A piece of Kentucky basketball died today. Mr. Bill Keightley is not simply the equipment manager for the University of Kentucky basketball team. That may be his official title but it does not even touch the surface of who Keightley really is and what he represents. More so that any one player, coach or administrator could ever be, Mr. Bill is Kentucky basketball.
College athletics are by their very nature a transitory business. Players and coaches come and go depending on their ability or job status and while each makes their own mark on the program, it moves forward no matter who is at its core. But not Mr. Keightley. For Bill Keightley has been, like so many of the fans who adore him, a mainstay of Kentucky basketball through times of great turmoil and triumph. While others moved on, he stayed. And as the names on the backs of the jerseys changed and the signs on the head coach’s office were altered, Bill Keightley remained. Seated in his standard seat at the end of the bench, no matter who was fortunate enough to be next to him, he was the representative of the true UK program. Unlike everyone else, he cannot be replaced.
Keightley’s life in many ways parallels the life of so many Kentucky fans like him. He was born in a small town in 1926 (Lawrenceburg) and attended high school at a community school so small, it no longer exists (Kavanaugh High School). Like so many of his great generation, he joined the armed forces in 1944 and fought in the United States Marine Corps. After receiving a job working in the postal service, he agreed to help a friend on the side who had a second job as equipment manager for the UK basketball team.
Beginning in 1962, he started work with the UK basketball program under Adolph Rupp and ten years later, he became the head Equipment Manager. During that time, he worked for six coaches, was a part of three national championship teams and handled the equipment of countless college basketball legends. In a position that is usually done with no fanfare and receives virtually no attention from fans, Keightley quietly, and with dignity, became a legend himself. Along with his good friend and fellow UK legend Cawood Ledford, Keightley was the one constant of the UK program, a face that could be counted on in good times and in bad times to oversee whatever was taking place in the UK basketball world.
And what things Mr. Bill saw! He was there when Rupp’s Runts lost to Texas Western in 1966, Dan Issel set every UK record imaginable, the Cats dropped the championship game to John Wooden in his last tournament appearance, Jack Givens went for 41 to bring home a title, the Dream Game against his true rival Louisville came to fruition, Walker, Bowie and Turpin had the Commonwealth rolling, probation nearly brought the empire down, a young coach from New York named Pitino brought it back, the Unforgettables had their heart broken against Duke, Jamal Mashburn made the Cats great again, the 1996 team set a standard for dominance, Tubby and the Comeback Cats took the 1998 title, Tayshaun hit five threes in a row against UNC, the 2003 Cats went undefeated in the SEC for the first time ever and Billy Clyde began a new era. He saw every part of the last 46 YEARS of basketball at Kentucky from the best seat in the house…and he loved every minute of it, for at his core he was a fan just like the rest of us.
And therein lies the reason that so many Kentuckians are so devastated around the Commonwealth today. It isnt simply that a legend has died or that someone associated with the program is now gone. It is that the true representative of the Kentucky fan has passed away. In an age when big-time college athletics can be about everything but the game, Bill Keightley was like all the fans that adored him around the state. He loved the kids who wore the jersey with Kentucky on the front and they loved him back. I have never heard one player call him any name that didnt star with “Mr.” Their love and respect for him was uniform and genuine. He also loved the coaches who led them into battle every night and all of them have a special connection with the man. I personally have heard Joe B Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie speak of him in reverential terms and the sight of the latter coach meeting him just before his introductory press conference is one I will remember for all time. But most importantly, Mr. Keightley simply loved the Big Blue. A year or so ago, I asked him why he continued to do the job and he said, “its not a job, its just me loving my life.” Every time I saw Bill Keightley at a game, he had a smile on his face. He looked genuinely excited at the chance to be a part of a Big Blue event….just like any other fan would.
When one tries to describe the UK basketball program and the affection that its fans have towards it to those from elsewhere, it is almost impossible to quantify. Basketball in Kentucky means so much more to the people of the Commonwealth than can be rationally understood by outsiders. But one person who did understand it is Bill Keightley. He dedicated a good part of his life to being a part of its experiences and to being the face of Kentucky basketball to an entire state of supporters. He was a kind and gentle man, always quick with a smile, story or simply a salute. He was the type of person who could hold Billy Donovan’s attention just minutes before a game, but would also tell a young kid with a blog congrats on passing the bar. He had time to give to everyone who wanted time from him and he enjoyed every moment of it. He represented all that is good about the Kentucky basketball program and why it is so special to so many. Today we lost a piece of Kentucky basketball and one that cannot be replaced.
Mr. Bill Keightley, age 81. He will be missed.