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Keith Closs shares his failures so others can avoid them

Keith Closs’s NBA career lasted just 130 games over three seasons.Pat Sullivan/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Keith Closs tried not to allow his sudden wealth and fame to overwhelm him, yet it did. The 7-foot-3-inch, 21-year-old overnight sensation couldn’t handle the NBA lifestyle, the freedom, the hangers-on who saw an impressionable, immature man-child who wanted nothing but to please.

So Closs’s NBA career lasted just 130 games over three seasons, hardly living up to the five-year, $8.5 million contract he signed with the Clippers in the summer of 1997 to be a shot-blocking presence and potentially someone who could at least compete with Lakers counterpart Shaquille O’Neal.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Donald Sterling-owned Clippers, with their horrid reputation, were looking for novelties, circus acts, and big names without the game anymore to attract attention. Closs became one of those attractions, and eventually the pressure, attention, and poor decisions led to alcoholism and a career that lasted barely long enough to recognize.


Nineteen years later, the lanky Closs was participating in the NBA Players Association heart screenings in Las Vegas, perhaps five pounds above his playing weight, having just turned 40 and with plenty of stories to tell and experiences to pass along after a difficult stretch.

His drinking is in the past. Closs is sober and serves as a counselor for recovering addicts and homeless men in California. The NBA life overwhelmed him. He was caught up with bad crowds in Los Angeles, playing in his hometown and expected to block every shot.

The wildly immature Closs partied and enjoyed his celebrity, but slipped into oblivion.

“You know what? The most important thing was that it was a big lesson in humility,” Closs said. “Learning how to become a humble person, learning about patience and wishing that I had more veteran leadership around me who could take me to the side and walk me through situations on how to handle them differently and appropriately. Understanding the business aspect of the game, more than anything else.”


Closs played two years at Central Connecticut State, where he amassed 317 blocked shots in just 54 games before leaving school. He remains the school’s all-time leader in blocks — on two occasions he blocked 12 shots in one game — and the NCAA’s Division 1 leader in blocks per game (5.87).

After a year in the Atlantic Basketball Association, Closs signed with the Clippers, with general manager Elgin Baylor feeling he had found the NBA’s next great shot blocker.

“The pressure came internally because I wanted to prove why I had the contract that I had,” Closs said. “And I just wasn’t given the opportunity and I expressed myself in the wrong way. Drinking didn’t help at all, either. So what I do today is I take a lot of time out of my day to talk to the new generation, the dos and don’ts of what it’s going to take in order to experience longevity and a happy career.”

Closs was released by the Clippers after the 1999-2000 season, leaving with plenty of money — more than $6 million from his contract — and time to burn.

“When the good times stopped and the money ran out in 2005, so did the majority of those boys that had my back no matter what,” he said. “Which is good, and I’m grateful for that because it showed me who was really in my corner and who isn’t.”


Keith Closs was released by the Clippers after the 1999-2000 season.Reed Saxon/AP/File

There was an infamous incident in 2000 on a busy Los Angeles street when Closs was videotaped being beaten by several men. That was the first of several alcohol-related incidents that essentially ended any chance he had to return to the NBA.

“I didn’t understand how tough it was [on my family] until my eyes finally opened to what I was doing, the self-destruction,” he said. “I was just holding them hostage of watching me, that powerlessness that we feel when we want to help somebody but we don’t know how. Once I realized that, it hurt. And every day I wake up with the idea of how can I best go out there and best affect the community and the people out there? How can I help somebody avoid the same pitfalls that I fell into?

“That whole process [stunk] but it was completely necessary because I have to be accountable for my actions and decisions. There were a few people who did try to help, but I wasn’t willing to listen because I thought I would have that 20-year longevity [in the NBA] like my idol Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] had.”

Closs said he constantly speaks to young players about mentally preparing for life in the NBA and tempering those delusions of grandeur.

“I spent my money as though I had a max contract,” he said. “I had an opportunity to prove I could do [better] but we live, we learn, and we teach the next generation.”


Closs said that six months after his last drink in 2007, while he was on life support in Texas, his transformation began.

“The damage was done,” he said. “That was the most life-changing thing for me. I never wanted to put myself or my family through that again. I never wanted them to see me like that. I never wanted to feel that again.”

What’s bizarre is that if Closs were discovered now, he’d be considered a stretch-4, which was his natural position. In the stone age of the 1990s NBA, he was forced to play against the likes of O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon and was physically overmatched.

