Where They Are Today - Harold Keeling
Not as most American players who visited here in Israel, Harold Keeling don’t see our little country as a second homeland. Actually, the guard who is well remembered as Maccabi Ramat Gan and the league’s best scorer in the late eighties admits he felt a little lonely in Israel. For him, far Venezuela is regarded as home. Keeling had made himself a name of a real local star In the South American country, and built a long career, which he ended only a year and a half ago, just after he managed to watch Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Manu Ginobili, as s Venezuela NT player in the 2003 world championships in Indianapolis.
“I retired after many years in Marinos Puerto La Cruz” says Keeling (42) who now lives in Atlanta. “After I retired I built two shelters for underprivileged kids. I give them a roof under their heads a food in their bellies. That’s very important for me. I can make a living out of it, since it’s founded by the government. Even though running the shelters takes most of my time, I don’t give up basketball. I feel much younger than my age and I prove it in our local amateur league, where I play at least two times a week. We are some veteran guys, who played over sea. The talent and the experienced remained, and I’m also in pretty good shape physically”.
It was 1985 when Keeling started his professional career with the Dallas Mavericks, who picked him in the third round of that year’s draft. Not long after that, he was waived and went on the look for fortune in the Philippines, Venezuela and in 1987 in Israel as Maccabi Ramat Gan’s player alongside with Stan Mayhew, Amir Bino and Ami Naui, under the supervision on coach Efi Birenboim.
how did you ended up in Israel anyway?
In 1987 I was in San Francisco and someone offered me to come to Israel. That was the whole story and I had no problem coming there. I wasn’t afraid. I had played overseas and talked to people who played in Israel and they told me is no problem, as long that you’re being paid. Don Robinson (former Hapoel Tel Aviv player) told me that as long as I’ll concentrate in playing basketball and getting back home, then I’ll be fine”.
Two years after, Keeling left Israel and got back to Venezuela to Marinos Puerto La Cruz, which he lead to the championships. “In 1992 I got married with a local girl and got my citizenship. It hurt me, because in Venezuela local players get picked in a draft and in 1996, I was forced to sign with Toros de Argua, the worst team in the league, who picked me first in that year draft. I lead the league in points (30 ppg) and assists (6.2 apg) and brought them to the playoffs, but couldn’t do it all and we lost. It was a bit like Maccabi Ramat Gan. I was also a pretty lousy team”.
What is the secret of the Venezuelan league? So many Americans who played in Israel, continued playing there.
“A lot of players come to Venezuela after they finish the season in Israel, or other leagues in Europe (When Keeling played in France in the early 90’s, he used to finish the season in Venezuela for three straight years). As a pro, you need to keep in shape anyway, so you can give up a vacation and spend the summer playing in Venezuela. It’s like Eylat there, but bigger. There is a tropical climate, there are sea shores and exotic women. The basketball is fun, the level of play quite high and it’s much of a freestyle game, which is very different from the one played in Israel, with its complex schemes”.
“Israeli basketball was totally different from the way I play”, Keeling remembers, “I’m more of a wild player, one who take the ball to the basket and your style is based on shooting from the outside. I never had an outside shot. Avi Schiller (who Keeling recalls was throwing “thousands of three point shots” during workouts) and Lior Arditi were much better shooters than I was. Even Stan Mayhew who was an inside player was more accurate than me. I was much more athletic and score my points driving to the basket. Lay-ups and dunks are the best way to score points. I was lucky to play for Efi, who wanted us to play fast so everybody had opportunities to score, although naturally, me and Stan, had most of them”.
In general, it seems Keeling still has a lot of respect to Birenboim, current coach of Hapoel Tel Aviv. “Efi is probably the best coach I ever had. He let his players do what they are best at. Efi taught me that I have to give it all every game to win it. Since then, things came easy for me. In Israel it didn’t work out that way anymore and I had to give my best every time. Unfortunately, sometimes it wasn’t enough, especially when we played Maccabi Tel Aviv. I remember one time when we lead them by 20 points and we felt we can make it and beat them, but then the referees picked on me and I got into foul trouble. I had to sit on the bench, and when I came back it was too late. I was the core of the team that was pretty mediocre, although we managed to get to the cup’s final against Maccabi Tel Aviv”.
In Venezuela, Keeling got a taste of how it feels like being a serial champion. “after I got back to Puerto De La Cruz, I won three-four titles. It’s the Maccabi Tel Aviv Venezuela version, although there’s nothing really similar to Maccabi in the world. After I retired in the end of 2003 season, I went back to Venezuela this summer, since I was invited to a special event, where my jersey was retired. That was the biggest honor of my life. I’d like to have a similar respect in Ramat Gan, although I feel I haven’t do enough. I was the best scorer, but we couldn’t win the championship. Well, it’s impossible as long as Maccabi Tel Aviv is around”.
What was your impression of Israel?
“The truth is I was a bit disappointed from the Israeli way of life, especially when it comes to team cohesion. In Venezuela we do it all together all the time – playing, dining and going out. In Israel it was different. We finished practicing and everybody went back to his home. The team didn’t get me a car, so I was going to my apartment in Kfar Ha’msccabia by foot, and alone. I was bored. There was no cable TV back then in Israel, so I had no choice but to watch the Israeli channel, but it was all in Hebrew and couldn’t understand anything. I was watching ‘Super Book’ and ‘The Flying House’ on the Middle East TV (Two animation series about the bible and the New Testament broadcasted in the 80’s on METV). Those were children’s TV, but I had nothing else to watch”.
“At first it was really hard. I felt a little bit lonely and I knew no one. I didn’t know where the post office is, or where are the best restaurants in the area. I was lucky to meet Dorit, that was my neighbor and a basketball player for Ramat Chen’s women team. Dorit took me under her wing. She took care of me and helped me get around. I fell in love with her and I even took her with me for a vacation in the US. It was my way to show my gratitude for the trips in Eylat, Jerusalem, Beit Lechem and the other places”.
In Israel, the nationalized players never got to excited to play for the NT. What made you commit for Venezuela NT?
“I was invited to the national team in 1999 and there was no reason me to the decline it, although it’s another assignment. First of all, the season there is much shorter than in Israel, so it’s not that of a burden to give an extra of yourself. Another thing is that it was a big honor for me. It was the first time a nationalized player was invited for the team. And hey…We got a chance to play Argentina and the US teams every year. I personally had some opportunities to play against Ginobilli and I also garded Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, whom are all personal friends, like Steve Nash (Santa Clara graduate like Keeling) whom I played in our game against Canada”.
“In the World Championships in Indianapolis I didn’t played at all, because the coach wanted to give a chance for the younger players, but I was still in the roster because I was a part of the campaign and they wanted to respect me in that way. Buy the way, after all that, I still consider the best basketball performance I ever saw as the one Drazen Petrovic gave in Yad Eliyahoo. I saw him score 59 points against Hapoel Tel Aviv (Petrovic’s Croatian team, Cibona Zagreb, beat the Reds 103:93 in the European Cup Holders Cup in 1988). Stan (Mayhew) told me I have to see the guy and I didn’t believe him. It’s a shame he died so young in a car accident”.
You know that Kevin Magee also died in a car accident?
“Wow, I didn’t know that. He was the toughest and strongest player I ever met in Israel. Maybe it’s better Maccabi Ramat Gan never gave me a car. They were always driving too fast there in Israel”.