The alcohol-tinged story of Keith Closs and his path from small college to the NBA to a bevy of minor leagues is often stranger than fiction.
words Matt Caputo | portraits Juco
It’s slightly overcast in the parking lot on the edge of Ganesha Park in Pomona, CA, and Keith Closs is standing amidst a group of men who are drinking from containers wrapped in brown paper bags. Freakishly tall at 7-3, and extremely skinny at 215 pounds or so, the 35-year-old is hard to miss— especially with long, shoestring dreadlocks tied tight to his head. When a rented Nissan Versa stops in front of the crowd, Closs takes one final puff on his Newport, gives each of his buddies a pound and squeezes into the passenger seat.
“That one guy used to go to meetings with me and he’s back out here drinking. I wanted to let him know we’re still there and I’ll be there to listen if he decides to come back,” Closs says in a deep Cali drawl, pointing out the window as his knees hit the dashboard. “For some people, drinking and getting right back into the vicious cycle is a way of life. I don’t have that option anymore. I’ve been rewriting my history ever since I got sober.”
For whatever reason, Closs hasn’t driven a vehicle in 11 years, but he gives directions to his favorite restaurant—Chano’s—with GPS-like accuracy. Once at the restaurant, a few exits west on Interstate 10, the woman behind the counter knows Keith immediately and serves him an extra-large iced tea that is a perfect fit in his giant hands.
The perfect fit that the NBA wasn’t.
As the food arrives and the conversation heats up, Closs answers questions about why his three-season NBA career showed only glimpses of the freckle-faced Keith Closs who blocked an NCAA- record 5.87 shots per game at Central Connecticut State; the one the Los Angeles Clippers signed to five-year, $8.5 million deal in 1997.
“I was drinking in the NBA,” Closs explains of his alcohol-abbreviated career in the League. “I was drinking on the bench, too. That wasn’t Gatorade in my water bottle; it was whatever I’d brought with me from the liquor store on the way to the arena. I had grown very resentful of the fact that I wasn’t playing…I felt like I was wasting away.”
Keith Closs Jr was born to Keith Sr and Tia Jamerson in Hartford, CT, in April, 1976. Closs says his father gave him his first taste of whiskey shortly thereafter. “He was trying to put me to sleep, but all he did was make me his little drinking buddy,” Closs says.
At 5, Closs moved to Los Angeles with his mother and sister. Adapting to a new city was difficult, but literal growing pains were even harder to cope with. “I felt it something awful in all of my joints, hips, shoulders, knees. I had them until I stopped growing at 19,” says Closs, a target for fist fights in his youth. “I started high school at 6-4 and by the next summer I grew to 6-8.”
After an alternately inspiring and tumultuous two-school prep career that saw him smoke and drink almost as much as he scored and swatted, Closs ended up returning to his birth state of Connecticut for college. “I visited [Central Connecticut State University] and one of my future teammates knocked somebody out at a party at Trinity College,” Closs says. “I knew right there [CCSU] was where I wanted to be. I was into that type of thing.
“I was already a full-blown alcoholic by then. I was living a double life,” Closs continues. “But college was the first time I actually had any real problems related to my drinking.”
Closs ran into more than his fair share of trouble at the small DI school in New Britain, but when he managed to get on the court, he was spectacular. Closs led the country in blocks in both of his years at CCSU and broke David Robinson’s record for average blocked shots in a season (6.36) in his second year, ’95-96. He still holds the DI career record for blocks with 5.87 blocked shots per game. “They said it was because I played at a smaller DI, but I had like 7 blocks against big schools like Penn State, Minnesota and Connecticut,” Closs says.
Despite Closs’ play—he complemented the blocks with averages of 11.9 ppg and 8.4 rpg—the Blue Devils struggled and coach Mark Adams was let go after the ’95-96 season. The First-Team All-Mid-Continent player didn’t agree with Adams firing and made it known. After clashing with the new coach, Howie Dickenman, Closs left school for the pros.
In short order: Closs went to a CBA tryout, got cut and went back to Los Angeles. A former boxer and personal trainer he’d worked with in Connecticut asked him to join the Norwich Neptunes of the Atlantic Basketball Association (now the Eastern Basketball Alliance), a then-unincorporated “pro” league of middle school gyms, mismatched uniforms and empty bleachers. Closs averaged around 5 bpg in 12 games, car-pooled to road games and slept on the trainer’s floor. “I barely remember much about the Norwich Neptunes,” Closs says. “Our uniforms were a weird teal color.”
