Adam Keefe: A Competitive Passion

From the Archives

A Competitive Passion

By Dan Sorensen

Adam KeefeAdam Keefe chalks up the cue stick, hunches across the pool table and knocks the green six ball into the side pocket.

It's one o'clock in the morning, the game against Denver over more than three hours ago, but here's Keefe at John's house (as in Stockton) racking 'ern up, and instead of big balls into hoops, they're shooting little ones into pockets.

"Our schedule is so funny," says Keefe. "It takes a while after a game for all the chemical changes to leave your body."

You might think Keefe and his teammates would unwind by potatoing out in front of the tube instead of keeping the adrenaline going at the pool table. But professional athletes are nothing if not competitive. Put them in a situation with no games or contests near at hand, and they will invent one. Waiting for a charter, someone bets Hornecek he can't hit a four iron over a row of cars in the distance; Horny drops a Titleist on the tarmac and rifles it into the night air. It's still rising as it clears the cars. Everything is a contest of some sort. Sometimes the contest is man against nature — during the season, Keefe might go pheasant shooting with Jerry Sloan, Greg Foster and the Mailman down past Provo and during the off-season, Adam and Karl and Tag go fishing up in Alaska. In Keefe's photo gallery there's a picture of him dressed in camouflage jacket and red Stanford hooded sweatshirt, standing with Malone in front of a waterfall at Wolverine Creek. "Look behind us in the background. See those Alaskan brown bears up on the rocks? They had just finished eating. They were stuffed with salmon."

Not all off-court contests are physical:  Adam and his friend John do the USA Today crossword puzzle when they're on the road, and Adam is currently tutoring his bride, Kristin, in the most brutal contest of all — chess. "That was a wedding present," he says, pointing across the living room to a black and pink marble chess board. "I started playing chess when I was six," he says. "My grand-mother taught me."

As a kid, Keefe was into competition of all sorts. "I loved any sport," he says. At the moment he is lounging on a beige sofa in the house he and Kristin bought in September. The house has high ceilings, washed oak floors, and open vistas of the mountains and valley. "I was always tall. In high school, I made the varsity as a freshman, even though I wasn't very good. But I kept improving. I was 6-4 as a sophomore, and by the time I was a senior I was 6-8 and 225 pounds."

Adam Keefe
Keefe's favorite sport was actually football. "But I was too skinny to really play. I weighed only 140 sophomore year. When I put on weight, the coaches begged me to suit up." He allows himself a rare chuckle. "They said all I'd have to do was go in as a wide receiver for a couple of plays a game to catch a pass." The coaches probably made the wrong appeal:  On the playground, Keefe always preferred playing defense, not glamour positions such as wide receiver.

"I like the intensity of football, the full physical contact." Keefe's passion for football is the logical analogue to his longtime interest in military affairs. Basketball, of course, like most sports, does have its military aspects — you attack the basket, you shoot the ball, you fire a pass, and a player who shoots at random is branded a gunner. But football, with its territorial battles, aerial attacks, blitzes and bombs, is the preeminent athletic equivalent to war. It is football, therefore, that most strikes a chord with Keefe, student of military war-fare and reader of techno-thrillers and war sagas.

"My dad was a career Marine a colonel in the infantry," says Keefe, explaining the genesis of his military bent. At Stanford Keefe majored in political science, with an emphasis on military history. In one course, Political Science 143K, he wrote a 25-page treatise on Rally Effects in Recent U.S. Military Operations (he sneaked into the athletic department to type the paper on the office Mac computer). "Rally effects refer to increases in a President's approval ratings following a military operation like Panama or Grenada," says Keefe. As he talks he tugs the sleeve of his blue hooded sweatshirt over his fist and perches a sweat sock-clad foot on the edge of the sofa. To gain public support, according to Keefe, a military operation must be specific, dramatic and sharply focused. And most important, it must involve an international episode, creating an "us and them" conflict.

