Kelati helped get these Cougs where they are

KELVIN SAMPSON, then the coach at Washington State, was on sports radio back in March 1994 talking about WSU's first Big Dance invitation since George Raveling was on campus a decade earlier. What struck me about the interview was that Sampson kept talking about Reco Rowe, Terrence Lewis and Bennie Seltzer. Great Cougars all -- but they weren't on the team Sampson was taking to the Dance.

Yet Sampson couldn't say enough about them. For whatever shortcomings Kelvin turned out to have years later with the NCAA rulebook, he had no failings when it came to giving credit where credit was due.

His message was this: The 1994 Cougars of Tony Harris, Mark Hendrickson, Eddie Hill, Fred Ferguson and the rest are getting lots of love -– deservedly so -– but the foundation for their success was put in place by their predecessors.

Guys like Rowe, Lewis and Seltzer believed in Washington State, fought hard for Washington State, and helped put the program in a position to succeed after they were gone.

Here on the eve of Washington State's unprecedented, second-consecutive trip to March Madness, similar echoes can be heard.

THOMAS KELATI: 14.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists per game as a senior.

Fans new to the Cougar bandwagon probably have faint recollections of Marcus Moore, Jeff Varem, Shami Gill, Chris Schlatter and Thomas Kelati. But they're the ones who set the stage for Kyle, Derrick, Robbie and the rest to scale the mountain top.

Especially Kelati.

His importance to the program cannot be understated.

He considered transferring when Paul Graham was fired as head coach, but soon realized he might like Bennett Ball.

He was conscientious. He worked tirelessly. And he thrived on defense.

For a kid as humble and hard working as Kelati, the situation was tailor-made.

Kelati helped usher in the Dick Bennett era by clearing three major hurdles: UCLA in 2003-04, Arizona and Stanford in 2004-05. All on the road, no less. Up to then, WSU hadn't beaten any of them in years.

Weaver, Low, Cowgill, Daven Harmeling, Chris Henry and Josh Akognon were freshmen in that 2004-05 season. Those two wins over the Wildcats and Card, coupled with a nail biting -– and controversial -- two-point loss to Stanford in the Pac-10 tourney set the bar for those youngsters.

"Our freshmen that year thought going to Arizona and winning was normal," says WSU assistant coach Ron Sanchez.

Kelati that season was named All-Pac-10 -– the first Cougar so honored in seven years. His game was a lot like Kyle Weaver's: outstanding perimeter defense, good court vision, deft passing. Kelati was also a record-setting three-point shooter.

His contributions, however, extended beyond basketball skills, Sanchez recalled last week.

Kelati truly bought into the Bennett system of basketball, Sanchez said.

The sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts. And defense is the centerpiece of success.

"Thomas could play tough defense for an entire game, with no breaks," Sanchez remembers. "His focus and cardio-vascular capacity were amazing."

VOTED ALL-PAC-10 IN 2004-05.

Kelati, quiet by nature, also grew into the team leader. His work ethic and attitude set the standard of what was expected, Sanchez says.

"You could point to Thomas and say ‘This is what Coach (Bennett) needs.' He was a real example for the young kids."

That example has continued after college. Over the last couple of summers, Kelati has spent time working out in Pullman and getting to know the younger players.

At the annual Hardwood Classic game in Seattle the season after he graduated, Kelati, Gill and Schlatter could be seen sitting behind the Cougar bench offering demonstrable support for the guys on the court. Down the stretch, Kelati celebrated every Cougar basket that night against Utah with the glee of a proud father watching his kids.

After WSU, the 6-5, 200-pound Walla Walla product played in the NBA summer league and earned a tryout with the Clippers before heading to Europe to play professionally. He is now a superstar in Poland.

Efforts to reach Kelati for this story were unsuccessful.

No matter.

His legacy alone speaks volumes about the man. That legacy will be on display tomorrow at 4:20 pm Pacific Time when Weaver, Low and Cowgill lead the way for the crimson and gray in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

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