Remembering Keightley

I almost forgot to commend the University of Kentucky for its black-uniform memorial of legendary equipment manager Bill Keightley, and for having his name on the back of every jersey.

A few fans complained. “Black is what you wear to a funeral,” one wrote to me. Well, yes. But it’s also a traditional symbol of mourning, and I think that UK’s use of the black uniform is the most appropriate use of the practice that you’ll see in college sports. It was driven by protocol, not by marketing.

In that spirit, a couple of items you might’ve missed on Keightley the first time around. At the link below, some audio of the last interview I conducted with Keightley. And below that, the memorial column I wrote about him two days after his death.

Keightley.mp3

Mr. Wildcat’s legacy lives on in room he loved

LEXINGTON, Ky.

The room is dark now. Cordoned off. That doesn’t seem right for the only office, perhaps, in the entire University of Kentucky basketball program that you could just walk into unannounced and wind up in a long conversation.

Bill Keightley, Mr. Wildcat, equipment manager, is gone, and it does not seem right that the place should be so quiet.

But it occurred to me that this room he loved so much, this little room in the bowels of Memorial Coliseum where he spent the better part of his life since 1962, might tell us as much as anything about this man.

The door opens, the light flickers on and taped beside the door are pieces of university stationery bearing his handwriting.

“GONE TO RUPP”

“AT CRAFT CENTER”

“WILL RETURN ASAP”

His voice echoes through the place in these words, and in the little sayings he taped on the walls and tables, such as this one: “Too many people stop looking for work as soon as they find a job.”

Former UK player and assistant Dick Parsons tells of Keightley coming into the room after a panhandler asked him for a quarter.

“And Bill said to him, ‘Don’t you have a job?'” Parsons remembers. “And this guy says, ‘No.’ And Bill said, ‘Well, I have two jobs. I deliver the mail, then I go up and work up at UK.’ And this guy said to him, ‘Well, Mister, if you don’t have a quarter, you need to get yourself a third job.’ Bill always delighted in telling us that story. And that kind of sums up Bill’s personality and how he approached life.”

You know, they built an exact replica of this equipment room in the new Craft Center practice facility. UK sports information director Scott Stricklin called it a “movie set reproduction” of this old room.

Keightley never quite took to it. He worked out of the new office when he had to, but this was his headquarters.

He embraced the new, but Keightley never forgot the old.

Maybe that’s why, on the middle equipment table, toward the back behind some practice jerseys and gym bags, are some trophies. Final Four trophies from 1993 and ’84. The regional championship trophy from 1966. At the front of another table is a trophy made for the unbeaten 1954 team.

“Replicas, right?” I asked Stricklin

“No,” he said. “They’re the real thing.”

So was Keightley. Did you know the man who made sure that everyone in the UK basketball program had a locker had no locker of his own? His clothes are hung over a tall rack toward the back of the equipment room. On the floor is a case of double-decker Moon Pies and a case of Cheese-Nips. In a cabinet, if you cared to look, you’d find cans and cans of Keightley’s favorite smoked oysters. On a table, a new cigar, still sealed in its package. Below, a suitcase, baggage claim tag still attached.

There’s silver wrapping paper on the floor, and some blue bows. And I see a gift, neatly wrapped, but not yet sent. Across the way is a stack of e-mails from fans, and it’s evident that Keightley considered giving back to Wildcats fans such an important part of his job that he kept items such as giftwrap and bows in supply.

The door to his office is opened, and the largest picture is of the opening game at Great American Ball Park, signed by major league umpires Randy Marsh and Sam Holbrook, Northern Kentucky natives and Keightley’s friends.

Great American is, of course, where Keightley fell on Monday night, on his way to the season opener for the Cincinnati Reds. He later died of internal bleeding.

It is not the only hint of his fate in the room. On the top shelf of his bookcase are two bobble-head dolls. One is Reds pitcher Aaron Harang. The other, still in its package, is former UK star and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb.

They were the starting pitchers from the game Keightley was headed to when he passed away.
The walls speak with happy images. Keightley with Rupp’s Runts. Keightley with former UK stars Dan Issel, Louie Dampier, Rex Chapman and Kyle Macy. An autographed picture of Mickey Mantle. A newspaper clipping of a story about former Wildcat Adrian Smith and the car he won when he was the NBA All-Star Game MVP. And behind his desk, at eye level if you’re sitting down, pictures of “his boys,” groups of student managers, who he’d tell you meant more to him than anyone.

The chairs are empty now, but on a regular day, when Keightley was here, you couldn’t walk into this room and find a seat. They were always filled with visitors, managers, friends. And players. They always knew they could come in here and find him, find encouragement. The place did not change. Nor did he. Keightley was a constant.

Current UK manager Dustin Marr said: “Rainy day, sunny day, it didn’t matter, he was always in a good mood. It made you forget about a lot of your worries. Mr. Keightley’s office, it was kind of our escape from the outside world. You could come in there and talk about anything, and it just made you feel good.”

One of the last things to catch my eye was an old 48-star American flag propped in the back corner of the equipment room, one of many patriotic items. I didn’t ever hear Keightley talk much about his military service, only to say that he was glad it got him out of milking cows on the farm.

Family, country, friends, UK basketball. They are all here, the things he loved most.

Outside the door, a poem has been slipped under the nameplate, signed, “William F. Morgan, the poet of Harlan County.” Among its lines: “Mr. Keightley, a true friend /and the most loved Wildcat ever.”

But the image I am remembering now is one of those notes he scrawled and left taped by the door, a note that reads, “IN THE BUILDING.”

Yes, he is. Even now.

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15 thoughts on “Remembering Keightley

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