Keefe himself is reluctant to press a sports-military metaphor, but the criteria for public support of a military operation sound a lot like an athletic contest, especially the Us against Them. In the 19th century, the philosopher William James lamented the lack of what he called "the moral equivalent of war," something less destructive than warfare that would answer the "competitive passion" of human nature. Were philosopher James alive today and still spry enough to wander into the Delta Center, he would certainly declare his search for the moral equivalent of war at long last ended. The opening anthem, the alarm before battle, the colorful uniforms, the strenuous conflict, the obedience to command, the surrender of private interest — all engage and rally the public to cheer the troops toward victory.

Keefe, as I say, declines to make overt comparisons between war and basketball. He will admit that "both require discipline, and in both you have to do things right." But military analogies are so ingrained that we hardly notice the prevalence of terms of war; Keefe himself falls back on military metaphors when discussing basketball. Of Jeff Hornacek's recent five three-pointers against the Nuggets, Keefe says, "It was a barrage." Of his dropping from 245 to 225 pounds during his first season with the Jazz, he says: "I've become a stealthier player."

Off the court Keefe is an inveterate reader of military books, novels and non-fiction alike. "I read two or three books at a time," he says. "It gives me a different font for my eyes." He reads Harold Coyle, Tom Clancy, W.E.B. Griffin, and Dale Brown. The novels depict invasions, rescues, sabotage, and narrowly averted global catastrophes. Acronyms for military hardware are scattered across nearly every page:  NIRTSat, MUTES, MFDs, BUFF bombers, AGM-84 SLAM TV guided missiles, and AN/APQ - 181 multi-mode radar. "The techno-thrillers were better in the 80s when there was still the Cold War. Now they have to write about drug lords." In other words, not as good as Us against Them.

Keefe is currently reading Clancy's Executive Orders, in which President Jack Ryan must calm an anxious and grieving nation in addition to arranging a massive state funeral for everyone wiped out in an attack on Washington. Keefe is also in the middle of Slouching Toward Gomorrah, Robert Bork's indictment of liberalism in America, and Roger Morris's Partners in Power, an account of Bill and Hillary's road to the White House. Both books were recommended by former basketball player, frequent courtside spectator, and present U.S. Senator, the Honorable Orrin Hatch, who has befriended Keefe.

Adam Keefe
"It's great to have someone in that kind of position take an interest in you," says Keefe. "He's easy to talk to." It's still a long way off, but Keefe says politics is a possibility. "Not a politician, but someone out of the spotlight. My dream job would be something in the Cabinet — maybe national security advisor." To prepare himself for such a future post, Keefe takes other books on the road besides the techno-thrillers. Two such volumes are From Sea to Shining Sea by Robert Leckie, and Great Land Battles by Col. J.D. Morelock.

But Keefe doesn't spend all his time off the court reading military books. "I love to sleep," he says, grinning. "We'll get home late when we travel, and then we get up a few hours later to practice. So we sleep in the afternoon. Before games I always take a nap." Keefe pauses and grins again. "Don't ever call me on the afternoon before a game."

Keefe climbs out of the sofa and pads in his white sweat socks across the oriental rug to the large picture window. He points up the steep mountain, on this January afternoon obscured by clouds at the summit. "I go hiking up there, all the way to the ridge. I like the privacy of it." Keefe has never wanted to be defined solely by his basketball, but when you are as big as he is, even strangers take you for a player. It must be a relief to move in an environment where you're no longer conspicuous, an environment, moreover, whose scale is commensurate with your own.

As in everything else, Keefe turns his mountain climbing into a contest, making like a mountain goat along the rocks and ridges. "I like the adventure of it. When I’m through with basketball, I'll do more of it, like climbing Mt. Whitney in California with my brother. We did an overnight climb last year, with ice picks and everything. Fourteen thousand feet. Ed's a real climber, he's rugged. I like it too, but I also like my comforts."

For the time being, Keefe ventures out of his comfort zone by exploring abandoned silver mines in the mountains above his house. "I only go in the ones that are stable. You take a light in for fifty yards or so. You can still see the old rails for the mining cars." One day Keefe and a friend discovered a mine that had been covered with boulders. "We could see it across the ridge line, a black shape there in the rocks. We hiked down to it and dug out the entrance."

