by Dennis Principe
If someone’s keeping a list of the greatest imports who played for only one conference in the PBA, Harold Keeling will surely be one of the top choices of that list.
The then 23-year-old Keeling was tapped to play alongside another prolific 6-foot-5 import Michael Young as Manila Beer’s American duo for the Brewmasters in the 1986 Open Conference that requires teams to hire two imports with a maximum combined ceiling of 12ft and eight inches.
Before campaigning here, Keeling was part of the Dallas Mavericks for almost a season but had a minuscule role on that team.
When told about the Philippine offer, the 6-foot-3 Keeling immediately grabbed the opportunity as he saw it as a way to experience how to become a star on a professional team.
“I was not a major player in the NBA so I was not scoring a lot of points,” said Keeling during a telephone interview with The Bulletin/Tempo “I knew I could score a lot there so I had fun going to the Philippines because I became an important part of the team and it was better than sitting on the bench in the NBA.”
Initially, Manila Beer team manager Andy Jao had a chance to tap one of two well-known imports, the volatile Dexter Shouse and seven-time best import Bobby Parks, to team up with Young.
“That would have been a super strong team with Michael Young and Bobby Parks but I felt my team needed a point guard so Harold, being a point guard, was highly recommended by my friends who were scouts in San Francisco,” said Jao. “I also thought Parks and Shouse were both around 6-5 so we would go over the limit.”
Having the core of the defunct Crispa squad in Abet Guidaben, Yoyoy Villamin, Atoy Co, Lim Eng Beng together with Toyota mainstays Ed Cordero and Tim Coloso, the Brewmasters had the materials to become one of the top squads of the seven-team 1986 season.
After a fruitless first two conferences, the Brewmasters reversed their fortunes in the season-ending tournament, largely because of Keeling’s efficiency in orchestrating the team’s offense and the explosive scoring of Young who was eventually named Best Import of the tournament.
What Keeling introduced to the PBA was some sort of an innovation as rarely do Filipino basketball fans see point guards who were taller than 6-foot-3 around that time.
Keeling was Magic Johnson-esque, dribbling with his back to the basket while being guarded by smaller guards of opposing teams, his head turning from left to right trying to look for the best moment to pass the ball to an open teammate.
“He was what exactly what our scouts told us, a good stamina that allowed him to become a good passer, a great leaper and good defender and it helped us a lot that he had a great personality,” said Jao.
Manila Beer and Ginebra were the two outright semifinalists that conference which both the Brewmasters and the Ginebras easily dominated.
The Ginebra-Manila Beer championship match-up was a highly-anticipated clash as the Keeling-Young tandem were set to go up against what is perhaps the league’s most potent import alliance, bar none – Michael Hackett and Billy Ray Bates.
Keeling vividly remembered Game One of that Finals where he and Young played their best game as a duo but still went on to lose after Bates scored on a buzzer-beating dunk to tally a 135-133 squeaker for Ginebra.
“Michael scored 50 points and I scored 50 points and we still lost by two points. We were in the car going back to the hotel and we just looked at each other and told each other what else we had to do?,” said Keeling.
Ginebra went on to win the series, 4-1 but the title showdown is considered as one of the most memorable skirmishes the league has seen owing to the quality of imports that saw action in that setto.
Meantime, despite Keeling’s seemingly outstanding plays, the New Orleans-born dribbler was actually less than 100% the whole time he was here.
“He got injured in practice and he never fully recovered from that injury. His explosiveness during the pre-season did not come out that much in the tournament proper,” revealed Jao. “His quickness in penetrating to the basket was his forte but we were very happy with him. No complaints about him because even our players, they liked him.”
Apart from having a relatively successful PBA campaign, Keeling enjoyed his Philippine stint also because of the wonderful treatment he got from the Manila Beer management that allowed him to relish the beauty of the country.
“I remember going to shopping all the time. That was one thing, we bought a lot of tailor-made suits and I remember riding a jeepney three or four times. I remember going to Cebu, to Boracay,” recalled Keeling.
“We had a driver, his name is Ernie. He made sure he kept us out of trouble in traffic and took us to shopping malls all the time in Greenhills and Ali Mall,” added Keeling.
Keeling wanted to come back but the Brewmasters unexpectedly disbanded after the 1986 season. In 22 games, Keeling averaged 35.6 points (55% FG shooting), 8.1 rebounds, 7.5 assist, 2.2 steals and 1.6 blocks.
“I was ready to come back but they require 6’6” imports. After a year I had a chance to play in France for four years and Israel for two years before settling in Venezuela where I played for 12 or 13 years,” said Keeling.
A father to three lovely kids whose mother is a native of Venezuela, Keeling currently works as Chief Financial Officer of the Atlanta-based Rowley Residence Group Homes, a non-profit organization that provides shelter and essential guidance for homeless kids.
“I’m not surprised that he is involved in that because when he played for us, he made his teammates look better and most importantly, he was a very nice guy. A great personality with a great smile,” said Jao.
Now 53 years old, Keeling also conducts basketball camps in their area and was once a Spanish teacher in Venezuela.
WATNow (Where Are They Now) is an MB Sports Online series that recalls the great achievements of sports heroes and how they are doing at present.
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