Closs played poorly at the ensuing ’97 NBA Pre-Draft Camp and went undrafted. He was invited to various summer camps, though. “I remember visiting him at Celtics Rookie Camp, and when they blew the whistle telling everyone to huddle, Keith was at the other end of the court signing autographs,” former CCSU assistant and current University of Maine coach Ted Woodward says.
The Lakers invited Closs to Summer League, and after a strong showing with L.A., Closs thought he’d be a Laker. “This was the Lakers,” Closs says, grinning widely. “I’m from L.A. I wanted to be the second coming of Kareem with my own twist. It just didn’t work out that way.”
A slender frame hindered Closs, but it was erratic behavior that kept him off the Lakers—and ultimately cut his NBA career down to three seasons. Lakers executives Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak approached Closs and asked if he had a problem with alcohol, he recalls. He lied and said he’d just overdone it the night before. “But they knew,” Closs says now. “I was drinking every night and then going out there and playing my ass off.”
The Lakers passed on Closs, but Bill Fitch, then-coach of the L.A. Clippers, had promised Closs that if he were available, they’d sign him. Fitch kept his word, and Closs was a Clipper. “That’s when the roller coaster began,” he says. “We sucked.”
As a rookie in ’97-98, Closs played in 58 games but L.A. won just 17. While he posted the modest numbers (4.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg and 1.4 bpg) expected of an undrafted big, Closs’ drinking was accelerating and many of his decisions—like the one to get “FUCK THE WORLD” tattooed on his back—were harmful.
During the lockout the next year, Closs minored in staying in shape while majoring in drinking. He was twice cited for driving under the influence and had his license revoked. Closs says that led the League to place him in rehab in Atlanta. “I still didn’t see it as a problem because I still had my career and everything else,” Closs says. “I stayed dry for 11 months after that.”
In the shortened, 50-game season, Closs averaged less than 6 mpg in 15 appearances. The following season, ’99-00, his last in the NBA, Closs felt alienated from his teammates. He had verbal altercations with Michael Olowokandi and Maurice Taylor and skipped practice when he was hung over. He also took his drinking to a new level. Closs says he started mixing alcohol in his water bottle that last go-round. He’d sometimes pop open emergency exits at the Staples Center at halftime to smoke marijuana in uniform. He says he even passed the blunt to a late-arriving fan one time. In the decade-plus since his last NBA game, Closs says he has come to understand why his name was tarnished around the League.
“I was out there dunking on dudes smelling like three bars, then they’d take me out and I would refresh my water bottle,” Closs says. “Nobody disrespected the game of basketball like I did at that time. That’s something I have to live with.”
Jim Todd, a long-time NBA assistant coach who took over as the Clippers interim head coach halfway through Closs’ last season in the League, wanted the tantalizing 7-3 giant to succeed. The center admits he made that an impossible task.
“Who knows how good of a player he could have been,” Todd says. “He had the talent and the skills to be a better player. It’s a sad story.”
Closs says he arrived for the team’s ’00-01 media day sober and ready to start fresh. Clippers GM Elgin Baylor told him not to come to training camp, though. Although Closs says he was in shape, L.A. repeatedly failed him on physicals. He would never check into an NBA game again.
“I really let Elgin down because he had high hopes for me,” Closs says. “I let the drinking get in the way.”
Despite his failings far outweighing his successes in the NBA—in total, he played 130 games, averaging 3.9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks over the course of those contests—Closs remains beloved among Clipper fans. “He was the friendliest NBA player,” says “Clipper Darrell” Bailey, the team’s superfan. “If people wanted pictures or autographs, he’d do every single one.”
On May 21, 2011, the day the world is supposed to end, it’s prom night at Santa Barbara High School; it’s also game night. Mini-buses are shuttling students from school to the catering hall, and, after carpooling with a teammate, Closs smokes a cigarette in the parking lot while fans trickle in. More than a decade after Closs left the Atlantic Basketball Association to join the NBA, he’s playing games in high school gyms again. Though SBHS’ athletic facilities are fit for a small college program and more than sufficient for the Santa Barbara Breakers of the tiny West Coast Professional Basketball League, Closs’ latest stop on the minor league merry-go-round. Tonight, the Breakers’ lineup includes Zach Marbury, Stephon’s younger brother and Rashid Byrd, a 7-footer who acted in Will Ferrell’s Semi-Pro.
