iron Horse and Joltin’ Joe. Basketball has had monikers like The Stilt, Magic, Iceman, Cornbread, Clyde, Air, Pearl and Dr. J.

Sure, nicknames are colorful and gave each a certain aura, but the most important thing “The Bus” had in common with most of the above-mentioned sports icons, is that he was a superior athlete as evident by his selection to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (MSHOF).

“It is amazing to think of all the great athletes to come out of Detroit and Michigan,” Bettis told me. “This is an incredible honor! Of course, I knew about the Michigan Sports Hall, but I never aspired or planned on it . . . it kind of blindsided me.”

“I was sitting in my office and this polite young man came in and said he wants to play football,” former Mackenzie High coach Bob Dozier recalled. “After he left, I said, ‘Wow!!’ He looked like a young Superman and he’s an honor student. His sophomore year I put him at middle guard and he was so physical and tough off the ball. The thing I like most about him was when his skill became evident, he remained patient. We had Walter Smith (he played at Michigan) and he was getting it done.”

By his senior year Bettis had gained notoriety as a feature running back and linebacker. When it was time to select a college, he chose Lou Holtz and Notre Dame.

Here Bettis carries Notre Dame to a win over Michigan.

Recalled former Mackenzie High star linebacker Pepper Johnson, who went on to earn two Super Bowls rings with the New York Giants and three more as a coach with the New England Patriots: “I had heard Mackenzie had a running back that was special. Then I go to Reggie Mackenzie’s Camp and I’m coaching the linebackers and there was Jerome. I wanted him to stay at linebacker, because he could have been a great one. He might have had a different nickname, maybe Ali because he would have knocked people out. I guess it all worked out with all he has accomplished on the other side of the ball.”

Dozier said Holtz first told Bettis that he wanted to use him on offense, but he had to lose weight. “But after he ran a 4.5, Holtz said, ‘He’s fine like he is,’ ” Dozier recalled.

Indeed, Bettis was fine like he was. After a stellar career at Notre Dame, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams on the first round (10th overall) of the 1993 NFL Draft. His rookie year he rushed for 1,429 yards, and was named All-Pro and Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Bettis rookie campaign jump started a 13-year career in which he toted the pigskin for Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers. He is generally acknowledged by football aficionados as one of the most elusive, powerful, big backs ever. He is fifth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 13,662 yards.

Interjected former Mackenzie teammate Gilbert Brown, who won a Super Bowl ring with Green Bay (1997): “When I first saw JB at Mackenzie he was kind of shy. But when he got out on the field there was ferociousness to him. I had the pleasure of blocking for him. Everyone in the PSL knew where we were going to run the ball. If I lined up right or left JB would be coming right over my side. It was amazing to see a back with his power and speed.

“I loved when we played against each other in the NFL. I’m with the Packers and he was with the Steelers and we were playing a Monday night game. I called him and told him I was going to knock his helmet off. During the game we met in the center of the hole and I was thinking he was coming with his power, but then he shook me.”

Lions Hall of Famer, Barry Sanders told me: “When I think of JB I think of a great competitor you would love to do battle with. He was not a guy defenses wanted to see. He was a wrecking ball, powerful, but agile. I enjoyed watching JB play and the way he carried himself.”

Almost everyone in unison exclaim that Bettis is a superior athlete, but an even better person. Bettis told me that he comes from a loving and caring family, and, his mother (Gladys) and father (Johnnie) were special people that molded him.

Concurred former U-M star Thomas Seabron, who is now a financial advisor: “To a large extent JB’s success is a direct result of him having a strong family environment. That’s why he understands the need for the human touch.”

Bettis in high school with Mackenzie coach, Bob Dozier.

Added Mackenzie teammate Walter Smith, a former captain at U-M: “In high school JB’s best resource was his father. I did not have that at home. Just talking to him and sharing advice he got from his dad made me a better person. When I got injured at Michigan, I remembered what JB told me in high school, ‘don’t worry about what you don’t have, maximize what you do have.’ Although I was not as quick, his words got me through.”

At the end of a rough and tumble NFL career, Bettis received his biggest blessing. He and the Steelers descended on his hometown to contest Seattle in Super Bowl XL, and, they won.

“I played in two Super Bowls, but he played in the one that was in our home,” exclaimed Brown. “I told him he had to be the luckiest cat in the world to play in and win a ring in his own backyard.”

