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'It was a hell of a week': On Scott Kellar's 400th win, his battle with cancer and the coach who never stopped coaching
In facing the fight of his life, the longtime Century High School head coach is leaning on his own coach.
Mark Adams spoke to an audience that he knew included Scott Kellar, and if the ESPN college basketball analyst has learned anything during his near 40-year relationship with the Century basketball coach, it’s that his former player listens.
So after introducing his ESPN audience to Kellar, 54, during a break in the action of last week’s Tulane/Wichita State game, Adams directed his words toward his cancer-stricken former Western Oregon point guard.
“Scott, I am proud of you,” Adams began. “I know Katrina and Joseph are with you right now. I know you are watching this broadcast. You are in my huddle. And I’m telling you to do all the things you did for me as a coach.
“You’re going to compete your butt off.”
Kellar has been, no doubt. But cancer comes in waves. It first struck his kidneys in the spring of 2022, and after a removal of one kidney, returned in his lungs in December. For the last several weeks, Kellar has often found a bed in the hospital, with his body’s response to his immunotherapy causing terrible leg pain and sleepless nights. Just last week, Kellar checked out to coach Century to his 400th career win, then checked right back in once the adrenaline wore off.
There have been peaks. There have been terrible valleys. And there has always been Adams, whose voice cut through the broadcast and right into the heart of the best player he ever coached.
“I’ve always believed everything he’s said,” Kellar said. “He’s instilled so much confidence in me, so when he puts it out there and he says, ‘Hey, you’re going to win. You’re as tough as a guy as I’ve ever been around,’ — that holds a little different stock than other people telling you.
“He can make you believe in yourself and make you believe that things can happen in the way that you hope.’”
Adams begins to describe their relationship with a story: There was one time during Kellar’s time at Western Oregon when the NAIA All-American guard dislocated a finger in the fourth quarter of an important game. Adams saw the finger pop, then watched as the Hillsboro native disappeared from the court and down into a hallway.
“My best player runs off the floor with a digit that looks like a West Virginia road map,” Adams said. “Then maybe a minute or two later, he’s flying past me to come back on the court and check himself in the game.”
At no point did the two communicate.
“Of course we won,” Adams said. “But that’s just the type of guy Scott is.”
There’s a trust there, he said, which began to form when they both arrived to Monmouth in 1985, Adams as a journeyman head coach and Kellar as a 6-foot-3 point guard.
Kellar’s dad, Elden, was a long-time track, cross country and football coach in the Hillsboro area. The Kellars were competitive. The Kellars were regimented. And the Kellars respected their coaches.
“Whatever I said, that was the bible in their house,” Adams said. “Scott never questioned that. He just did exactly what he was told and he willed himself to become one of the greatest players in the history of Western Oregon.”
Adams coached differently than Elden Kellar, however. Adams was emotional. He wore his heart on his sleeve and it struck Kellar, who began as a sixth man for the Wolves as a freshman before putting the pieces together of a Hall of Fame career.
“I found myself wanting to work so hard for him to please him,” Kellar said, “and to become a major contributor and make him proud.”
And Adams kept trying to replace him.
“I’ve always believed that in recruiting you need to recruit someone better than your best player,” Adams said. “So I did recruit more talented guards than Scott, but year after year, Scott Kellar kicked their ass.”
Adams has been out of coaching since 1996 and has been with ESPN the last 24 years. And after averaging 20.6 points per game as a senior at WOU, Kellar made the natural progression to the sideline. He coached at Taft and Sandy, and has been Century’s boy’s basketball coach since the school opened in 1997. He won his 300th career game in 2012 with a 79-64 victory at Forest Grove and had no plans of slowing down more than a decade later with 400 in his sights.
It was just this time a year ago when Kellar was still chasing 6-minute miles, he said, but treatment has rocked him and he’s had to rely heavily on his assistants and family and, yes, his coach. In a phone call earlier this year between the two, Adams asked Kellar what he needed out of him to help him through this.
Kellar gave it some thought. Then he responded: “I need to be coached. I need someone to talk to.”
And through the hospital stays and the good days and the bad days, Adams has been there available to coach. Sometimes he’s just an ear. Other times he’s providing advice or using his platform on ESPN to help share a GoFundMe page that’s now totaled more than $45,000 in a little more than a week.
“Pretty overwhelming,” Kellar said. “That’s not a normal thing. That’s a pretty big ask of him from ESPN to be able to do it.
“Then to hear that message from him — from somebody else — it made it sound a little bit more real, to be honest. It’s just humbling. This isn’t how you want to get attention. But for him to just go out and show the respect and the love that he has for me as a player and me as a person, it’s just very overwhelming.”
Leading up to Kellar’s 400th win, Adams talked to his former player about managing expectations. Do everything you can to get to the game, Adams told him, but take care of yourself. Don’t push it.
And while Kellar has always listened to his coach, he doesn’t always follow his advice.
“When he was going through that chemo, he was going through hell in a gasoline suit,” said Adams. “But that son of a gun, it’s just like when he ran past me with that dislocated finger — I might be his coach, but on occasion that dude’s got a filter and he’s only going to listen to me at certain times — he gets out of that emergency room, walks into that gym and gets win No. 400, then goes back to the emergency room at night.”
Added Kellar: “I don’t know if it’s the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
The same might go for win No. 401 a few days later, which gave everyone a bit of a scare when a Bell’s Palsy episode sent him back to the hospital after a 72-47 win over Newberg. He’s back home now and a change to his treatment has him feeling better than he has in quite some time.
“It was a hell of a week,” he said. “But got a couple of wins mixed in there, so that helps.”
— Tyson Alger
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