The patches on the Boston College uniforms are small and simple, bearing the man’s initials: “DK.” But the meaning behind the patch is immense, deep and powerful.
Powerful enough to inspire a group of young men to do something Wednesday night that seemed inconceivable.
Dick Kelley is gone, passing away last week and being buried Tuesday after a long and courageous fight with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Yet the longtime men’s basketball media relations director was the spirit that moved the 7-19 Eagles to absolutely shock the college basketball world, upsetting undefeated No. 1 Syracuse 62-59 in overtime in the Carrier Dome.
There is no doubt. This win – the Eagles’ biggest in years and most improbable in decades – was for Dick.
“There is absolutely no question in my mind,” associate athletic director Chris Cameron told Yahoo Sports. “That’s who they were playing for.”
Two days earlier, that’s who the Eagles were crying for. They attended Kelley’s wake Monday as a team, their final tribute in Kelley’s wrenching final year of life. Wheelchair-bound, Kelley was forced last season to give up the job he loved at the school he attended and grew up cheering for. He passed away last Thursday in Massachusetts General Hospital in the company of his parents, Ann and Ed, at the age of 48.
The Kelleys knew how much BC meant to their son, especially BC basketball. So they moved the wake from its planned date of Tuesday to Monday so the team could say goodbye to a friend, a mentor and a tireless advocate before heading to Syracuse.
“Boston College was his life,” Cameron said. “He found his mission in life working with young people here.”
The love for Kelley was evidenced by the throngs at the wake. A crowd of 600-700 attended. The gathering was from 4 to 8 p.m., and the line stretched out the door of the funeral home by 3:30. Football coach Steve Addazio waited outside in the cold for an hour to pay his respects.
Kelley’s death became an inevitability long ago, but that didn’t lessen the grief at his time of passing. Cameron described the BC athletic building as “a powderkeg of emotion” this week.
When the players arrived at the wake, some were inconsolable, Cameron said. Especially juniors Patrick Heckmann and Ryan Anderson.
“Ryan wrote something that said Dick had had the biggest effect on him of anyone at Boston College,” Cameron said.
Playing in Kelley’s honor two days later, Anderson was ferocious inside, pulling down a season-high 14 rebounds and doggedly guarding the paint against the long and athletic Syracuse front line.
That was the kind of effort it took for the Eagles to triumph in a game nobody but themselves believed they could come close to winning.
This is a team that has had every reason to give up – on the season, and on this game in particular. The Eagles had beaten just five Division I opponents, and their only two Atlantic Coast Conference victories were over last-place Virginia Tech. Besides the Hokies, BC hadn’t beaten a D-I team since Nov. 26.
And now they were supposed to walk into the Carrier Dome and beat the No. 1 Orange?
But what BC has lacked in talent and success, it has made up for in character. The Eagles hadn’t quit on the season, not even close. They had lost six games by four points or fewer, and were just 12 points short of four more ACC victories. In fact, they had Syracuse on the ropes in the second half in Chestnut Hill last month before faltering late and losing by 10.
Even as the howls for fourth-year coach Steve Donahue to be fired have intensified, his team has kept playing hard. And even as Syracuse pushed out to a 13-point lead in the second half, seemingly ending the game, BC refused to relent.
The Eagles kept pouring in 3-pointers over the vaunted Orange zone – 11 of them on the night, in 22 attempts. They contested everything Syracuse tried offensively, hounding leading scorer C.J. Fair into a 7-for-23 nightmare and holding sharpshooting guard Trevor Cooney to just a single made 3-pointer.
And at the end, at a time when Syracuse has simply made one play after another to win a succession of nailbiter games, it was BC that rose to the occasion. Nobody was bigger in the final seconds than guard Lonnie Jackson, a 56 percent foul shooter who peered into a sea of orange-clad fans and the deep shooting background of the Dome and swished four straight free throws to win the game.
Donahue needed the victory as much as any coach in the country needs one. But his first comments to ESPN after the game were about the emotions of the week, not this moment of triumph.
“The first thing he said was about Dick,” Cameron said. “Knowing him, that was his first thought.”
It was one of the biggest wins in Boston College basketball history, and almost inarguably its most emotional. Whether it alters the trajectory of this difficult season remains to be seen, but for one night that was immaterial.
What mattered more than anything was winning one for Dick.