“I’m doing the right things today with my life,” says Closs. “I’m at a point where all the embarrassing stuff that happened to me while I was drunk doesn’t matter to me because I am alive. I can make everyone else feel comfortable because my laughing is just being grateful that those days are behind you.”
Closs has spent the past few years on rosters like this, in towns not nearly as scenic as this Pacific Coast paradise. After his career with the Clippers ended, he says he never received another inquiry from an NBA team, even for Summer League. Instead, he embarked on a drunken, stoned minor league odyssey that would make Kenny Powers jealous.
One memorable and telling incident occurred during the ’04-05 season, when a bottle-tapping, blunt-smoking Closs played for the now-defunct CBA Rockford Lightning under coach Chris Daleo. Rockford’s bus picked Closs up at a highway rest area outside Detroit en route to a game in Birch Run, MI. That night the Lightning lost to the Great Lakes Storm and Closs never returned to his hotel room after the game. The next morning, he was found heavily intoxicated and asleep underneath a police Christmas tree. “I was the biggest gift the Lansing Police Department ever got! There wasn’t shit to do but get drunk in those cities,” Closs says. “Even the residents said so.”
“Fans loved him. Not just because he was so tall, but because he could articulate things and had great conversations,” says Daleo. “People were drawn to him. He has a good soul, but he had those demons.”
Having lost playing jobs on bad terms with teams throughout the country, Closs claims he was always in decent shape, but sometimes he arrived drunk for morning flights. In early ’07, Closs was released by the CBA’s Butte Daredevils after being arrested for public intoxication. Soon thereafter, he joined the ABA Buffalo Silverbacks and brought a gallon of gin on a trip to Florida.
Closs never says specifically why he stopped drinking in April of ’07; he does say he began to realize the toll drinking took on his life. That September, he took a step toward sobriety by training with former NBA coach John Lucas, who is known for working with players with similar issues. That October, at 31 years old, after overcoming a case of pancreatitis, Closs was taken in the ’07-08 D-League draft by the Tulsa 66ers. It was the closest he’d been to the NBA since 2000. Closs played one season in hopes he’d draw interest from somewhere. In Tulsa, Closs attended AA meetings for the first time since he’d quit drinking. He didn’t revive his NBA career, but the experience helped revive his life. He’s now been sober for more than four years.
Closs plays in SBHS while wearing sneakers he got in the D-League. The majority of his warm-up consists of whipping a reporter in H.O.R.S.E and shaking hands with all 60 spectators. He looks good in the Breakers red, blue and yellow uniforms. He still runs the floor well and blocks his usual handful of shots and catches a few dunks. Closs is not an NBA player anymore, but he’s smart on both ends of the floor and fits in well with his teammates. Their opponents, the Newport Beach Surf, have no notable players, no coach and no matching shorts. They have one sub and lose the game by a score unfit for print.
The next day, Keith’s wife, Aracely, prepares dinner for Keith and a guest. A former kick boxer and builder of custom motorcycles, Aracely works as a pathologist. “When you guys talk about the alcoholic Keith, it’s like a story, because I don’t know that person; I never met him,” says Aracely, married to Closs since ’09. “The women who dated him must have been sick, too. Who would put up with that?”
Now living with Aracely in Pomona, CA, Closs enjoys the kind of slow-paced life you’d expect from someone in recovery. Closs frequents AA meetings, tends to he and his wife’s growing collection of dogs and helps with dishes. He’s considered finishing school. Without long-term plans, Closs—who last played serious pro ball in China in ’07-08—would like to hoop some more. Aracely thinks he’d be a good drug counselor.
“I just want to carry this message of hope to people that think alcoholism won’t affect them,” Closs tells me. “I’m a former NBA player and I know personally what alcoholism can take from you. It doesn’t discriminate.”
At sunset, Closs heads to an AA/SA meeting scheduled to take place at a nearby hospital. As he walks into the street in front of the house, two guys circle on bicycles. They eye Closs; Closs eyes them.
“Hey Closs—I remember you from the Clippers, man!” one cyclist shouts. “How are you doin’?”
“I’m blessed today, man,” Closs says. “I’m really blessed.”