Said Bettis: “It has always been my goal to win a championship, but to do it in my hometown was a dream come true. I had about 60 or 70 tickets for that game. Then running out on Ford Field at the Super Bowl, it was all a kid from Detroit could imagine.”

The Bus did not stop there as his Foundation and Cyber Bus is enhancing kids lives and recently, he announced a redevelopment project to build living and retail spaces along the Detroit riverfront. “We are trying to shine a light on the city,” he said. “At the end of the cleanup we will reevaluate the site and move forward.”

Michigan Chronicle columnist Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

Hall calls Blaha

In Detroit/Area Sports, Mich. Sports Hall of Fame, sports column on September 9, 2021 at 1:11 am
Voice for Detroit Pistons and Michigan State football, George Blaha, inducted into Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

(This article was first published in 2010 for the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame commemorative magazine. Blaha was elected in 2008 and inducted in 2010.)

By Leland Stein III

I’ve been lucky enough to have been around some of the greats in broadcasting. Vin Scully while covering the L.A. Dodgers, Dick Enberg at the Rose Bowls and my favorite, Chick Hearn, who I befriended while covering the LA Lakers.

But nothing prepared me for the genuine human spirit I experienced coming back home to Detroit and meeting George Blaha. In preparing this narrative it uncovered a man that has that special something . . . which is infectious.

The Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (MSHOF) confirmed my assertion selecting George Blaha as one of its 12 inductees into its 2008 Class.

“I think when you broadcast in your home state,” exclaimed Blaha, “being selected to the MSHOF is the highest honor I can receive; it is the thrill of thrills.”

Added Pistons President Joe Dumars: “George is a broadcasting icon here in Michigan and certainly a deserving inductee to the MSHOF. He’s an ambassador for the game of basketball and his enthusiasm for the Pistons is on display during every game he sits behind the microphone.”

Detroit Pistons GM, Joe Dumars

Said Pistons coach John Kuester: “Along with his great knowledge of the game and passion for the Pistons, George cares a great deal about our community and our fans.”

Not to be out done by Pistons, Michigan State University coach Mark Dantonio said George is “certainly deserving” of being inducted into the MSHOF and that the Spartans were “truly fortunate” to have a “legend” in the broadcast profession serving as the play-by-play ‘Voice of Spartan Football.’

MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo interjected: “George is the consummate play-by-play announcer. It’s the warmth with which he presents a game that makes it feel like you’re welcoming a friend into your radio. I can’t imagine Michigan State football or Detroit Pistons basketball without him. It’s for all those reasons and many more, that George is truly worthy of such a prestigious honor.”

Said MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon: “George is not only the voice of the Spartans he has given voice to the Spartan tradition. George has been a messenger of our athletic heritage; now with this honor he is forever recognized as an integral part of that heritage himself.”

Born in Detroit, Blaha was raised in Marshalltown, Iowa and Grayling, Michigan. The Michigan/Iowa man selected – not choosing a school from those two states ‑ the dreaded Notre Dame University where he graduated with a B.A. in economics and later earned an MBA from the University of Michigan.

The question is how did Blaha go from an economics major to a celebrated commentator who has been the television and radio play-by-play voice of the Detroit Pistons since 1976 making him the longest tenured broadcaster in the state of Michigan.

“I always wanted to be a broadcaster,” he told me without hesitation. “I was fortunate to get into great schools like Notre Dame and Michigan. My Dad said just in case my dream did not come true I’d have something, but in my mind, I was shutting every other door as fast as I could.”

Concurred Blaha’s Fighting Irish roommate, Bill Dwyer, who was sports editor of the Los Angeles Times for 25-years: “People usually sing in the shower, but George did play-by-play in it. He went to U-M Business School because his father demanded it, but it took him two seconds after he graduated to follow his real dream.”

Dwyer continued: “Nothing could hold George back. I remember he and I sent letters out to all the radio stations and offered to do play-by-play for free and only Frank Crozier, the long-time Notre Dame public address announcer, listened to the tapes and he told us neither one of us ‘would make it in the business.’ ”

Not only has Blaha made it all the way to the Hall of Fame, he has unleashed a volley of colloquial phrases that have found their way into basketball’s lexicon: “A high glass gun that goes,” “Count that baby and a foul,” “He triples from way downtown!” “Guns, got it!” “Scoops it, scores it!” “Gives it up, gets it back,” and “The glasser goes!” . . . and this is only a slight few of Blaha’s creative phrasing.

