Thousands honor ‘Mr. Wildcat’

Hazel Keightley walked to the center of the Rupp Arena court and stopped. With nearly 3,000 pairs of eyes on her, she approached the casket that held her late husband, UK equipment manager Bill Keightley.

She paused before saluting the casket, then turned and walked away.

It was a touching tribute to close off an evening of touching tributes for a man who changed the lives of hundreds of UK basketball players, six UK basketball coaches and thousands of others in his 48 years as the team’s equipment manager.

Keightley died Monday evening when he fell at the season-opener for the Cincinnati Reds. He was 81.

Former UK coach Rick Pitino, famous for moving Keightley from the foot to the front of the bench, told the crowd to cherish the time it spent around Keightley.

“We’re all the luckiest people on Earth because we got to hang around a treasure for a short time,” Pitino said.

For 48 years, Keightley held the title “equipment manager.” But for most of the people who knew the man who sat courtside, he was much more.

“He was called an equipment manager, but he wore many more hats than that,” said UK head coach Billy Gillispie, who spent just one year on the bench with Keightley.

“I haven’t even been around him a year yet,” Gillispie said, “and I feel like he’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life.”

Keightley was famous as a mentor, father-figure, motivator and friend of the managers, players and coaches who worked with him.

“He taught us all the lessons of life and respect,” former manager Vinny Tatum told the crowd.

But Keightley had an unforgettable personality as well, Tatum said.

“He taught us how to pour a strong drink and how to size up a pretty woman,” Tatum said to laughter.

Keightley’s personality and influence gave him a special place in Kentucky basketball history, one that made him one of only two non-players and non-coaches to have a banner honoring him in Rupp Arena’s rafters.

Because of the time he spent on the bench, he was the common link between all generations of UK fans, players and coaches, said former UK player Kyle Macy.

It was evident Thursday night.

Three head coaches — Gillispie, Pitino and Joe B. Hall — spoke at the memorial service. Travel problems prevented former coach Tubby Smith from attending the service. Former players John Pelphrey and Jeff Sheppard spoke, as did former managers Tatum and Jeff Morrow. The current UK team and managers were present, along with numerous other former players.

The loss of Keightley will change the UK basketball program forever, Hall said.

“Coaches come and go, players come and go, but Bill Keightley left a hole in this program that is impossible to fill,” Hall told the crowd.

Even though Keightley always told his players, managers and coaches that none of them was bigger than the history of UK basketball, Morrow disagreed with him.

“He used to tell me, ‘Kentucky basketball is bigger than any one person,’ ” Morrow said. “Every time Mr. Bill said that, I agreed with him. Tonight, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with Bill. He was, and is, Kentucky basketball.”

In the wake of Keightley’s death, fans have sought ways to honor “Mr. Wildcat,” such as starting campaigns to leave Keightley’s chair empty forever.

But Sheppard said those who knew Keightley personally, and those who didn’t, can honor Keightley every day with the lessons he taught people himself.

“The best way to honor Mr. Keightley is for us to live and serve and love people like he did,” Sheppard said. “If we do that, we’ll honor him by the life that we live. I think that’s the best way and the way he’d want us to honor him.”