Catching up with former Northern Kentucky University hoops star Mike "Walt" Kelsey
Shannon Russell | WCPO Contributor
12:00 PM, Apr 27, 2017
CINCINNATI -- Mike Kelsey was a standout guard on Northern Kentucky University’s basketball team from 2001-05, but there’s one game in particular that people still like to discuss.
The date: Jan., 2, 2004. The opponent: Indianapolis.
Kelsey scored a jaw-dropping 50 points in that outing behind nine 3-pointers and 9-for-9 free-throw shooting. He piled on 39 points in the second half alone. The feat was so momentous that it remains a single-game Norse record.
“People remember that and bring that up. It’s really cool and something that I will always remember,” Kelsey said. “What they don’t remember was that we lost that game, for one. And two, the guy I guarded that night had 46 points.”
Kelsey, 35, laughed at the memory. He and Indianapolis player David Logan were locked in a shootout (although box scores say Logan had 44 points) and the Greyhounds won 95-92 in an overtime thriller at Regents Hall.
It’s just one glimpse of Kelsey’s Hall of Fame career. Now 12 years removed from his playing days, Kelsey spends his time with his family -- wife Kathy and kids Ella, Walter and Rosie -- when he’s not working as a general manager for Kelsey Chevrolet in Greendale, Indiana with his father and brothers-in-law Paul Cluxton (a fellow NKU Hall of Fame hoopster) and Bay Guidugli.
Kelsey was nicknamed “Walt” throughout his life but officially went by “Mike” through college. His father also is named Mike, which created confusion in dealings with the auto business, so the younger Kelsey permanently adopted “Walt.”
“It’s been 11 or 12 years already and now it’s like I don’t even answer to Mike. People say Mike and I look for my dad,” Kelsey said.
The “Walt” nickname originated decades ago when Kelsey was a toddler and his father worked for Jake Sweeney’s automotive business. Jake’s two brothers were Walt and Tom.
“For some reason when I was 3 and 4 years old, I always wanted to be Walt. We would ‘play’ the Sweeney brothers and my mom would be Jake and my dad would be Tom and I would be Walt. My dad would go to work and I would make my mom call me Walt all day. It just stuck from there,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey went from Elder High to NKU in 2001 and began carving his place in Norse hoops annals. The program reached major milestones, from defeating powerhouse Kentucky Wesleyan in 2002 to winning the Great Lakes Valley Tournament later that season and clinching a Division II NCAA tournament bid.
The Kentucky Wesleyan victory was a big deal for then-NKU coach Ken Shields, Kelsey said.
“Coach Shields was like 0-for-25 at Kentucky Wesleyan. He never won at Kentucky Wesleyan. In his second-to-last year, we beat them down there,” Kelsey said. “They were No. 1 and we were like No. 4 in the country and he cried like a baby in the locker room after we beat them. You would have thought he’d just won the national championship.”
The Norse went 25-6 that season and lost to Findlay (80-76) in a Great Lakes Regional in Michigan.
During Kelsey’s four-year tenure, NKU went a combined 74-44. His name is still scattered throughout the record books, from most single-season minutes (1,112) and career minutes (3,861) to a No. 7 ranking in career points scored (1,595).
Shields was Kelsey’s head coach for three years before Dave Bezold took over. Kelsey still runs into his former coaches from time to time and says he’s forever grateful for the lessons they imparted.
“Those guys were almost like second and third fathers to me. Not only did I learn from two great basketball coaches, but I learned a whole heck of a lot more than just basketball,” Kelsey said. “Coach Shields was a quote guy, a word guy. Me and Paul down at work, both of us having played for him, there’s a lesson every day where one of Coach Shields’ words or quotes come up.”
Kelsey said Regents Hall was great for its old-school character and seemingly big rims. It was a shooter's gym, he said. Unfortunately, it was also a shooter’s gym for opponents, which caused NKU coaches to “crush us for our defense,” Kelsey said, laughing.
Another good memory: Kelsey scored 27 points in an exhibition loss to Kentucky at Rupp Arena in 2004. The Wildcats had Rajon Rondo, Kelenna Azubuike and Chuck Hayes that season, and still the Norse put up a good fight. They led by as many as eight before Kentucky scored 15 unanswered points en route to a 91-73 victory.
“I’ll never forget playing Rajon Rondo and guys on NBA teams that I watch every night with my son now. He looks at me like I’m crazy when I tell him, ‘I played against that guy.’ Those memories are always there,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey was ecstatic about the Norse’s recent Horizon League title and Division I NCAA tournament bid, not only for the current team but for all those NKU teams that came before it. He looks back on his college career with fondness and rich memories.
“I feel like NKU is different than other places. The people at that university and in the athletic program are what make that place so special,” Kelsey said. “It’s a place I will be in debt to for the rest of my life.”