“What has happened in my career is certain things have come out my mouth,” Blaha noted, “but I never wrote any of that stuff down; it just happened. I think the speed of the pro game, and, if you want to describe more that one thing you better be brief. But you better make sure the fans understand or they will let you know.”

Detroit Pistons broadcasters Greg Kelser and George Blaha.

Concurred Greg Kelser, Blaha’s current Piston broadcast partner: “He always makes the games fun and exciting for the fans and himself.”

Added Harry Hutt: “For the fifteen years I was fortunate to serve as executive producer/director of the Pistons telecasts. While it was a thrill to produce live television and radio for an NBA team, the back-to-back NBA Champions and watch the greatest basketball players in the world, the biggest thrill was having the opportunity to work with the best play-by-play broadcaster in the NBA. He made the broadcasts come to life, not only with the smooth and professional delivery from his ‘great pipes,’ but also the now famous phrases he has coined thru the years.”

Blaha is nipping at the heels of legendary Ernie Harwell as his body of work continues to escalate. He has been on the front row of the Pistons’ greatest and most heartbreaking moments.

“The heartbreaking loss to Boston 1987 where (Larry) Bird stole the inbounds pass,” recalled Pete Skorich, Pistons Executive VP of Broadcasting, “George was still able to keep his composure and deliver a perfect call though his heart was breaking . . . a true Hall of Fame moment. But, don’t feel sorry for George as he has called all three Pistons World Champion moments. He’s all ours and he’s still going strong creating memories!”

There are many in East Lansing who would tussle with Skorick’s declaration. In fact, he has created a lasting 33-year affiliation with Michigan State University football that has grown more roots that a giant Redwood tree.

“George has not only been a great friend,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “he did an outstanding job of hosting the coaches’ shows when I was at Michigan State. He is probably one of the most recognizable figures in the state, and, if I had to describe him in a word, it would be CLASS.”

Former MSU coach Nick Saban.

Said John Lewandowski, MSU Associate AD/Communications: “George will do preparations endlessly. He talks to players and coaches and makes sure he is ready on game day. He a giant in the profession, but what stands out to me is he is humble and finds time for everyone. He’s an ambassador for MSU.”

Confirmed Kelser concerning Blaha’s accepting spirit, which is evident by his non stop charitable and community deeds: “I met George when I was playing at MSU and I liked him then. When we started working together, he became my mentor. He never made me feel like I was a novice or did not belong simply because he was a seasoned pro. I really appreciate that about him.”

Blaha knew coming to MSU people would always remember the Duffy Daugherty and Ara Parseghian 1966 Michigan State vs. Notre Dame football “Game of the Century.” His elevation at East Lansing speaks loudly to his work ethic, character and personality.

“MSU has been great to me,” he exclaimed. “To accept a Notre Dame guy and let me broadcast their games is special. They even made me an honorary alumnus of the University and an honorary member of the Spartan “S” Letterman’s Club. Can you believe that?”

Blaha has worked with too many color commentators to recount. But he did note that Mayor Dave Bing, one of his early partners helped him grow and that coach Dick Harter became one of his best friends.

“I can’t think of anyone who stands more for Michigan sports than GB,” said Kelly Tripucka, his longest broadcast partner (8-years). “From his eloquent calls as The Voice of the Pistons, to his ‘off days’ as the radio call of MSU Football, to his BELOVED Irish of Notre Dame, there is no one more loyal than George.”

With his resume filling up, and with his ascension to the MSHOF, I asked him if he’s going to slow down, relax and reflect on his noteworthy accolades?

“The travel can be tough,” Blaha said, “but in some ways I enjoy it. You get to see one of the greatest countries in the world and see these exception athletes. As for the colleges, the stadiums and towns are wonderful. I know the end will come sometime, but I try to keep in shape and do the right things. I do not foresee hanging up the mike or catching Ernie anytime soon.”

I’m sure all Spartan and Pistons fans would tell Blaha, “Keep rising, firing and phrasing!!”

He and his wife, Mary, are year around Michiganders. They live in Troy during the basketball season and in Gaylord when it’s meander time.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or twitter @LelandSteinIII