Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 at 12:35 pm  |  37 responses

Tall Tales

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.”

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  • MikeC.

    Nice writeup. I always wonder what happens to guys when they leave the spotlight.

  • Redeemed

    Love the article. I have been clean since 5/26/07 and I can feel his story. One thing I realized just recently that alcohol doesn’t “take” things away from you. You willingly give it away! Great post!!!

  • Clipper Ballboy

    I was a ballboy for the Clippers for the entire 1999-2000 season. Keith Closs was on the squad, always an amazing dude to all of us kids on the squad (not always the case). I have some great stories about him just being so real with us. At the end of the final home game, dude took off his shoes in the halls, signed them, handed them out to the ballboys, and walked barefoot back to the locker room. Nicest guy in the world. There was a no-autograph policy for the ballboys, but he never cared, always signing everything put in front of him. I can honestly not say enough good things about the dude. Just a great guy in the limited capacity I knew him. Hope he reads this and knows his actions stuck with me all these years.

  • fruizm

    Has anybody seen that video where he gets beat up by like 5 guys outside a club?? Im sorry but that was kinda funny!

  • robb

    kinda sad actually

  • http://www.slamonline.com Max

    Lol fruizm, I didn’t know how he was, put his name in youtube and saw that video.
    But great write up, Sad story

  • Jason

    Keith will make an extremely positive impact on many! He is a unique and rare individual who gives more of himself than he will ever take for himself. His story and life should be a stepping stone for many. Keep it up Boss! 33 Lives

  • underdog

    This was truly great.

  • da real

    Great read. I’m still not sure how he sleeps at night knowing he wasted all that god given size, talent and opportunity. Such an idiot. At least he is doing ok now.

  • Fat Lever

    Awesome, awesome story and write up. His demons can ultimately be a way for him to make a career as a counselor. There is no substitute for first hand experience. Not sure if he’ll read this, but good luck.

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    Great story Matty!

  • http://nasteedunx.blogspot.com Nasteedunx

    Well that does partially explain that Geoffrey Giraffe hairdo he was rocking.

  • T-Money

    da real: i’m not sure how YOU sleep at night judging people like this. alcoholism is a disease.

  • http://slamonline.com The Philosopher

    I met Closs.
    He was an ass.
    Maybe he was inebriated.

  • http://hoopshype.com Skeptic

    I always wondered what happened to Keith. I am very impressed by Keith’s humility, honesty and ability to articulate his thoughts and story. He would make a very good counselor. Thanks for this story. It is a reminder that today is the first day of the rest of your life. You cannot undo the past but you can make a new future.

  • Jamski

    Hope he goes back to school and makes some good out of his failures. It would be a great thing if he could help someone else avoid his downfalls. Alcoholism is a weakness. With motivation, a goal and proper support there isn’t any reason why someone should waste their life away. Too bad nobody does anything about it until they hit bottom.

  • will

    really sucks to see him throw away that size. what if??

  • http://anyoldthing Ugh

    Great story.
    @The Philosopher: Maybe he didn’t like you? You’re kind of a d!ck on here…

  • http://Www.slamonline.com TADOne

    Very nice write up Caputo!

  • http://averysmith.org Avery Smith

    KEITH CLOSS! I’ve been trying to remember this dude for over 10 years! He’s the first dude to really wear cornrows in the NBA. I’ll never forget-he played for the Clippers. I had his basketball card. Gosh, I’ve been trying to remember his name for so long…Mystery solved! Thanks Slam! Yes he sported braids before Iverson!

  • http://www.slamonline.com spit hot fiyah

    two things came to mind when reading his name 1, the video of the beat down 2, when i saw him play in a summer league in venice on the same team as my homie, still have photos from that, must have been like 2003 or something

  • http://www.slamonline.com spit hot fiyah

    oh yeah arenas was on that same team, must have been the summer after his rookie year

  • https://plus.google.com/photos/106403650426394352312/albums/posts davidR

    i remember his name cuz of the random article lang whitaker posted. this was a great story matt. thanks for the read.

