Ryan Kelly takes a shot for Real Betis Energía Plus / FERNANDO RUSO
After Ryan Kelly’s star-studded career at Duke and a promising rookie year in the NBA, the former-Blue Devil big-man finds himself in a new country, new culture and, once more, a new battle with transition.
Centro Deportivo San Pablo is not quite a basketball Mecca. The outer walls, painted in off-shades of tan and green, are old and worn. Above the court, the pipes and beams supporting the building weave through each other like the medieval streets of the Andalusian capital. The stands, numbering just over 7,600, present a more accurate depiction of an oversized high school gym than a professional basketball arena.
Ryan Kelly, the former Duke and Los Angeles Lakers forward, walks towards the players’ entrance dressed comfortably in joggers, sunglasses, and sneakers with a backpack slung over his shoulders.
Standing every-bit of 6-foot-11 and still sporting the same scruffy beard as in his college days, Kelly jokes his appearance is closer to that of a professor than a basketball player – and given that he was a three-time All-ACC Academic team member at Duke, he might not be that far off.
The most glaring changes are the three tattoos on his left wrist: a cross, “Phil 4:13”, signifying the Bible verse Philippians 4:13, and the text “Rise and rise again.”
But underneath the bearded giant’s slight southern drawl and familiar look, one will find a changed man; a man who has gone from the highs of national championships and suiting up in the world’s foremost basketball venues to one that has risen from the fires of cuts and bad system fits, once more trying to find his place in professional basketball.
“I’m very fortunate to be here,” Kelly said of playing for Real Betis Energía Plus in Seville, Spain. “But at the same time my goal is always to play in the NBA, to play at the highest level and to believe that, whether that happens or not, [I’m] good enough to do it.”
Kelly’s basketball career can easily be characterized as one of underestimation and a constant fight to maintain the role he’s carved out.
When he began his prep career at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina, Kelly’s coaches thought he’d top out as a mid-major prospect. But by his senior season, he’d transformed into a McDonald’s All-American and one of the top recruits in the country.
At Duke, Kelly again faced the fire, playing sparingly as freshman on the 2010 national championship team. However, as a sophomore his minutes skyrocketed from 6.5 per game to 20.1, and he never played less than that during the rest of his time in Durham while helping Duke to a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight.
But, perhaps the most profound change of course for Kelly arose when he entered the NBA. Taken by the Los Angeles Lakers with the 48th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, the former Blue Devil was a welcome surprise for coach Mike D’Antoni his rookie year, posting per game averages of eight points and 3.7 rebounds in 25 starts. Kelly appeared to be a major steal for then-general manager Mitch Kupchak.
Then it all came crashing down.
After Kelly’s rookie year, D’Antoni resigned from his post and was replaced with Byron Scott. Upon arrival, Scott, a disciple of the slow-paced Princeton offense, moved Kelly out of position to small forward rather than remain at the stretch-four or five where he had thrived the year before.
In his two years under Scott’s watch, Kelly saw his minutes drop from 23.7 per game his second year to just 13.1 in his third, while his points, blocks, and assists per game also dropped over the same period.
“With D’Antoni, I think I fit really well, and he’s someone I keep in contact with because I think he knows that too,” Kelly said. “And he knows that I wasn’t put in the best position possible for my second and third year with the Lakers.”
Welcoming a fresh start, Kelly signed with the Atlanta Hawks as a free agent for the 2016- 2017 season. But instead of a new opportunity, Kelly was plagued with the same playing time inconsistencies he faced in L.A. compounded with being waived four times by three different teams between September 2016 and July 2017. His last NBA team, the Houston Rockets, waived him just nine days after trading $75k in cash considerations to Atlanta for his rights.
Without a team and an uncertain NBA future staring Kelly down, the young and suddenly well traveled big-man was left weighing his options.
At the side door of Centro Deportivo San Pablo, Kelly enters the arena and makes his way to the court. En route, cutting through the training room, one of his teammates lays facedown on a table receiving massage treatment. Taking notice, Kelly sneaks to the training table as stealthily as a 6-foot-11 mountain of a man can. Once there, towering over his teammate, Kelly directs the trainer where to continue massaging.
