Pressure Player

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With his team clinging to a two-point lead and Cal's NCAA Tournament hopes in the balance, Ben Braun needed some help.

Senior Carl Boyd had just left the game after getting mixed up in a double-technical, top free-throw shooter Dennis Gates was injured and the head basketball coach desperately needed someone who could hit free throws in a pressure situation.

So Braun looked down his bench and chose his best remaining shooter - a freshman walk-on who had only played in garbage time up to that point.

And Ryan Forehan-Kelly calmly stepped to the line, hit both shots and began the rise that has made him into the Bears' most reliable player.

"I don't know, I guess I was kind of dumb then," laughs Forehan-Kelly, now a junior. "I didn't really think about it at all. I just shot them.

"It's a free throw, it's not that hard. I think people give me too much credit for that."

What's amazing is that he has been given any credit at all. While the average walk-on languishes in practice and garbage time, Forehan-Kelly has earned a scholarship along with the respect of his coach and Cal fans.

"He's truly coachable," Braun says. "He's the kind of player who epitomizes sacrifice, selflessness (and) dedication."

Braun gave Forehan-Kelly a scholarship after last season, when the then-sophomore emerged as a contributor on both ends of the floor. He averaged 3.1 points and 15.2 minutes per game and shot a torrid 45.2 percent from beyond the arc. Braun named him the team's best defender after the season, which Forehan-Kelly concluded with a 20-point, 7-rebound performance against Pac-10 champion Arizona.

So far this season, Forehan-Kelly has topped himself. He is second on the team in scoring (10.0 points per game) heading into tomorrow's game at UC Irvine.

As rare as it is for a walk-on to make an impact in any sport, it is even rarer in basketball, where top players are tagged by college coaches by the time they're in junior high.

"It was definitely a goal (to play)," Forehan-Kelly says. "Anybody could do it, with the hard work and the effort, and obviously Coach (Braun) gave me a chance. With the combination of all that, I knew I could do it."

As hard as he has worked, Forehan-Kelly is no Rudy Ruettiger story. Each time they watch him drain a three-pointer or fall on a loose ball, Pac-10 coaches kick themselves over the one who got away.

"I think it's a misconception that Ryan or other walk-ons don't have talent," Braun says. "He's a talented player, but also a player who works. He's a hard worker, and very fundamental."

In fact, Forehan-Kelly may be the most fundamentally sound player on the team. He is the squad's best defender, and despite weighing in at a slender 6-foot-5, 195 pounds, he's not afraid to scrap on the boards.

The junior helps himself with his uncanny court vision. When the defense doubles down on one of Cal's frontline players, he's open on the perimeter. When he's being played tight on the outside, he finds a mismatch inside. When the shot isn't there, he finds the cutter.

"He's going to find a seam where a defender can't help," Braun says. "He's very good about court spacing. He's got a good feel for the game and he really understands the game."

As result, Forehan-Kelly is probably the Bears' most versatile player. Braun usually brings him in as a off-guard or a wing, but he's capable of doing more.

"He can literally play the (shooting) guard, small forward and power spot," Braun asserts. "In a pinch, he could probably bring it up and run the team.

"He is probably good enough to start for us, but he also gives us that edge coming off the bench. I love it, because you can put him in three different spots."

And Forehan-Kelly's most crucial attribute - his poise under pressure - is something he's learned from life outside of basketball.

He grew up in a single-parent household, raised by his mother, Lissa Forehan. His grandfather, who was something of a father figure for him, died when Forehan-Kelly was in eighth grade. His best friend, Neemie Williams, died just last September of heart failure.

"In life in general, he's very poised," Forehan says. "It's been him and his mother and his brother, and we've worked through a lot of tough times. Going to the free throw line there's always a lot of pressure, but there's a context."

The losses also gave Forehan-Kelly a sense of perspective that helped him at Cal. After leading Santa Margarita High to a state championship, he turned down offers from several Division II schools to walk on at Cal for a chance to practice with the Bears - and get a Cal education.

"It was the education," Forehan-Kelly says. "Just getting a degree from Berkeley."

And just being a walk-on put things in perspective.

"It's a lot easier to go into cruise control when you're given something," Forehan-Kelly reflects. "It's like, 'I've got this so let me just cruise and play my game and not try to improve every day.' But when you're a walk-on you've got to scrap for playing time, you've got to scrap for practice time. You've got to scrap for everything."

Forehan-Kelly also arrived at Cal at a critical time. NCAA probation had limited the Bears to 11 scholarships, meaning that walk-ons would have to carry an increased load in practice preparing the others to play.

So most walk-ons labored in obscurity preparing their high-profile teammates for national television appearances. Walk-ons did get their moments - Forehan-Kelly's "gold" scrimmage team beat Cal's scholarship team on occasion in 1998 - but for the most part, they stood aside while others reaped the attention.

"(Walk-ons) were huge," Braun says. "Without our walk-ons and with limited scholarships, we wouldn't have made the progress we've made. They didn't get to play as much and they didn't get financial assistance, but they are as big a part of the program as anybody."

And finally, at least Forehan-Kelly is getting some credit.


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