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The story of Keith Closs, the NBA and the Buffalo Silverbacks

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

If you’ve been watching the NBA Playoffs over the last few weeks—maybe you’re rooting for Carmelo’s first NBA title, enjoy Stephen Curry’s boyish looks or carefully monitoring the Derrick Rose injury situation—perhaps you’ve realized that there are simply very few Buffalo connections to the NBA.

There were recent Western New York stars like Jonny Flynn from Niagara Falls and St. Bonaventure’s Andrew Nicholson who reached the NBA, as well as Buffalo-born athletes like Greg Oden and Ike Diogu who departed long before their high school years. J.R. Bremer and David Vanterpool were ex-Bonnies who had a cup of tea in the NBA, but they’re well outside the City of Buffalo.

Therefore, Duke star Christian Laettner (Nichols), journeyman-reserve Lazar Hayward (Traditional) and former Orange big Damone Brown (Seneca Vocational) are the only players of the last 20 years—to my knowledge—to have played both in the City of Buffalo and at basketball’s highest level.

We’re leaving out one name though, and—unless you’re a diehard Buffalo-Braves-to-Los-Angeles-Clippers fan—you’ve probably never heard of him.

Keith Closs was a superstar center at Central Connecticut State, where he averaged a Division I record 5.87 blocks per game over his two years. According to this terrific SLAM magazine feature, Closs’ reasons for attending school there were a little abnormal:

“I visited [Central Connecticut State University] and one of my future teammates knocked somebody out at a party at Trinity College,” Closs says. “I knew right there [CCSU] was where I wanted to be. I was into that type of thing. I was already a full-blown alcoholic by then. I was living a double life,” Closs continues. “But college was the first time I actually had any real problems related to my drinking.”

His drinking exploits began a lot earlier, as Closs told SI.com’s Jon Wertheim. “I was a blowing alcoholic in elementary school. I was that sneaky kid. An adult would put his cup down and I would take a swig. And there were a lot of drinkers in my family.”

Built not unlike former Kentucky star Anthony Davis—a 7’3 beanpole with leaping ability and arms like tree branches—Closs possessed a desirable skill-set that, despite his offensive limitations, made him an intriguing prospect. Legendary UConn head coach Jim Calhoun raved about Closs’ game-altering shot-swatting before CCSU faced his Huskies—where five NBA scouts would be in attendance.

Via the Hartford Courant: “He has blocked shots against everybody,’’ UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “There’s no reason to believe he won’t block them against us. . . . A guy who averages seven to eight—it’s hard to average two or three. He’s someone who literally can take a game away. You don’t want it to come down to that kind of thing.’‘

In his first year, Closs played bully for CCSU against the University at Buffalo Bulls, scoring a late hoop to win 64-61 at Alumni Arena. The Bulls found revenge in Jan. 1996, however, sending Closs to the bench with early foul trouble and coasting to an 84-68 win.

Closs’ quotes were comedic gold, as he’d recall moments during games, reciting his own antics. Here’s more from the Hartford Courant’s Tommy Hine in July 1995.

Late in the game, in one 30-second sequence, Closs stuffed an offensive rebound, scored on a dunk off an inside pass and blocked a shot at the other end.

``I told that little guy, `Don’t shoot it . . . don’t do it,’ ‘’ Closs said. ``He shot it anyway. After I blocked it, I looked down and laughed at him and said, `Stupid.’ ‘’

Nicknamed “Boss” because it rhymes with his last name, Closs left college early after his head coach was canned, starting brightly as an un-drafted free agent with the Portland Trailblazers.

Closs scored 18 points, on eight-of-13 shooting, and had seven rebounds in the Blazers Rookie Game at the Rose Garden. He and Cato each played the entire game, which included a three-minute overtime needed to allow the Jammers to edge the Slammers 77-76 before an announced crowd of 11,800. Cato finished with 13 points and six rebounds.

He couldn’t sustain the quick start, however, as he bounced around fringe leagues briefly before his height and shot-blocking prowess caught the attention of the Los Angeles Clippers in 1997.

Closs spent three troubled seasons in the NBA—a total of 130 games—but he barely got off the bench. Instead of working his way into head coach Chris Ford’s rotation, Closs instead regularly sneaked liquor in his water bottle to curb the frustration of being on the end of an NBA bench.

