Monday, March 31, 2008

Oh Captain my Captain.....

Yesterday was a sad day for the Big Blue Nation. The only non-player, non-coach to ever have his jersey retired to the rafters at Rupp died.

Bill Keightley was the equipment manager for the UK men's Basketball team. At most schools, you would be hard pressed to find one person outside of the Athletics Department that could identify the equipment manager. At UK, you would be hard pressed to find one person who couldn't. Bill Keightley, or Mr. Wildcat as he was more commonly known, was a staple on the UK from 1962 until he died. The numbers speak volumes. He sat on the bench for 48 season, serving under 6 coaches beginning with legendary coach Adolph Rupp. He saw UK win 3 NCAA titles, 12 SEC tournament titles, 24 SEC regular season Championships, and 1,113 games. He was on the bench for 1464 games, 57% of all the games UK every played.

You could always find him sitting in the first chair on the bench, right next to the scorer's table. And he was always happy to shake your hand, sign an autograph, or take a picture with you. I have done all three at least a couple of times before UK games. And I don't know how many times, when I was waiting for tickets early in the morning outside the SAC offices, which were right across the hallway from the UK men's locker room, he would walk by with his bin full of towels or uniforms or whatever and take a minute to stop and chat with us. He always had a smile on his face, and I don't think I've ever heard anyone say a single negative thing about him.

He was one of those rare people who made you feel like you were the most important person in the world to him, even when he had just met you. He was warm. He was genuine. He was special.

After all, how many equipment managers have their own calendar? Or get a standing ovation when they are introduced at the first practice of the season?

Last year, when he turned 80, they passed out 8x10 cards at the game that had a picture of him popping out of giant cake on it. He has had his picture featured on bottles of Maker's Mark bourbon, was honored with a lifetime achievement award at UK's annual Catspy ceremony in 2005, and was inducted into the Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007. The equipment room in Memorial Coliseum is named for him, as is an award given to the person who "understands and exemplifies the pride, respect and the positive attributes associated with being a part of the Kentucky basketball program."

I can't imagine UK basketball with Mr. Wildcat. I don't remember at time when he wasn't sitting on the bench. Through the good years, the bad years, the coaching changes, the ups, the downs, he was there. He sat on the bench for so many of the great moments in UK basketball history. The '78, '96, and '98 title runs as well as the '97 trip to the final game, the "historic loss" to Texas Western that was immortalized in the movie Glory Road, and the Lattner shot in '92. He saw the Mardi Gras Miracle, Tayshaun Prince's 5 straight 3's to open the UNC game in '01, friend and former UK coach Rick Pitino's return to Rupp as the U of L coach in '01, Patrick Sparks 3 free throws to beat Louisville in '04, and most recently the valiant effort of Joe Crawford in his 35 point performance against Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament this year.

He was one of those people that were such a fixture that you can't imagine they will ever be gone. Former UK player and broadcaster Larry Conley said, "I always felt like someday he'd sit down on the end of the bench in Rupp Arena, go to sleep and just not wake up." I think many of us felt the same way. We all knew that one day he wouldn't be there any more, but we just couldn't picture it. Now we have to.

He was also one of those people who defy description. To put into words what he meant to the UK program would require more eloquence than I have, but I think Mark Story from the Herald Leader said it pretty well. "Bill Keightley is gone. The heartbeat of Kentucky Basketball can never be quite the same."

Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

Canon Henry Scott-Holland

No comments: