The numbers slowly change on the clock, each one another 60 seconds that Tre Kelley lies awake. Days blend into night with pockets of slumber in between. His body has adjusted to it by now. Sleep is hard to come by when 18 years ago today his reality became a nightmare from which he cannot awake.
An 11-year-old Kelley didn’t think anything of it when he heard a loud noise coming from his grandmother’s bedroom on August 21, 1996. Lila Haythe often filled her apartment with laughter when she watched television; she was probably enjoying one of her favorite shows, he thought. But when his uncle’s friend saw her crying, Kelley left the living room to check on her.
Haythe caught a glimpse of her grandson and began yelling out his name as he got closer.
“‘Tre! Tre! Tre! They found your mother,’” Kelley recalled her saying. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what she was saying.”
Kelley’s parents, Monica and Alfrie, had been estranged. His mother was having an affair with another man, one whom Kelley later learned had a dangerous past. As time went on, she wanted to leave him as she and her husband attempted to reconcile their marriage. Each time she threatened to end the relationship, she returned home battered—a bruised face, an eye swollen shut.
Then she never returned home again.
“He beat her to death,” Kelley said. “She had some type of head trauma. He beat her so bad that the argument had ended and she went to sleep and she never woke up.”
Kelley stormed out of the apartment and sprinted across the street. Dazed, he began walking in what felt like a state of unconsciousness. He was only 11. His mother was just 38. This could not be possible. A family friend ran after him.
“Things will be fine,” the friend said, placing his arm around the youngster before turning back for the apartment.
Confused and alone, Kelley began contemplating his future without this mother. He continued to walk, passing the basketball court. Years later it would be named after him.
“I started thinking – I want to play basketball,’” Kelley said. “That was it. That honestly became my mindset.”
Kelley and his father decided he would benefit from moving in with his grandmother and transferring to an elementary school with a better opportunity to pursue the sport. He enjoyed living with Haythe and other family members. His father, who was also his best friend, came by after work to visit.
As much as Kelley was surrounded by those who loved him, the loss of his mother was irreplaceable. Shortly after her death, he began experiencing effects of the devastating absence. He was a child, and he was scared.
“It was shocking to me and I could not sleep at all,” Kelley said. “I couldn’t even doze off. I would sleep with all the lights on. I would take a shower and wouldn’t close the curtain. I wouldn’t close the door to the room because a lot of my imagination thought this couldn’t be [real]. If I opened my eyes after sleeping, she would be there. Or if I took a shower and opened the curtain, she would be there. I was terrified of the fact that she wasn’t there anymore.”
Kelley and his father didn’t really talk about the tragedy. Instead they focused on being there for one another in this new life that was thrust upon them. The only way Kelley knew how to cope was through basketball. It became a haven to shelter him from the pain of losing his mother and others in later years.
The sport was also an escape from the Washington, D.C. neighborhood in which Kelley lived. The streets of Brentwood were plagued by drugs and violence. Shootings and stabbings took those he knew, others fell victim to destructive lifestyles. Death and loss was all around him.
“When I walked inside those lines and the whistle blew, I didn’t have those thoughts. I was able to play,” he said. “I didn’t think about anything, the hurt that it had caused for me and my family. I just went out and played. That began to be my therapy over the years. When a family member would pass away, a friend would pass away, getting all these calls and news about deaths, I just went and played.”
Kelley poured his heart into the game. He became a standout point guard at Dunbar High School and was recruited by multiple Division 1 colleges. He chose the University of South Carolina, where his family would make the round-trip drives in one day just to see him play.
After four seasons Kelley went undrafted and began his international career in Croatia. Over the next three years he went through training-camp stints with the Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies. Each time he was cut, he moved on elsewhere to keep improving. He has accumulated a resume that includes stints in Israel, Lebanon, Belgium, China, Italy, Venezuela, two NBA Development squads and, most recently, the 2014 D-League Select Summer League team.
Yet he has never played a single game in the NBA.
At 29 years old, Kelley will not stop chasing his dream. He can’t.
“It would mean everything to me as a basketball player,” Kelley said. “All the hard work I put in, all the things I’ve been through, it goes into that. It means much, much more than the game of basketball because I’ve had to overcome different obstacles just to even make it to college and get a full scholarship. Coming out of my door and seeing drugs and violence for years of my life and be able to overcome those things, have people from my neighborhood be able to see me play in the NBA, it would be monumental.”
Last season Kelley played for the Austin Toros and Sioux Falls Skyforce, averaging 18.2 points, 5.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds. In six summer league games this July he posted 11.7 points, 5.2 assists and two rebounds, including a 14-point, nine-assist, four-steal finale.
With high praise from coaches and front office personnel, Kelley was one of the first chosen when the D-League Select team was assembled. Summer league head coach Conner Henry saw the fire that has been driving Kelley for years and gave him the keys to lead the floor.
“He’s a complete pro and it’s been a joy for me to coach him because I never felt like anything I was giving him was too hard for him to execute. I felt very comfortable with him running the team,” said Henry. “He’s done everything— he’s worked hard, he’s communicated with me on everything … He’s represented himself here perfectly. Now he’s going to have opportunities for that.”
When Kelley returned from Summer League he was approached in his neighborhood by fans, many of them young children, who watched him play on televised games. He could sell out the Verizon Center with just his supporters, his friends tell him, with so many eagerly waiting to see Kelley on an NBA roster after all these years. Kelley continues to push – for those who have stood behind him in the past and for those he hopes to help in the future.
“For me to be able to live 18 years past this and become some measure of positivity and do all the things I’ve been able to do as a basketball player, someone else can do this also,” he said. “I’m not the last one to lose their mom. I’m not. Some future basketball player is going to lose their mom or their dad at 11. But what is the story after that? What’s going to happen after that? Hopefully me getting my story across will help that.”
Kelley’s story is still a work in progress. He hopes this is the season he writes the chapter of making an NBA team. As training camp approaches, he continues to be a gym rat with his summer workouts. Letting up is not an option.
“I want to play in the NBA,” Kelley said. “I’m going to continue to push for it. If I go to camp with someone, I’m going to push myself so they understand who they have. I want them to really know me as a person and as a basketball player. They’ll get a steal.”
Eighteen years ago today, Kelley’s world was rocked by an unfathomable loss. Since then he has mourned the death of both parents (his father passed away last year from heart issues), relatives and friends. He has also overcome devastating adversity to become a focused and driven professional who refuses to stop short of his ultimate goal.
The sleepless nights have become part of the norm for him. But as the numbers change on the clock, maybe each passing minute will be one closer to him achieving his dream.
“I’m a fighter, I’m a courageous guy,” Kelley said. “There’s no situation that I can give up in. … Some people at 29 have given up on their NBA goals, but not me. I just can’t do that. I just can’t do that.”
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