Sometimes Kristin accompanies Adam on his treks up the mountain. Their longest hike was along the Na Pali Coast on Kauai during their honeymoon to Hawaii last August. "It's a great hike, 15 miles right through the area where they filmed Jurassic Park and the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You have to get a permit, and they drop you off in a boat. You get back on your own. It was an adventure.

Keefe is fully aware of his good fortune as a player in the NBA and the resources available to him now and in the future. But life is not just one adventure after another. “We have to do all the ordinary things. We have to go to the store and go to the post office. We go sledding in Big Cottonwood Canyon. If you stay in and try to avoid being seen, you just make it harder on yourself. Then you get people chasing you."

“But we don't go out to eat that much. Maybe because on the road we're always eating in restaurants. But Kristin and I both love to cook." At the moment, in fact, the makings for a taco dinner are laid out on a kitchen counter — lean ground beef, tortilla shells, and seasonings mix.

The good life made possible by Keefe's accomplishments as an athlete also brings with it some very mundane chores. Dusk brings a veritable herd of deer down the mountain to the Keefe residence, and the pleasure of watching them graze is countered by the drudgery of scooping up droppings that blanket the back lawn.

The good humor displayed by Keefe in describing his battle with deer droppings is rarely on display on the basketball floor. It is alleged that he once actually smiled during a game:  The provocation was a referee delivering a ball to him on the free throw line with an underhanded volleyball hit. Keefe's earnest demeanor on the court is deliberate. "I like to stay focused. You can't leave mentally. You have to stay in the game. Even on the bench I stay focused. That's why I sit right on the edge of the bench."

Adam Keefe
To say that Keefe is more easygoing and good-humored off the court is not, however, to say that he is a wild and crazy guy. He's still pretty earnest, someone who thinks before he talks and gives a straight and well-considered answer. He doesn't flaunt his intelligence, but he doesn't hide it, either. On a tour of his new house, Keefe is the gracious host, escorting a guest through rooms decorated with discreet elegance and good taste. There in the study is an antique roll-top oak desk with cubbyhole and custom-finished file drawers. There's the antique oak file cabinet and the oak swivel chair with a mythological griffin hand-pressed into the leather back. "And look at the bottom of this," says Keefe. "Ball-bearings instead of wheels on the legs." At the bottom of the staircase stands a dark walnut hall tree, circa 1865, with the original glass. Downstairs is an antique washbasin. "Jerry has helped us out a lot in looking for furniture." Jerry, of course, is Jerry Sloan, noted antique collector and occasional basketball coach. "He really knows his stuff," says Keefe.

On the walls around the pool table are photo collages of family and friends. In the center of one are the beaming faces Kristin and Stockton in their white Olympic fedoras. The most striking image in the room is a Team Forstner poster of Kristin, resplendent and aloft in sunshine, spiking a volleyball. More photos of Kristin and Adam in action line the downstairs hallway, off of which lie guest bedrooms.  "We get a lot of visits from family," says Keefe. His father now works for Hughes Aircraft and his mother teaches special education in Santa Ana.

In the TV room is a big screen surrounded by speakers larger than those in most cineplexes. A carpenter friend did some custom molding around the screen the Keefe’s installed. The green marble fireplace matches the green marble bar, upon which sit a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels and an unopened bottle of Goldschlager. Keefe gestures toward the bar, “The whisky's for the father-in-law." On the way upstairs Keefe points out a flexible blue sports-cord lying limp on a coffee table.  "That's for my legs." It's the only visible piece of exercise equipment in the house.

There's a game the next day, Keefe might head up the mountain for a hike. Instead he might settle down in front of his Bushnell 340 Rotary Power telescope and scan the valley below. "I can read the letters on water tanks in the Oquirrhs. And we can read from here what's playing at the movies at the Family Center on Fort Union Boulevard."

That Bushnell 340 looks powerful enough to see what's playing twenty years into the future. Maybe National Security Advisor Keefe coming back to Salt Lake to visit Jazz owner Stockton in his secluded suite at the Delta Center.  Mayor Malone might come by to watch the game, and afterwards Coach Hornacek will join them for a game of pool.