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 Mu-tombo 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 lamppost, either.