Keith Closs’ alcohol-tinged path from college to the NBA to a bevy of minor leagues is often stranger than fiction.
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.”