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He Found his Racquet -- Sports Illustrated Nov. 19, 1979. By Tim Yost
Steve Keeley may only be near the top of racquetball rankings but he's unmatched in general zaniness, especially off the court. Heads turn as he strolls out of the winter night and into the racquetball club. A muscular 6-footer, he is clad in a pair of purple moon boots, dungarees, a flannel shirt that looks slept in and gray plastic headphones. But he wears no other protection against he subzero cold outside; in fact, he looks like someone who has become immune to the cold through the years of constant outdoor exposure. – A bulldozer operator, perhaps. But the rubber bands around his ankles and the flashlight strapped to his upper left arm betray the fact that he just got off a bicycle, not a Caterpillar. And when he removes the headphones unleash a mop of blond spaghetti-like curls, all present are treated to a blast of Rod Stewart. Steve Keeley has arrived. Who would take this character to be a pioneer of modern racquetball, the eight-biggest all-time money winner in the National Racquetball runner-up, a five-time national singles paddleball champion and the feature of tonight’s racquetball exhibition in Okemos, Mich.?
Before the evening is over, there would be no doubt about how good he is. Having changed into his Converse Hightops, nylon shorts and a T shirt lettered C12 H22 O11 (the formula for sucrose), Keeley first amuses the crowd in a match with the current Miss World—he plays her hopping about on one leg, using a tennis shoe as a racquet—and amazes it by thrashing a succession of local racquetball aces, methodically picking up their weaknesses and then employing a strong backhand and a pinpoint kill shot to cash in on every mistake. But in the end it is his defense—meticulous, impossible to penetrate—that certifies Keeley as a champion to the folks who have come to watch him.
In its brief history, racquetball has had its share of talented oddballs. Bill Schmidtke, national camp in 1971 and 1974, was such a country boy that it was said he contracted the bends whenever the pro tour stopped in a town with a population of more than 1,000. But on the court Schmidtke was a shark. Then there is Charlie Brumfield, who looks a bit like fellow Californian Charles Manson and gave up a few career to lead a cult of beer-swilling, sime-crazed followers known as Brum’s Bums. Along the way, Brumfield won five national titles. And then there is Keeley, who is something-different altogether.
Many pro athletes are part-time eccentrics. Keeley is a full-time eccentric who’s a part-time pro athlete. After earning his veterinary degree from Michigan State seven years ago, he abandoned that profession to become a racquetball bum in the sports sunny Mecca, San Diego. So far, so normal. But Keeley wasn’t just another bum. HE zipped through the racquetball ranks to become one of the top two players in the country. "I think the guy was most talented player in that era." Says Brumfield, who was Keeley’s nemesis in the mid-70’s, when he beat Keeley in the national finals so many times. But Keeley’s on-court accomplishments were overshadowed by his off-court eccentricities. He preferred sensationally austere housing, he loved offbeat adventures, and he insisted on indulging his rather bizarre sense of humor. "With Keeley, you’ve just got to expect anything," says Marty Hogan, the defending national champion, who shared a house in La Jolla, Calif. With Keeley three years ago; during that period, Keeley among other things, shaved his head, slept in a closet, raised tarantulas and once boiled a dog on the kitchen stove because he needed its skeleton for his veterinary endeavors. "I wouldn’t say he’s weird, " Hogan hastens to add, "but a lot of things that he does sure are."
Keeley’s exploits in just the past five years say something of his approach to life. A few highlights"
?In 1974, he made a 2,400-mile solo bicycle trip from San Diego to Lansing Michigan in 24 days, including a two-day layover at St. Louis to play in the International Racquetball Association pro nationals.
?In 1975, carrying a 40-pound backpack, he set out to walk the 1,050 miles length of the Baja Peninsula. He covered 90 arid miles before being forced to turn around for lack of water.
?In 1976, he ran his first marathon—his time was a respectable 3:42—and hunted tarantulas in the Rockies. "I had an eight unit ‘Tarantula Hotel’ that I kept them in," he says. He also aborted a summer bicycle trip from Vancouver, BC to South America while some 200 miles deep in the Baja, " I was miserably hot and I couldn’t stand listening to the Mexican music on my headphones anymore," he recalls.
?In 1977, wearing a Bozo the clown haircut, Keeley traversed the country hitting all the major tournament sites in his customized Chevy van. Accompanying him on this 90-day, 6,000-mile jaunt was his seven-foot stuffed rabbit, Fillmore J. Hare, who rode shotgun.
?And last year, in sweltering July heat, he bicycled the 230 miles from Charleviox, Michigan to Lansing in less than 24 hours to win a $5 bet, which he says, "I still can’t remember if I ever collected."
?In 1977, just as racquetball was finally coming into its own, Keeley pulled out of San Diego, forsaking the four-walled promised land for a garage in the sleepy whistle-stop of Haslett, Michigan, eight miles northeast of his almamater in East Lansing. A few pro players thought Keeley’s departure indicated that he’d lost interest in the game; his slow-paced control style was being stymied by the wide-open power game popularized by his housemate Hogan and others.