  • gakbrenti

    nice write mannnn…now i’m lookin for his basketball card..hahaa

  • http://slamonline.com The Philosopher

    I want to express gratitude to you for reading my comment. lol

  • Boss Closs

    I greatly appreciate you Matt, for taking the time to get the REAL story. Also for giving me the platform necessary to reach out & help others who suffer from alcoholism and/or addiction. To those of you I may have offended in the past, my humble apologies. I did/said some pretty wild things under the influence! LOL But my experiences have helped shape me into the man I am today. For those who care, I’m presently playing for the Los Angeles SLAM of the ABA. I rocked the fro before Ben Wallace, & the braids AFTER AI. Remember, I came in bald headed. Ha! I thank God daily for my sobriety & my life. Nothing has been wasted or lost. There are only gains when you survive the mayhem as I have, & turned them into something positive for our youth. Peace & love to you all. Matt- you already know, my brother.

  • That dude

    I went to school with Keith and he was always a cool cat, I knew he would drink (but who doesnt in college) but I never knew he had a drinking problem until waaay later..Also I was at the party when his teammate knocked dude cold out, might have been the funniest thing I have ever saw….Taekwondo doesnt work on a 6’6″ 280 pound beast!!!!!

  • Mahar

    as a woman who dated keith during those turbulent years, i’d only say to aracely: those were fun, but hurtful times. i recall crying my eyes out once when keith couldnt be found overnight, only to turn up smelling & looking horrible, at his friend’s house, where i had gone to track him down. i’m thankful that he lived to tell his story and he will always have a supportive friend in me. i went with him once to an AA meeting, and it was horribly hurtful to hear him tell his story to the group. i’m sincerely proud of him & am glad that he has found peace & love in his life!

  • Kathy – Asst SID

    I was an Assistant Director in the Sports Information Office at Central Conn State University when Keith Closs was a student and basketball player there. He and Adonal Foyle were neck and neck as the nation’s leading shot blockers.

    People have always been drawn to him – to his smile and his good nature. He’s listened to the wrong people at times, and has made some bad choices…

    I’m glad he’s getting his life straight and that he’s seen that alcohol and drugs are never a solution. I wish him nothing but success!!!

  • Pingback: Former Clippers center Keith Closs admits to drinking on the bench during games | Larry Brown Sports

  • http://www.menacelive.com Steve

    This is an awesome story. Matt Caputo was telling me about this backstage at the BB Kings show I did with D12. He was totally consumed with this story man. Glad its out. Great stuff.

  • Norwich Native

    As a kid growing up in Norwich the couple years the Neptunes were in town, Keith was the first NBA player I ever stood next to. I remember almost reaching his knees as he smiled and signed my autograph in a high school gym. Glad to see he’s come to terms with his troubles. Good luck KC

  • http://slamonline.com The Philosopher

    Now I feel bad for calling him an ass.
    Glad to hear that he’s doing alright. One never wants to see anyone go down a path that is not healthy.

  • Boss Momm

    My son has come a Mighty Long Way!! Thank You Lord!! He is alive today! He is in his right mind today!! He is able to help others today!! I loved my son then and I love my son today!! Thank you Matt, for allowing my son to tell HIS story HIS way!!

  • http://slamonline.com Brad Long

    We need more Matt Caputo stories in SLAM. I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, but writers like Matt, Khalid, Scoop, Ben, Ryan, and Lang are the only reason why anyone who has hit puberty reads this mag. I realize some have moved on to other things, but SLAM needs that realness again. Hope to see more articles like this in the future.

  • http://slamonline.com Brad Long

    And I don’t know how I left Russ off that list but I did. Him too.

  • http://slamonline.com Brad Long

    Russ Bengston, too. Tell me what happened to Lenny Cooke, Give me an Old School Norm Nixon piece, Tell me what the f*ck has really been going on with A.I. the last few years. I wanna see Ryan do a one on one with K-Love now. Give Charles Oakley his own monthly column. Come on, SLAM.