Here’s another snippet from the SLAM piece:

“I was drinking on the bench, too. That wasn’t Gatorade in my water bottle; it was whatever I’d brought with me from the liquor store on the way to the arena. I had grown very resentful of the fact that I wasn’t playing…I felt like I was wasting away.”

Fistfights were another problem for Closs, who was infamous for this “celebrity beat-down” in 2000. This is without even mentioning that he has a tattoo that reads “F&&& the World” on his back, which SLAM pointed out.

Two DUIs and a terrible public image stemming from the fight ruined Closs’ shot at the NBA, but he caught on briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters in 2002 before embarking on a twisting path of minor league basketball. Here’s the info from his NBA.com profile:

—Played with the Pennsylvania Valley Dawgs in the USBL in the summer of 2003, averaging 4.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocked shots in 24 games.
—Started the 2004-05 season in the ABA with the Detroit Motown Jammers (statistics unavailable) before moving on to the Rockford Lightning and the Gary Steelheads in the CBA, averaging 6.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and a league-leading 3.8 blocked shots in 41 games.
—Played with the Detroit Pros in the IBL in the summer of 2005
—Split the 2005-06 season in the ABA with the Orange County Buzz and SoCal Legends (statistics unavailable).
—Moved on to the Buffalo Silverbacks of the ABA, averaging 6.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.3 blocked shots.
—Started the 2006-07 season in the CBA with the Butte Daredevils, averaging 4.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.9 blocked shots in ten games.

Buffalo entered the equation at a time when Closs’ drinking was still rampant and his basketball expectations were even lower—maybe because he’d been in Pennsylvania, Detroit, Indiana, Illinois and California in a three-year span. Though his basketball career was flickering, his alcoholism raged on, as the SLAM article drops only one poignant note about Closs’ time in the Queen City.

Soon thereafter, he joined the ABA Buffalo Silverbacks and brought a gallon of gin on a trip to Florida.

From a little deeper digging, however, the 7’3 center led Buffalo to perhaps its minor league basketball peak since the Braves departed. Closs led the 15-seeded Silverbacks to a monster upset of No. 2-seed Jacksonville in the ABA Playoffs, not in small part due to Closs’ still present shot swatting. Here’s a tidbit from Jacksonville.com:

While the guards were key to the Silverbacks’ offense, their size on defense frustrated the Jam. Former NBA player Keith Closs, a 7-foot-3 center, had eight blocks.

The Silverbacks fell in the next round, a 99-97 nail-biter to the Atlanta Vision. Only months later, Closs was diagnosed with pancreatitis, SI.com’s Wertheim noted, putting a temporary stop to his minor league career.

Closs’ moment of reckoning came in 2007. He had recently turned 30 and had designs of making a comeback. He came down with pancreatitis, caused by all those years of drinking. He lost 30 pounds and weighed well under 200, scary given his height.

“I thought I had a high pain threshold,” Closs said. “This thing nearly killed me.”

The scare forced Closs to get treatment, and he’s been sober since 2007 and married since 2009. Now dwelling in California, Closs still hasn’t lost his sense of humor, however, as ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted out an amusing photo of Closs donning his old Clippers jersey at an In-N-Out restaurant (see header photo).

The ultra-recognizable 7-footer understands the dangers of addiction, his missed opportunity at his sport’s highest level, but he doesn’t hide from his past. He’s outspoken, a bit anti-U.S. government, but—according to dozens of accounts—has always been an exceptionally “fan-friendly” player. 

“The Boss” is still balling a bit, too, as he rejected a few shots in last summer’s L.A. Summer Pro League, the summer tournament circuit that the Buffalo 716ers will take part in later this summer.

When you’re watching the NBA Playoffs over the next month or so, know that—while Buffalo lacks a current participant—there are compelling stories like Closs’ that have gone largely untold.

TAGGED: american basketball association, buffalo silverbacks, chris ford, keith closs, los angeles clippers, minor leagues, ub bulls

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  1. Ben Kirst May 06, 2013 @ 3:53pm

    Great story. Another sort-of-recent guy who went from the Buffalo college scene to the NBA was former Canisius big man Mike Smrek: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Smrek Much .more conventional career for Smrek than Closs, of course.

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