TALL TALE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Keith Closs didn't think twice when his fourth-grade teacher at the 24th Street School in Los Angeles asked her students to come to class dressed as the person they most admired.

"I chose Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]," Closs said. "I walked in with a tank top and a basketball.

"I had to give a description of who I was. I said I was 7-2 and played center for the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I remember it like it was yesterday. I had to stand up in front of the auditorium in front of everybody."

If Closs, 21, made the same presentation today it would be: I'm 7 feet 3 and I'm a rookie center for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Closs' eyes widen when he recalls meeting Abdul-Jabbar at the Lakers' 1988 NBA championship celebration at City Hall. Closs, who was 12, got a press pass from his mother, who works at City Hall.

"I loved it," Closs said. "It was a thrill. I got to speak to a lot of the guys and they were very nice to me."

And Abdul-Jabbar?

"He actually didn't speak a word to me," Closs said. "He was a very private person. But I've spoken to his mother and his father.

"One day I'd love to have him teach me that majestic skyhook. That's the most beautiful shot in the world."

Closs, who says his favorite book is Abdul-Jabbar's "Giant Steps," is making the giant step from a semi-pro league to the NBA.

Closs selected Abdul-Jabbar's number (33) after signing a five-year, $8.5-million, contract with the Clippers this summer. It's quite a raise from the $80 a game he made last year playing in the Atlantic Basketball Assn.

"I was very amazed," Closs said. "I thought I was going to be a multi-thousandaire. I didn't expect anything more than $450,000 at the most. For the next two weeks I was pinching myself to make sure that it wasn't a dream. I hope I never wake up. It can only get better and better."

Closs, who prefers warmups to designer suits, hasn't splurged. His biggest purchase was a pair of $600 diamond earrings. He hasn't bought a new car because he has never gotten a driver's license.

"I'm very conservative," Closs said. "I've been bad with money in the past because I'm not used to having it. I'm still not used to having it, but I'm better with saving my money. I basically act like I'm still broke.

"I'm not changing for anybody. I'm going to remain the same Keith Closs Jr. . . . Humble, modest, just happy to be here."

The Clippers signed Closs to a five-year contract even though he wasn't drafted after leaving Central Connecticut State in 1996 after two seasons, and even though he is so slender (220 pounds) he could probably put both of his legs in one leg of Stanley Roberts' shorts.

"I don't see it as a gamble because he played against NBA players in the summer league in L.A. and Utah and he played very well," Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor said. "Based on what we saw we're convinced he can play in this league. There were players that were drafted and no one ever saw them play against NBA players. I think Keith has more talent than some of the players who were drafted.

"There are centers in this league who are making as much or more money than Keith Closs who will not be as productive."

He spent last season with the Norwich (Conn.) Neptunes and averaged 13.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and a league-best five blocks in 12 games.

Closs, cut from the Baldwin Park Sierra Vista High team as a sophomore and junior although he was 6-8, has had to fight for everything.

"I was the last guy cut from the varsity team as a sophomore and the next year the coach told me not to even bother to come out," Closs said. "As soon as I walked in the gym he told me to leave. He said he had all the talent he needed. The tallest guy was 6-2 and he was the starting center. The coach got fired after they went 0-23."

Closs blossomed after joining an AAU team, drawing interest from Arizona, Oregon State and Michigan. However, he received few scholarship offers because of his grades.

Closs, who started skipping class after he was cut from his high school team, had to cram his final two years of high school into a year to graduate.

"I had to make up my junior year at the same time I was a senior, so I was going to school from 8 a.m. to 10 at night," Closs said.

"I graduated from summer school on Aug. 8, 1994, and the coach from Central Connecticut State was waiting outside the building for me to complete my final exam.

"I walked out with my pencil in hand and said, 'Hey, I'm a high school graduate.' "

Closs, who averaged 5.87 blocks in college to break David Robinson's NCAA record of 5.2 blocks, impressed the Clippers after playing well for the Lakers' summer league team, averaging 11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.4 blocked shots.

"I surprised myself, to be honest," Closs said. "I didn't know what to expect going into the summer. I had struggled at some previous camps and hadn't really come into my own as far as what I could do.

"But I finally managed to come out of my shell and start dominating. I felt comfortable and felt that I belonged."

A lifelong Laker fan, Closs dreamed of playing for the Lakers. But they were able to offer only $272,500 because of salary cap constraints.

"He's an instinctive shot blocker," Laker Executive Vice President Jerry West said. "He also runs the floor well and has great hands and great feet."

Offered contracts by Denver, Washington, Portland, Seattle, Boston and Golden State, Closs signed with the Clippers because they offered him the security of a long-term deal, which would give him time to develop.

Clipper Coach Bill Fitch, who couldn't keep Roberts from eating, has been pleased with Closs but wants him to gain weight, calling him a willow.

Closs is accustomed to jokes about his slender build.

"When I was a kid I was always teased," Closs said. "They called me Beanpole, Skinny Bones Jones, Toothpick and Twiggy.

"They even called me Howdy Doody because of my freckles. It doesn't bother me. I've heard these jokes since second grade.

"My parents gave me a good sense of who I am."

Closs has his mother's name, Tia, tattooed inside a basketball on his left arm.

"My two first loves are my mother and basketball," Closs said. "I know my mom and my family members really enjoyed seeing me finally achieve my goal to play in the NBA and to stay in Los Angeles."

Closs may turn out to be a bargain, given the way NBA salaries have escalated.

Although he's still unpolished, Closs has outplayed starting center Stojko Vrankovic, acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves for Roberts.

Closs, who leads the Clippers in rebounds and blocked shots after five exhibition games, has averaged 9.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and two blocked shots and shot 51.7%. Vrankovic has averaged 5.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, less than one block and shot 58.8%.

Closs says being left-handed gives him an edge in blocking shots.

"Most people bring the ball right to me because they're right-handed," Closs said. "They bring the ball right into my left hand. Most of the time I don't have to jump very much, just put my hand up."

But Fitch, who is reluctant to start rookies and usually tempers compliments with cynical criticism, doesn't plan to start Closs.

When Closs had 13 rebounds and blocked a shot by Bryant Reeves to seal a victory over the Vancouver Grizzlies on Oct. 11, Fitch said he was not impressed.

"After one exhibition game, he's ready to play in the next exhibition game," Fitch said.

Giant steps? Sometimes little steps must come first.

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