In fact, Keeley retreated to the wooded shores of tiny Lake Lansing to further his career as racquetball’s preeminent Bohemian. His literary efforts had begun back in San Diego, where he was a frequent contributor to various racquet magazines hungry for how-to’s from the pros. In 1976, he consolidated his theories and, without the aid of a ghostwriter, produced a thorough, if chatty, instructional book aimed at novices to intermediates. Today, The Complete Book of Racquetball has muscled its way to the top of an expanding heap of racquetball literature by selling more than 75,000 copies. One day last month Keeley tripled his body published works by releasing, simultaneously, two new books: It’s a Racquet!, the first collection of racquetball’s anecdotes in print, and The Kill & Rekill Gang, 96 pages of cartoons involving assorted Doonesburyesque racquetball characters. Note that Keeley released these books. For not only is Keeley a Top Ten racquetball pro, a doctor of veterinary medicine and a best-selling author, but he is also president of Service Press Inc. of Haslett, Michigan, the only publishing house in the nation run out of an unheated garage. "Beyond the motivation to get a larger piece of the pie for myself, I decided to publish my own books to satisfy my urge to undertake new and different projects, " Keeley says. "I just like to experience life in different ways, and to do this I have a lot of little goals, little projects. Like my goal of publishing two books on the same day. I read once Tom Wolfe had done that. It sounded weird, so I decided to go ahead and do it, too." Lest anyone get the idea that Keeley is running a vanity press, he quickly points out that he has a timetable for writing, publishing and releasing another dozen instructional books, ranging in subjects from conditioning to advanced strategy to gamesmanship.
Keeley entered his first national championship in Salt Lake City in 1971, a time when hardly anyone believed that racquetball, then fledging sister of handball and paddleball, would ever get out of then nest. Keeley was one of the non-believers. Playing on two sprained ankles, he lost in the round of 17 and hobbled back to Michigan State to resume both his veterinary studies and his reign as national paddleball champion.
The Broomfield shower up. Fresh from having surrendered his paddleball titled to Keeley six months earlier, Brumfield came to East Lansing in the summer of 1971 to hone his racquetball game against is rival. Every day the two took to the handball courts at MSU’s Men’s Intramural Building for a punishing three hours of workouts. The result was the birth of modern racquetball. "Charlie and I got the game down to a science," Keeley says. "We invented the Z-ball and the around-the-wall ball. It took other players six months to figure out where those shots were coming from when we hit them during matches."
"At that point in his career, Steve was the best offensive player there ever was," says Brumfield. "He could kill the ball from any position on the court with a high degree of accuracy. The shots that we worked on were really reactions to his offensive advantage over me."
Keeley’s style of play changed radically a couple of years ago with the advent of the fast modern ball. To handle the up-and-coming power hitters, he adopted a defensive game that relies on controlled strokes and percentage shots of somewhat less than sonic speed. "Keeley’s wimpy kill travels so slow to the front, I can autograph the ball as it floats by," says Hogan, the game’s premier power player. "Steve’s style is the purest on the tour. When he’s playing tough, he can beat anybody."
But many racquetball aficionados believe that Keeley’s decision to concentrate on defense has made it almost impossible for him to win big matches. Brumfield is sure of it. "Steve decided somewhere along the line that he couldn’t win playing offense," Brumfield says, "but nowadays offense is the game. If he went back to his former style, he’d be eight, nine points tougher."
If Keeley is indeed afraid of failure, he doesn’t slow down long enough to realize it. An efficiency nut, he organizes his every waking hour to accomplish as many of his "weird projects" as possible. Charlie Drake, president of Leach Industries, the racquet manufacturer who has sponsored Keeley since 1971, witnessed Keeley's efficiency firsthand when Keeley and Hogan were living with Drake in La Jolla. "Steve’s very meticulous about notes," Drake says. "He’s likely to have a matchbook cover in his pocket with 15 things to do written on it, ranging anywhere from writing a book to making sure the bathroom door is locked. As he goes through those things, he checks each one off, treating each with the same importance.
One item still on whatever list Keeley is carrying around now has to do with sleep. Keeley hates it. A night owl—he seldom hits the sack before 4 a.m.—he goes to bed in his clothes to avoid wasting valuable time undressing and dressing. He also practices sleep-learning—a tape recorder near his bed comes on at intervals throughout the night admonishing him not to hit forehand shots crossing court—and recently he consulted a hypnotist to see if he could cut down his shut-eye. "Eight hours sleep a night is a waste of time," he complains. "I’m utilizing my time to the utmost, except for sleeping eight hours a night: eight little slices of death. I wouldn’t change my life at all, except to sleep less."
Keeley’s preferences when it comes to housing have long been a source of astonishment to his friends. He is slightly photophobic, which accounts for his fondness for the dark. He also likes it cold; frostbite; he seems to believe, is healthy. Before settling in his dark, cold garage in Michigan, he toyed with the idea of living in a tree house, a cave and even a sewer pipe.
"My pipe dream has always been to live in a pipe," he says. "Vic Niederhoffer, the former national squash champion, who also happens to own a pipe company, heard about this and offered to fix me up with some of the big six-footers. He even said I could have little pipes branching off form the main pipe—one to type in, one for each of my dogs, etc. He was serious! But I didn’t take him up on it, because I have my own paradise right here in my garage."
