TUCSON — The first time Curtis Kelly played a pickup basketball game at Kansas State, his teammates thought he was a wimp.
Every time he lost the ball or missed a contested shot, they remember the 6-foot-8 forward blaming his own mistakes on nonexistent fouls. Not wanting to insult the new guy on the roster, they allowed him to be his own referee.
But after a few hours, Jacob Pullen became annoyed and told Kelly what he thought of him.
"Typical New York player," Pullen said. "Soft."
That was the first impression. Many others have thought the same. But what those who rush to judgment don't realize is Kelly has a mean streak.
Growing up in the Bronx, he learned to trash talk with the best of them.
Pullen, only an acquaintance at the time, learned that pretty quickly. After angering Kelly that afternoon three years ago, Kelly displayed his alter ego. The next five times he touched the ball, he dunked and let everyone in Bramlage Coliseum know about it.
"That was one of those times I just had to prove to him I was a player," Kelly said.
"I judged him a little too quickly," Pullen admits.
Today, Kelly can display both personalities. At times he appears lazy and disinterested, but when the games matter most, someone throws trash talk his way or an opponent hits him with a cheap foul, he can play as well as any big man still in the NCAA Tournament.
He proved that during Thursday's 73-68 victory over Utah State. Kelly scored 15 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out three assists, helping the Wildcats at crucial times. But he played his best late, after being intentionally fouled and taking an elbow to the throat.
K-State's next four points came from Kelly on two free throws and a jumper.
"He responded the way that you want guys to respond," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "He didn't lose focus... and that was big for our team."
A few minutes later, he kept going when a Utah State fan began insulting him while he stood out of bounds. Kelly, still in attack mode, heard the fan's remark, turned to him and shouted back.
On the next play, he caught the ball in the post, spun away from a double team and drained a fadeaway jumper to put his team ahead by eight. He later stared down his heckler and grinned.
Unlike most players, who are taught from the moment they begin in organized basketball to block out the crowd, Kelly embraces a hostile arena.
"I like trash talking," Kelly said. "Trash talking is all good with me. I'm from a city of trash talking. It's in my nature. I've been dealing with it since I was young and I've done it since I was young."
Kelly took the talk so far Thursday that he approached Utah State coach Stew Morrill and asked why he taught his players to illegally hand-check all game.
His teammates enjoyed the show.
"When you get Curtis mad and you get an aggressive Curtis, he really scores the ball well," Pullen said. "He defends well. He blocks shots. He goes and gets every rebound. Sometimes it's doing something like that, whether it be in open gym, in a game or in practice, just hitting that switch on him and getting him to the point where he feels like he should take over. That's when he's at his best."
After being around him every day since he transferred from Connecticut, coaches and teammates have learned to challenge him at times when he is acting lackadaisical. Sometimes it comes in the form of an insult, sometimes a hard foul.
The day before playing Utah State, Jordan Henriquez-Roberts said his main goal in practice was to bump Kelly every time he touched the ball.
"I've had to do that a couple times," Henriquez-Roberts said. "He got angry and he started going well. Coaches told me to bang him a little bit. Obviously, what I did had a good impact."
Kelly may not enjoy that luxury today, though. When No. 5 seed K-State takes the court against No. 4 seed Wisconsin, he will be going up against a rugged front line known for its focus and physicality, but not trash talk or unnecessary fouls.
Jon Leuer averages 18.7 points and 7.3 rebounds, and Jared Berggren and Keaton Nankivil play like traditional centers.
"Once we step in between the lines, it's all business," Leuer said. "We're going to do whatever we have to do to win, regardless if people are trash taking or trying to get in your head."
Kelly may have to create his own motivation and energy. Maybe that means he will embrace the pressure that comes with playing in the NCAA Tournament. Or maybe he will instigate the trash talking.
With K-State's season on the line, everything will be viewed as a personal challenge.
"I'm not like most players," Kelly said. "I don't mind embracing whatever comes my way. I need to stop embracing the fans in my own opinion, but that's what makes me unique. That's what makes me fun to watch and I hope that's what helps me continue playing well."