Keith Closs of the Clippers is 7'3" and 212 pounds and, some say
with a snicker, has all the basketball skills of a lamppost.
That statement strikes Closs as funny because, well, wasn't he
the guy dipping and spinning past Dikembe Mutombo for 15 points
in a December game against the Hawks? And--ha, ha!--wasn't that
Closs swatting away six shots against the Spurs' twin towers in
January? Come to think of it, wasn't Closs the player who scored
12 points and blocked five shots against the Lakers?
"People have lots of misconceptions about my game," says the
22-year-old Closs, "but when we face off, I usually show 'em
what the deal is."
The deal, to be honest, is that Closs is a major project who
could develop into something slightly more than Manute Bol and
something slightly less than Shawn Bradley. At week's end he was
averaging 4.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a backup
center. Which is merely great for a guy who, a year ago, was
starring for the Norwich Neptunes in something called the
Atlantic Basketball Association.
Closs played two seasons at Central Connecticut State and, as a
sophomore in 1995-96, averaged 6.36 blocked shots per game,
breaking David Robinson's Division I record by nearly half a
swat. But in what he admits was an ill-advised decision, Closs
left New Britain to follow his NBA dreams. "I knew back then
that I could play here," he says. "I just needed someone to give
me an opportunity. I thought I'd be given a real chance."
Scouts, however, only saw a gangly player with limited moves and
no big-game experience. So he played 12 games for Norwich, then
last summer entered the Fila Summer Pro League with a team of
free agents and Lakers rookies. He averaged 13.3 points and 5.0
blocks, and suddenly everyone was interested. "The bidding for
Keith wasn't easy," says Elgin Baylor, the Clippers' general
manager. "Once teams saw him play in the summer, they knew he
was more than just a college guy. He showed an ability to run
the floor, play defense and, most notably to me, block a lot of
shots." The Clippers were so impressed that they let starting
forward Malik Sealy leave as a free agent and signed Closs to a
five-year, $8.5 million contract. "Not much of a risk," says
Baylor, "if you look at the kid's potential."
Closs, who grew up in Los Angeles, wears Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's
number 33 (plus a mini-Afro) and says Giant Steps,
Abdul-Jabbar's autobiography, is his favorite book. "I'd love to
have that type of career," he says. "Kareem was the ultimate."
Closs is no Kareem. But as opponents have seen, he's no
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Keith Closs dunking in game]