"Paradise for Keeley is a 12’ x 18’ unattached one-car structure located in the backyard of an aging wood-frame house, one of seven rental properties he has bought with his racquetball earnings. Five doghouse crowd the garages’ "foyer," one for each of the canines that share the dwelling: an Irish setter, a German shepherd, a mutt known as Twerp, and two not-so-small Doberman puppies named Corn and Flake. Beyond the foyer is a cramped area containing a heated waterbed –the sole source of warmth in the garage—an air conditioner that runs constantly in the summer and shelves holding such memorabilia as embalmed tarantulas, rubber mice and gag false teeth. There’s also a makeshift office, where Keeley does his writing and conducts his real estate and book-publishing businesses.
The place definitely lacks a woman’s touch. "Oh sure, I date now and then," says Haslett’s most eligible bachelor, "and I go to bars and parties, though I don’t drink and I never stay more than an hour. Any longer than that, I’m wasting time." Marriage is out, for now, "too static," he says.
Keeley insists it is his life-style, rather than his love of letters, that prompts him to write. "I like it dark and quiet, and I like it cold," he says. "My garage is double-insulated and double-walled, and there are no windows, so there’s no noise, no light, and its cold. It’s between 48 and 58 degrees in the winter. I usually stay up late, and there’s nothing else to do in a garage in the middle of the night when it’s cold except to write. The only problem I have when it gets below 50 degrees, my type writer doesn’t work."
As a student of Parkside High in Jackson, Michigan, Keeley stood out neither as an athlete nor as a writer. A shy, skinny kid, he struggled through three years on wrestling squad before he had a winning season. As a senior, he as fifth man on the junior varsity cross-country team. He wasn’t good enough to make the tennis team. He did manage to become sports editor of the Parkside Heritage but his writing was memorable only to his parents. "I was a jock of all trades, but master of none," he remembers. "The only things I was really good at were chess and rinky-dinky sports such as walking-the-fence and mumblety-peg—things that had a gimmick and that required individual effort to figure out."
At Michigan State he found his niche. Jut a year after picking up his first paddle in 1969, he fought his way to the top of State’s legion of hard-playing paddleball enthusiasts, shaping his game in his own individualistic way without help from a coach or teammates. Three-hour-a-day workouts produced his first national paddleball championship in 1971. He subsequently won the title in ’73, ’74, ’76, and ’77.
After graduating from vet school in December of 1972, Keeley migrated to San Diego with the idea of playing a little racquetball while he prepared for the California veterinary boards in June. But by the time he passed the exam, on his first try, he was so busy playing tournaments in which the prize money had reached triple figures, giving lessons and hustling matches a la Bobby Riggs that he decided to forget being a vet for a while and concentrated on racquetball.
His parents were understandably distressed. "My initial reaction was negative," said Keeley’s father. "I thought he had an investment, as we did, in veterinary medicine, not only in money but in effort. I was frankly disappointed." Keeley’s mother, who still supplies him with plastic containers filled with homemade casseroles that he sentimentally calls Mamma Keeley’s Glop, has more readily accepted her son’s decision. "He was in a mold, and he stepped out of it," she says. "He was a normal, shy youngster who just grew up. He was always rather creative, inventive—kind of dreamer."
When not on the road fulfilling a hectic tournament and promotional schedule—Keeley is part owner of National Racquetball Clinics Inc., a San Diego based agency that books pros for club openings and clinics—he bicycles eight miles every weeknight, no matter what the weather, to keep standing 11:30 p.m. chess rendezvous at the America’s Cup, on of East Lansing’s more genial watering holes. While at the Cup recently, he quaffed his usual one or two Diet Pepsis and played an hour of furious five-minute chess matches with his favorite opponent, Bob Baldori. As they played Keeley ruminated on the similarities between chess and racquetball, often referring to the latter as, "chess in a box" or "sweaty chess."
Later, back in the relatively snug confines of his 52-degree garage—the wind chill registered –30 outside—he expounded on his love of chess, racquetball and life. "Each chess game is like a life," he said, working his way through a steaming plate of Glop. "We played a lot of five minute games instead of one long game, because it’s like living that many more lives. There’s reincarnation right there on the board. Of course, the same thing happens in racquetball when somebody reaches 21 points. You just regroup and start a new life.
"It doesn’t concern me that some people think I may have hurt my chances for a national championship when I changed my game. It was something that happened naturally. I couldn’t practice five hours a day forever. It was time to diversify. There are no ultimate goals. When I make my million I’ll probably give it away and start over because that goal will have been accomplished. Besides, it would just tie me down and I’d go nuts if I couldn’t go on an adventure at least once a year. I still want to hop a freight train across the country, and sometime I want to be dropped off with no money in the middle of a strange city just to see how I’d survive. You should never be afraid to try something new. This all sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it?
Feeling warm in the chilly room, Keeley slipped off his moon boots and suddenly shot his feet into the air, displaying a pair of hand-knitted wool socks recently sent by his mother. One was pink the other blue. "You see, he said, laughing as he kicked his feet, "Mamma Keeley understands."