In honor of Mr. Wildcat

This vigil formed only 2 1/2 hours after Bill Keightley died. The man was a link between the generations, and my favorite person on any UK team.

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Story by Eric Lindsey | Kernel staff

They were “his boys.”

The ones who were there with Bill Keightley before every game, before every practice, before a lot of the players, coaches and trainers got there. The ones who helped Keightley push the towel cart and who got the jerseys and equipment ready for the players and coaches when they needed a hand.

Generations of managers like Zach Murphy, Dustin Marr and Will Campbell have shuffled through the halls of Rupp Arena with the upbeat Keightley by their side.

And when the basketball team opens its season next year for Big Blue Madness, another group of managers will once again do their job as Keightley did with such effortless enthusiasm over the last five decades.

But Keightley’s seat will be noticeably empty. The always infectious grin that smiled upon UK basketball for years will be gone. And the managers will carry on, remembering and honoring the man that taught them how to act like men.

“He taught us things that we will take with us for the rest of our lives,” said Murphy, a senior. “It helped us as a group to mature and brought us close together. He was really like a father figure to us.”

Keightley, affectionately known as “Mr. Wildcat,” died on Monday in Cincinnati while making his annual trip to the Cincinnati Reds’ season opener. He fell while getting off a bus at Great American Ball Park and was taken to the University of Cincinnati Hospital.

Internal bleeding from a previously undiagnosed tumor on his spine caused his death, according to doctors at the hospitals.

Gillispie, the players and the managers sat together in front of reporters yesterday at a news conference to talk about a man who “made a difference in so many peoples’ lives on a daily basis,” Gillispie said.

“It didn’t matter how old you were, it didn’t matter how young you were, it didn’t matter what, he was something else,” a soft-spoken Gillispie said. “We all have been lucky enough to have a great example of someone that showed us what having the spirit of life means, and that person celebrated life on a daily basis. You never want those lives to end.”

As Gillispie and senior guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford spoke during the 20-minute news conference, Murphy sat to the side with the other managers as he tried to fight back tears.

All three managers – who, like the UK players, were called Keightley’s boys – said they could always go to Keightley with any problems they had and he would be there to offer support.

“It didn’t matter what time of day you walked into his office, his face just lit up when he was with you, and it lifted your spirits,” said Marr, a senior. “You forgot about all of your worries when you went to Mr. Keightley’s office. It was kind of our escape from the outside world.”

Gillispie said Keightley offered that same uplifting spirit and support to the players and coaches throughout this season as he often did in his 48 years as equipment manager. At first, Gillispie could not figure out why everybody, young and old, was so quick to gravitate to Keightley when he entered the room.

It didn’t take him long to understand.

“I wanted to spend all my time with Mr. Keightley, and everybody does,” Gillispie said.

In their four years at UK, Bradley and Crawford have been around Keightley more than any of the current coaches or other players. During their four up-and-down seasons at UK, the two said there would be times when they did not want to practice because they were having a tough day.

But Keightley would quickly put a smile on his face, said Bradley, who referred to Keightley as “Big Smooth.”

“If I was upset or feeling some kind of way, when you walked in he was going to grab you and hold you real tight and tell you, ‘You’re my boy Little Smooth,’ ” Bradley said. “He made me feel like I was his favorite, and this thing about it is, he made everyone feel like that.”

Many of the people who were close to Keightley said his love and affection for his Cats came second-to-none. At one point this season, Keightley broke down in tears after a short-handed UK team suffered a three-point loss to the then No. 1 team in the nation, Tennessee.

“He was crying like a baby because he was so proud of his Wildcats,” Gillispie said.

Gillispie said he’s not sure what next year’s opening night will be like without Keightley, but said everybody needs to find a way to make it a celebration. Some have already proposed that UK should keep Keightley’s seat at the end of the bench empty.

The school retired a jersey in Keightley’s honor in 1997, making him one of only two non-players and non-coaches to receive the honor (legendary radio broadcaster Cawood Ledford was the other).

“But that’s not nearly enough,” Gillispie said. “I think over time the right people will remove some of the emotion and make a great decision about what needs to be done to continue his honor.”

Until then, the players, the coaches and the managers – “the boys” Keightley worked with everyday – will try to carry on without a man who became synonymous with UK basketball during his 48 years with the program.

E-mail elindsey@kykernel.com.

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