Oregon State’s record-breaking underdog

OSU senior forward Kylor Kelley goes up for a dunk against Utah on Feb. 13 in Gill Coliseum. 

Looking around the Oregon State practice facility, watching the men’s basketball team get up shots and go through drills, it’s easy to spot Kylor Kelley and think to yourself, “Now that is a basketball player.” 

The senior forward out of Gervais, Ore. towers over nearly everyone he has faced this season. Standing at 7 feet tall on the dot, Kelley’s soaring height makes him taller than all but 30 players in the NBA today. At 215 lbs., Kelley’s lanky frame gives him a quickness and athleticism that most big men do not have at the college level. And with his hands measuring big enough to comfortably palm a basketball in midair off of a rebound, the senior convincingly looks the part.

Even Kelley’s coaches could not help but marvel at his size. Kerry Rupp, an assistant coach with Oregon State, talked about Kelley’s skills and intangibles highly, but was also quick to list his height and speed as one of Kelley’s greatest assets.

“You just don’t find big guys that have that agility and mobility,” Rupp said. 

To an outside viewer, everything about Kelley’s appearance makes sense for basketball. So to an outside viewer, hearing that the senior forward broke the Oregon State record for blocked shots in a career not even two years into his Beaver tenure, makes sense. After all, everything about Kelley’s success looks like it should make sense.

But what most do not get to see is the effort that Kelley put into strengthening his game, the lessons in humility he learned that helped boost his performance on and off the court, or the winding path he took through two stops at the junior college level to even find his way onto a Division 1 basketball court.

All of the lessons he learned and skills he gained helped Kelley to become the player that was able to break Eric Moreland’s Oregon State record of 184 blocked shots, which the former Beaver forward managed in 89 career games. When Kelley took the record over, he did so in his 52nd game as a Beaver.

“My name’s up there with all the greats, which is a real honor for me,” Kelley said. “Knowing where I come from, people wouldn’t think to see my name up there.”

Kelley’s journey to breaking that Oregon State record for blocked shots in a career with 203 and counting, before he has even finished his second season with the team, has not been as casual as his game would sometimes make it seem. And his path did not start with the Beavers, but rather with Northwest Christian University, a private liberal arts college with a Division 2 basketball program in Eugene, Ore.

Playing with the Northwest Christian Beacons is about as unassuming a first step to the career of a college basketball record holder as this modern era of NCAA basketball is willing to give. With so many of the sport’s best athletes choosing to move on from college as underclassmen, the long road to success has become more of a rarity.

But Kelley’s path does not track the same as college basketball’s typical one-and-done stars. Despite finishing as a first-team all-conference player in high school with all kinds of school blocked shots records to his name, Division 1 colleges were not yet ready to offer Kelley a scholarship. He knew he wanted to play basketball at a higher level, but he needed a chance to get there. 

So, Kelley went the junior college route to start his basketball career. Northwest Christian served as Kelley’s first stint at the college level, but it would not be his last junior college run before he found his way to Oregon State. Before he put on the black and orange, Kelley first sported the blue and white uniforms of Lane Community College.

But what Kelley was able to learn from his time before reaching the Division 1 level has helped him transform into the player that he is today. He refined his skills as a player, but playing for the Beacons and the Lane Titans also helped Kelley learn humility, something that he has carried with him on every step of his record-breaking journey.

“It definitely helped me humble myself,” Kelley said. “In the classroom, and on the court.” 

Even while Kelley was growing as a person and a player at Lane and Northwest Christian, the reputation as a blocked shot specialist he is now known for as a Beaver was already forming. Kelley finished his year with the Titans averaging 4.6 blocked shots per game, and his head coach at Lane, Bruce Chavka, saw star potential brewing in his defensive specialist.

“[At] the community college level you don’t ever truly see the finished product of a student-athlete, you’re just a small part of their journey,” Chavka said. “You could definitely see that it’s like ‘Wow, this guy [Kelley], his best basketball’s ahead of him.’”

Chavka was not the only one who saw potential in the budding defensive star by the time Kelley’s first year at Lane was finished. Kelley had broken records for blocked shots in a game at Northwest Christian in his first season playing in college, was named to the Northwest Athletic Conference all-defensive team for his efforts at Lane, and through two years of strong play earned attention and scholarship offers from Division 1 programs.

“Utah was in the mix, Utah State was in the mix, Washington State was in the mix, it was really cool, we had quite a few coaches come through practice,” Chavka said. “It was an exciting time for other guys on the team. Just to come to practice and there would be a PAC-12 assistant coach watching.”

With a handful of teams knocking on Kelley’s door in recruitment, the Oregon resident chose to stay in his home state, committing to play for the Beavers over the other schools looking to add his talents. For Kelley, the decision was about feeling at home.

“I would come down to the [Oregon State] games in middle school and high school and really started to feel that this is where I wanted to be,” Kelley said. “It’s close to where I grew up some of my years as a child. All my friends are here.”

Kelley wanted to be a Beaver, and the Beavers wanted Kelley. The Oregon State program is one that assistant coach Rupp describes as family-oriented, a dynamic which he felt Kelley fit perfectly.

“The team is all about family and I think he’s big on family,” Rupp said. “It’s a great place to be because we have genuine care… so they [student-athletes] have a chance to have it all.”

Kelley’s first few box scores as an Oregon State Beaver looked a lot like they did during his time in high school and junior college, scoring and rebounding well but making most of his noise as a shot-blocking defensive star.

Finishing 11 of his first 12 games with at least three blocks, Kelley put his best foot forward at Oregon State and set his historic pace from his first opening tipoff as a Division One athlete. And after one season as a Beaver, he was already setting records.

Kelley’s 104 blocks in his junior season was an all-time best for the Oregon State basketball program. Same for his 15 consecutive games with multiple blocked shots, his 53 blocks in PAC-12 play, and his nine blocks in a single match, a mark he hit in his tenth game with the team.   

Through all the success, and the roadblocks along the way, Kelley has grown into a record-holding player by working hard to develop as an athlete and a person, while carrying a sense of humbleness and even humor along with him for every step.

“He was really good at making his teammates smile and feel comfortable,” Chavka said. “Even in tough situations, he would always say something or do something to make guys chuckle.”

Kelley has set school records at the high school, junior college and Division 1 college levels, with his latest and possibly greatest record coming by way of the all-time blocks leader in Oregon State history. 

He could brag if he wanted, but Kelley’s humility shines through when asked about the meaning of his accomplishments. For as routine as the 7-foot forward makes his game and achievements look, Kelley still stumbles on his sentences, struggling to find the way to describe the feeling of being an Oregon State record holder.

“I’m wordless,” Kelley said. “I came here to do what I do best and that was to block shots. And it’s worked out.”

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