“Oh yeah right there,” he exclaims melodramatically directing the trainer with his massive hands while sporting an ear-to-ear grin on his scraggily bearded face that would rival Eddie Haskell.
Betis’ new star admittedly speaks little Spanish beyond hola and the necessary terminology he needs on the floor. Kelly quips his background is in Latin, as it was the only foreign language he could avoid speaking in school.
Off the court, Kelly is still the relaxed, fun-loving, easy-going guy that his teammates past and present have come to know. But when it comes to his on-court play, he’s produced in a way that he hadn’t since college or even high school.
“I certainly wanted to be in the NBA, but I felt like, for me, in terms of the style of play it would be a good fit and it’s been a learning and growing experience,” Kelly said of playing in Spain.
Following his release from the Rockets in July of 2017, Kelly was faced with the uncertainty of training camp invites and non-guaranteed contracts late in the free-agency process. Then, the prospect of playing in Europe arose.
Los Verdiblancos were coming off a 9-25 season when Kelly arrived. And though the 2018 season hasn’t been much kinder to the squad—they’re currently 7-18 with nine games remaining— Kelly has proven his worth. Through 25 games, he’s averaging 14.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. Armed with a prolific offensive arsenal of face-up and outside shooting ability, Kelly has become a go-to scorer for Betis – a role he hasn’t truly held since high school. Though as is natural for any change, Kelly’s faced the growing pains of becoming the go-to guy, citing inconsistencies in his shooting.
“I think a lot of that has to do with I went from being a player who was spotting up and, a lot of times, was open because I wasn’t necessarily a first option to being the guy that most defenses are saying ‘We need to stop this guy or make it hard for this guy if we want to beat Betis,’” Kelly said.
Despite the endless stream of changes and inconsistencies, Kelly finally seems to have found comfort in the basketball world.
If Kelly’s tale proves anything, it’s that basketball is a business that can elevate and marginalize in a matter of days. But through the endless stream of changes and inconsistencies, one constant has remained for the former Duke star – his wife and high-school sweetheart, Lindsay Cowher Kelly.
The couple first met when Lindsay and her family moved to the Raleigh area during her high school years. A basketball standout in her own-right, Lindsay attended Ravenscroft with Kelly, where their relationship blossomed. The couple has been together for over 10 years now and married in 2014. They have two young kids together, a three-year-old son, Nile, and a 1-year old daughter, Tess.
“For them to be able to come with me tends to make everything easy,” Kelly said of having his family in Seville with him. “I can always go home and have people that are there for me.”
Lindsay is no stranger to the professional sports world either. She’s the daughter of Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Cowher, who won Super Bowl XL with the Steelers and lead Pittsburgh to eight division titles and 10 playoff appearances in 15 seasons.
“She’s been in that world to some extent,” Kelly said. “So very fortunate to have somebody that can kind of understand everything that’s part of it.”
The elder Cowher has also been a stabilizing force for Kelly. Like his son-in-law, Cowher was an end of the bench guy during his four-year playing career with the Browns. Thus, the roster battles Kelly has endured are more than familiar.
“There’s something to be said that I have someone who can understand that fighting mentality,” Kelly said. “Like, you have to give everything for your dream.”
Heading back towards the player’s entrance following a 45-minute courtside talk, the mention of “The White Raven,” the nickname Kelly bore while at Duke, produces a few hearty laughs and another huge grin. He responds that he hadn’t heard that name in a while.
Since graduating from the “White Raven” moniker, Kelly’s roles in sport and life have changed significantly. From a basketball standpoint, he’s adapted from a third or fourth-scorer to a number one option. Personally, he’s transitioned from a long-time boyfriend to a loving husband and father.
“Rise and rise again.” The tattoo on Kelly’s left wrist has come to fully embody his roles in life – a constant ascent from adversity and a workmanlike acceptance of any opportunity thrown his way. So while he may appear like the same lanky, bearded, professor-like ball-player that anchored the Blue Devils for four years, Ryan Kelly is very much a changed man.
“That kind of gives me a peace and easiness about everything I’ve gone through,” Kelly said of the inked phrase. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at without my family and without that.”