If you’re not a lifelong University of Kentucky basketball fan, that probably doesn’t faze you. But for the Big Blue nation, this has been a week of unprecedented mourning that culminated in a memorial at the Rupp Arena center court that had the feel of a state funeral attended by thousands.
Why? Mr. Keightley was not a coach or a player for UK. He was the equipment manager. You know, the guy who washes uniforms, issues shoes and socks, makes sure the basketballs are ready for practice, packs bags for away games. So, how in the world does an equipment manager arouse this sort of emotion and rank this sort of send-off?
You could say it was longevity. Bill Keightley left his job as a postman in 1960 and served as UK’s equipment manager for 48 seasons. He worked with 6 coaches-Adolph Rupp, Joe Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie. He was on the bench for 57% of the games UK has played in its 105 year history-1,113 of them ending in the win column.
Maybe you could say it was the fact that Mr. Keightley was a living connection to the history of UK basketball. He was courtside for the big games that most fans remember. He knew the coaches and the players across the years-many of whom become icons across the state. He transcended generations of fans.
You could say that Mr. Keightley was so beloved because he was in the place the average Big Blue fan longs to be-up close and personal with the ‘Cats. He was an ordinary guy from Lawrenceburg who was in the locker room, at the practices, at all the games – home, away and for all the tournaments, at both Memorial Coliseum & Rupp Arena, and even at Wildcat Lodge. He “bled Blue”, as we say here. He lived for that bouncing ball, and was fond of saying that his favorite team was “Kentucky and whoever is playing Louisville.”
You could say all of that, and still not get to the heart of the outpouring for Bill Keightley. He was mostly loved for the man that he was. Every person who spoke about Mr. Bill mentioned the same sorts of things. He was staunchly committed to his family. He was always joyful and ready for a good day. He greeted people with a smile and hug, with enthusiasm like he hadn’t seen them for years-even if he had seen them the night before!
Bill had an enormous capacity for friendship. Coach Hall said, “I always called him my best friend; but then all of you called him best friend, too.” He treated the farmer from west Kentucky the same way he treated the big contributors and celebrities he often met.
Every coach called him the best recruiter UK has had. Prospective players and their families always spent time with Bill Keightly and walked away knowing they would be loved at UK. Coaches from other sports, like tennis and volleyball, brought their recruits for a visit, too!
Mr. Keightley loved his work-and did it with consistent excellence for half a century. He showed up early, stayed late and did whatever it took to get the job done. Though he had dozens of student trainers on staff, Bill always took it on himself to pack every player’s bag for every road trip, just to make sure everything was there.
He was a wise father figure to trainers, athletes and coaches. Always ready to listen and to give perspective. Jeff Shepard, a former UK player, said, that equipment manager meant that Mr. Keightly “equipped us for life.” He was quick to give unconditional love and encouragement-especially after a tough practice with a scowling coach! Dozens of Bill’s boys showed up at the memorial-still ready to walk through walls for him.
There are lots of lessons we can learn from Bill Keightley: be yourself, love everybody the same, be a good friend, work with excellence, demonstrate loyalty, never forget your roots. But Bill’s best lesson was the theme of his life: be a servant and find a way to make others great. Coach Gillispie said, “There’s never been a greater assist man in the history of anything. He’s been the greatest assist man to all of us.”
In his first year,, Coach Rick Pitino moved Mr. Keightley from the end of the bench to the head of the bench. He sat in the first seat on the bench-right next to the head coach. Pitino said it was where he belonged as the heart of the Kentucky basketball program.
Reminds me of another One who told a story about seats of honor:
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 14:7-11)
Jesus also said that the “first shall be last…and the last shall be first.” The judgment of heaven tends to reverse the pattern of earth. There’s value in a servant’s heart and action that extends so much further than what we can see.
It was true for Bill Keightley-and it is true for those of us who remain.