“When I see the things like what Kevin Durant is doing or even Kristaps Porzingis, I was doing those things 20 years ago,” Closs said. “I was just in a different era and a different time where expectations were different. You got the height, you get your behind down on the block.”

Closs knows the timing was wrong in his career. Too much, too soon. Too young and too little guidance. But that’s the distant past.

“There’s always those, ‘Aww man, I remember when,’ ” he said. “But the last nine years of my life have been about transforming into more positive memories. I just love the life that I have been gifted. It’s something I would never imagined I would be able to do.”


Thunder forging a new identity

Forward Nick Collison, head coach Billy Donovan, guard Russell Westbrook, and center Steven Adams.Sue Ogrocki/AP

It’s officially the Russell Westbrook era in Oklahoma City, but the Thunder are a lot more than their superstar point guard. General manager Sam Presti has built a solid, young nucleus around Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Victor Oladipo, and Andre Roberson, making the team intriguing in the Western Conference despite the departure of Kevin Durant to the Warriors.


“We’re going to obviously look different as a team,” Presti said. “Being open-minded and understanding that there’s going to be a building process for the season and a learning process to the season, which I think is healthy. I do think one of the unique things about some of our younger players is the amount of experience they have been able to accumulate in a short amount of time.

“They’ve been significant parts of our success the last several years and now there’s an opportunity for us to try to learn more about how they can contribute.”

One thing that was established during Billy Donovan’s first season as coach, and especially during the playoffs, was the Thunder’s ability to control the paint and dominate the boards with their size.

“I think there’s a physicality and a mind-set that the group has,” Presti said. “Obviously, the addition of Victor Oladipo, recently [trading for] Joffrey Lauvergne, we have a group of guys who are pretty physical, hard-playing, tough. And I think up and down the roster there’s a real commitment to playing the game at a certain standard competitively. I think that’s one of the things we want to continue to embed into the DNA of the Thunder.”

Westbrook appeared excited about the revamped roster during the team’s media day Friday, and while the effects of Durant’s departure will be apparent, Oklahoma City could be a dangerous opponent because of its versatility.

“I think we are obviously looking towards the future, continuing to aspire to continue to build our legacy as an organization, and that approach has been consistent throughout,” Presti said.

“We also are energized and understand we have an opportunity here with how to go forward and we feel really good about the people in uniform and on the sideline in terms of their commitment to take on tomorrow today.”


Felicio growing as a baby Bull

Cristiano Felicio has solid passing skills and can run the floor.AFP/Getty Images

Cristiano Felicio was a quiet presence at the end of the Bulls’ bench as a rookie. He spent most of his first season in the NBADL with the Canton Charge, but he was one of the bright spots for the Bulls’ summer league entry that won the Las Vegas title.

With the departures of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, there will be expectations for the 6-10, 275-pound Brazilian in his sophomore season. As he showed in Las Vegas, Felicio is far more than just a big body; he has solid passing skills and can run the floor.

“I learned so much because the Bulls last year, they had a lot of big guys and they were always talking to me and giving me tips,” he said. “It was my first year and I didn’t know what to expect through the season and they were always talking to me, telling me what to do and what not to do in the NBA. It for sure helped me a lot in my first year.”

With Robin Lopez the only legitimate center on the Bulls’ roster, Felicio could see considerable playing time.

“We knew we could win [the summer league] and we played every single game the hardest we can,” he said. “And we played together. And we were able to come back in the semifinals and the finals and win. And it was sure a good experience for me. I have improved a lot in my game and I have a lot more to improve on, and that was the first step.”

Felicio was a late addition to the Brazilian Olympic team after Anderson Varejao backed out because of injury. Felicio played sparingly for Brazil, which did not qualify for the knockout round in Rio de Janeiro despite the presence of Nene, Leandro Barbosa, Marcelo Huertas, and Raul Neto.

“It’s unbelievable to play for my own country in my country,” he said. “It’s a dream for every athlete and for me, it’s been unbelievable since the beginning.”

Young ready to show development

James Young averaged just 1 point and 7 minutes in 29 appearances last season.Michael Dwyer/AP

Celtics swingman James Young made a special appearance Thursday at Boston English High School to distribute backpacks for students as part of a nationwide effort through his agency, Roc Nation.

Young turned 21 last month, but yet his career with the Celtics could be at stake in training camp.

The Celtics have 16 players under guaranteed contracts and 15 roster spots. Young, second-year guard R.J. Hunter, and forward Ben Bentil could be waived or traded before the regular season. Young has played sparingly over his first two NBA seasons, having been beset by injuries and inconsistencies.

