Rudy Keeling could make people listen to him as he listened to them, say those who mourned his passing last week at age 66. Keen mind, sharp wit. Sincere smile. He had the gift of bringing people together on a basketball court or off.
Media that announced his death listed his accomplishments and his coaching record. That Keeling was the first African-American head coach at the University of Maine in 1988 was ignored, save for its inclusion in the obituary written with the information provided by his family.
Was the color of his skin and his stature on the Maine campus not significant?
“It was to me,” said Ed Jones. “Twenty-three, 24 years ago, it played a role in my decision to come to Maine. It made a difference.”
Jones was a high school talent in Rockford, Ill., and he is black. As a young teenager he was bused from an inner city school of mostly minority students to a high school that was mostly white. By his senior year he had seven college offers, including one from Maine. In 1990, he was the first black MVP in his school’s conference.
Jones learned Keeling was a child of New York City’s Harlem in the 1960s. That was a time when the fight for civil rights was still being fought with bloodshed. Keeling understood that his first collegiate head coaching job would be in a state with very few black faces.
That didn’t deter the new basketball coach. He told Jones and the other black student-athletes he recruited their skin color shouldn’t deter them.
“It was kind of an adventure,” said Jones. “This was the start of hip-hop. I had a flat top (hair) and a lot of gold chains. My first day of class I looked up and saw everybody looking at me.
“I was an honor student but at Maine people wanted to know which team I played for. I was Ed Jones, the basketball player. After a while, people got to know me as Ed Jones.” The person.
Jones certainly wasn’t the first black athlete on campus and Keeling wasn’t the first black coach. Tim Wilson was an assistant coach on Walt Abbott’s football staff some 20 years earlier. Keeling’s appointment was a statement.
“Every state school reflects its state,” said Jones. “If you wanted to find (racial) trouble, you could. I didn’t go find it. Rudy helped me feel comfortable as a person.”
As head coach, Keeling was the face of his program.That he was going through something similar wasn’t lost on his players, black and white. Francois Bouchard, the Old Orchard Beach High School star who finished his high school career at Cheverus, had several college options. Connecticut and UCLA were interested. Florida, too.
“I really did want to stay home and play for Maine, represent my state,” said Bouchard.
In Keeling, Bouchard found a man who was consistently fair. “He talked to the last guy on the bench the same he talked to the superstar.
“He was a great teacher,” said Bouchard. “He took a lot of guff because his first teams didn’t win more but then we set the school record for most wins (20 in 1990-94). He was real good at getting players from different backgrounds to play together. It just took a little time.”
After Maine, Bouchard spent 13 seasons playing pro basketball in France, marrying a Frenchwoman and starting a family. He’s back in Maine, guiding bass fishermen to the best spots in the state.
Jones joined the coaching staff of John Giannini after Keeling left for a new job at Northeastern. Later, Jones became the head coach of the Maine Central Institute prep team in Pittsfield. Several years ago he left coaching and moved to Atlanta.
“(Keeling’s) strength was he really challenged you,” said Jones. “He made you believe you could do anything possible.
“We had players with two parents, some with one parent, and one player with no parents. Terry Hunt lost both. (Keeling) was a father to all of us. Even when he left for Northeasternn (in 1996), he stayed in touch with Terry.”
Hunt scored his 1,000th point against Northeastern. After Hunt got the game ball, he walked across the court and placed it in Keeling’s hands.
“That relationship was special for a lot of us,” said Jones. “I’d say 80 percent of his players still kept in touch with him.”
Keeling, says Jones, told his players to be loyal to the school first. For many, black and white, the University of Maine was Rudy Keeling.