For the love of the game

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Jai Kellman’s commute this summer creates a whole new meaning to the word.

Every weekend, he takes a bus 2−12 hours north to upstate New York, not to mention an hour−long subway trip to take that bus, to play with Team Albany, an AAU team his George Westinghouse coach, Everett Kelley, recommended.

The 6−foot−1 Kellman didn’t care how far Team Albany was located when Kelley made the suggestion. He just wanted a place to play.

Team Albany coach Jamel Samuels, a city product himself who starred for Robeson HS and has known Kelley since childhood, has given him that opportunity. When they first spoke of the possibility, Kellman told Samuels: “I’ll go wherever you tell me.” Kellman stays at his home overnight, but pays for everything – such as meals and transportation.

“That says a lot about his character; he’s willing to sacrifice,” Samuels said. “You don’t see many kids who will do that. When he says he’s going to be somewhere, he’s there on time.”

Said Kellman: “I had to take advantage of my opportunity.”

Kellman, a smooth junior learning to play point guard, competed with Team Albany in the Rumble in the Bronx. He played with the Metro Hawks briefly a few years ago, but has passed on the AAU circuit in high school until this point. After the Warriors’ crushing loss to Curtis in the PSAL Class A city championship game, he decided to join a program by any means necessary.

“Just seeing a few players I felt I was better than have more opportunities, this was the separation,” he said, referring to AAU basketball.

Kellman, from the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, had hoped to latch on with the Metro Hawks or New Heights, but there weren’t any spots open.

He initially forged a bond with Samuels last summer during the Eastern Invitational, when Kellman’s playmaking ability led his team to a win over Samuels’ club. In the spring, Kelley reached out to his longtime friend.

After a brief transition period of getting to know his new teammates, Kellman, a southpaw, has fit in seamlessly. He’s one of the first guards off the bench, a tenacious penetrator, reliable shooter and improving decision−maker. Most of all, Kellman is a tireless worker, intense and business−like.

“He shows up with his hardhat and lunch pal and clocks in,” Samuels said. “He’s a coach’s dream.”

It’s music to Kelley’s ears. He graduated senior starters Jerry High, Curtis Pierce and Antonio Cannon, so there is obviously a leadership void. More of the Warriors, Kelley said, could be playing on similar AAU programs, but have lacked the passion, enthusiasm and hunger for the game Kellman has exhibited.

“I can be committed because he’s committed,” Kelley said. “We all feel that he is going to be a Division I player.”

Of course, there are drawbacks for Kellman. He is basically giving up his weekends, a tough thing for a soon−to−be senior. He passes the time by listening to his i−Pod, sleeping and reading basketball magazines like Slam. The college interest has yet to roll in. But Kellman is confident that will come. He’s going to be back in Albany on Friday.

“It’s worth it,” he said, a phrase he repeated often in a 20−minute interview. “It will pay off. This is what I want to do in life.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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