During the Celtics’ summer league session in Las Vegas, Young was essentially benched by coach Jamie Young for ineffectiveness.

James Young said he remains focused on improvement.

“I’m still growing and I know other things I’ve got to do now,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of the coaches and a lot of the older guys of what they need me to do and what’s my role and I figured it out now. So I’m just going to go out there and play my game and I’m really getting stronger. When I go out there, I’m not thinking about anything.”

The numbers don’t lie, however. His second season was considerably worse than his first, as he averaged just 1 point and 7 minutes in 29 appearances. Considered a sharpshooter coming out of Kentucky, Young has converted just 25 percent of his 3-point attempts.

“I’m not thinking about contracts or the next year,” he said. “I’m just staying in the present right now, gotten a lot better, still getting better. And there’s a lot better for me to come, so I’m not even thinking about the future, who they got coming up or what’s going on. I’m staying right here in the present.”

Young was bothered by a sore knee during summer league, the latest injury to slow his progress. Young said he got back to work following summer league.

“My body is growing and I think that’s what’s helping me a lot,” he said. “My stamina went up a lot and that’s going to help me for the season coming up.”

Young expressed gratitude for the guidance he received after being drafted three years ago following just one season at Kentucky. He was one of the youngest players in the draft, and while his development has been lacking, he still has an opportunity to make an impact with a solid training camp.

“When I first got here, 18, living by myself, I had to look at some of the coaches, some of the older guys to take me under their wing and they did, and it was a blessing,” Young said. “It really showed me to grow up as a man, just living out here on my own, having those guys in my corner and those coaches, it helped me a lot and I thank them for it.”

The Boston English students embraced Young, as he stopped by a series of tables in the school’s gym to discuss issues. After the session, the kids surrounded Young for pictures and selfies. Young understood that he is no longer one of the young guys, he is a mentor.

“It was real good to just come back and just share some of the things that I went through and talk about some of the things they can do to succeed in life and listen to their mentors,” he said. “It was something I went through. I’m glad I got a chance to come back and talk to these guys and girls and really just communicate with them.

“Just push through everything and not give up, no matter what it is. I had a lot of people in my corner, thankfully, growing up and it was a great thing.”


Michael Beasley said this summer that he has matured from his ball-hogging days.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Bucks acted quickly following the potential season-ending hamstring injury to key scorer Khris Middleton, acquiring much-traveled former No. 2 pick Michael Beasley from the Rockets for little-used guard Tyler Ennis. Last season with Houston, Beasley showed flashes of being the reliable scorer he was projected to be eight years ago coming out of Kansas State. Houston guaranteed the final year of his contract at $1.4 million, and it could be a value for Milwaukee considering Beasley is expected to receive considerable playing time. Beasley said this summer that he has matured from his ball-hogging days, and that at 27 he has plenty of years left in his career. The Middleton injury is a major blow to the Bucks, who added Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, and Thon Maker in the offseason to join a healthy Jabari Parker. The Bucks re-signed Miles Plumlee to a four-year, $52 million contract to rejoin John Henson and Greg Monroe in the frontcourt. Last week, Milwaukee agreed to a four-year, $100 million extension with fourth-year player Giannis Antetokounmpo . . . The Hawks invited NBA veteran Will Bynum to training camp after he spent the most of the past two years overseas. Bynum was briefly a Celtic after a trade with the Pistons in 2014 but agreed to a buyout. Bynum spent last season in China . . . Former Jazz draft pick Jarnell Stokes will get a chance to make the Nuggets roster after being named MVP of the NBADL last season. Stokes, 22, left Tennessee two years early and has bounced around the NBA, having been traded three times and waived twice. The Nuggets also signed former Buck Nate Wolters, as well as ex-St. John’s standout D.J. Kennedy (partially guaranteed deal) . . . The Hawks will be without forward Paul Millsap at least for the first two preseason games after he underwent a procedure to reduce swelling from his right knee. Millsap is expected to be the Hawks’ primary offensive weapon . . . Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, formerly the Delta Center, will begin a $125 million renovation after the coming season that will include redesigned upper and lower bowls and a 12,000-square-foot lobby for fans.

Talented trio

Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck — all former University of Connecticut players — were selected 1-2-3, respectively, in the 2016 WNBA Draft. Now that the regular season is in the books, here’s a look at the impact they have had on their teams:

Compiled by Michael Grossi

Gary Washburn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.