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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 the subzero cold outside; in fact, he looks like someone who has become immune to the cold through 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 to 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 eighth-biggest alltime money winner in the National Racquetball Club, a two-time national singles 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 CHO (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 champ 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 Man-son and gave up a law career to lead a cult of beer-swilling, semicrazed 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 sport's 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 the most talented player in that era," says Brumfield, who was Keeley's nemesis in the mid-'70s, 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 the 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, Mich. 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-mile length of the Baja Peninsula. He covered 90 arid miles before being forced to turn around for lack of water.