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By Joshua Ball
The Daily Independent
Editor’s note: This story is being reprinted with permission from The Daily Independent in Ashland, Ky. Coach Kelly Wells was the head coach of the Marion County Knights in the late 1990s.
PIKEVILLE - Kelly Wells is a national champion, NAIA National Coach of the Year and, more importantly, a survivor.
While Wells, a charismatic ambassador of basketball, has won a Kentucky Sweet Sixteen as head coach of Mason County High School (2003) and led Pikeville College to a school-record 30 wins this season and its first-ever basketball national championship, he uses the court to promote organ and tissue donation.
In 1995, while entering his senior season at Morehead State University, Wells was diagnosed with IGA Nephhropathy (otherwise known as Bergers), a rare kidney disease caused by deposits of the protein (immunoglobin) inside the glomeruli (filter) inside the kidney.
“It was a little devastating at first,” said Wells. “When you’re in college, you think you are indestructible, and that nothing can happen to you. This put everything in perspective in a hurry.”
Still, Wells pressed on, seeking a second opinion at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Hospital where physicians told him he could “play at his own risk.”
Basketball wasn’t a risk for Wells. The court was his sanctuary. He was a decorated star, leading Rowan County to three 16th Region championships and had returned home to Morehead State University after spending his freshman season at the University of Tulsa.
My wife, my life...
While at Morehead State, Kelly met Shawne Marcum, an equally charismatic basketball star.
The bond was basketball at first. Shawne was an All-State basketball player at the southern West Virginia girls’ hoop power Burch High School.
“I knew it was real at first,” Kelly said. “Shawne and I shared everything in common. She immediately became my rock and the foundation of my support structure.”
She also became Kelly’s life - in more ways than one.
Married in 1997, the two embarked on the journey of coaching. Shawne was Kelly’s biggest fan, but she also watched as the disease began to take a toll on her husband.
Kelly kept his disease a private matter until a USA Today article in 2003, highlighting the small Northern Kentucky town of Maysville, entitled, “Small towns get big play, big results.”
At the time, Kelly had just led Mason County High School to a Sweet Sixteen title, but it came at a price.
“I was beginning to struggle with the disease,” Kelly said. “It was taking a toll on me, but I never wanted to mention it because I didn’t want to draw attention to it...actually, basketball gave me the great escape. For the most part, when I was on the floor, I forgot about Bergers, but that started to change.”
In reality, the disease had progressed enough that it was beginning to cause his kidneys to shut down. The only answer - a life-saving answer - was a transplant.
And Kelly didn’t have to look any further than his wife.
“She gave me the gift of life when she married me, but to give me a kidney, she truly gave me the gift to live, be a good husband, father and coach,” Kelly said. “She never hesitated.”
Actually, Shawne made a promise to Kelly once an initial search for a match began. After testing family members, two matches came back as a match, including Shawne.
The news was emotional to Kelly.
“To look at your wife and know she is going to give you the gift of life, it is love at its purest form,” Kelly said.
Shawne added in a 2007 interview: “It wasn’t a decision. I happened to be the right person at the right time. ... It’s rewarding to see Kelly healthy, happy and enjoying his family.”
In May 2004, surgeons at the University of Cincinnati Hospital performed a successful kidney transplant for Kelly.
The run to history...
Pikeville College’s road to its first NAIA National championship was perhaps the most difficult in the tournament’s rich history.
Finishing third in the Mid-South Conference standings, the Bears earned a berth into the National Tournament as an unseeded participant.
And the dominos, along with the top-seed teams, started to fall one by one.
Top-seeded Robert Morris.
Defending national champion Oklahoma Baptist.
Defending national runner-up Azusa Pacific.
And a thrilling 83-76 overtime victory over third-seeded Mountain State University in the NAIA title game.
“It was the ‘Perfect Storm’ for our kids,” Wells said. Pikeville defeated five of the top nine seeds in the tournament, including overcoming a 15-point second-half deficit to defeat Martin Methodist in the national semifinals.
“If I was promised a national title, this was the way I would have wanted it. I felt like our players and our program left little doubt that we didn’t belong in the tournament and was not the best team in the field.”
The first person Wells found after the game?
“She’s the one who made this happen,” Kelly continued. “Shawne has not only supported me, she was right by my side during my struggle with Bergers and ultimately gave me a new lease on life.”
Kelly and Shawne have two children Kaylee, 8, and Mason, 4.
Basketball in his blood...
Kelly knew he was going to be a basketball coach at a young age.
In middle school, his art teachers would ask him to draft something, and while other kids were drawing cartoon characters or other fictional characters, he was drafting his dream basketball complex.
“I knew at a young age that basketball was going to be a part of my life,” Kelly said. “It was just in my blood.”
Kelly grew up around the game as well.
His father, Mickey, is the all-time leader in women’s basketball wins at Morehead State University with 156 wins. A two-time Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year, Mickey, was inducted in the MSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995.
Kelly and Shawne are advocates for the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) program and use their influence in the community to promote organ and tissue donation.
“We feel like we have an effective platform to speak to people across eastern Kentucky about organ and tissue donation,” Kelly said. “It is important that families understand what organ and tissue donation is and how it works. There are thousands of people waiting on a transplant, and organ donation could lead to the gift of life for so many.”