First of all, we want to extend a huge thank you to Steven Bo Keeley for spending time with us back in February exchanging emails in a fun question and answer session about the great game of racquetball. We hope to connect with him again soon for another installment.
We kick off the Q & A with a quick biography of Mr. Keeley, taken from Wikipedia. We hope you enjoy!
Steven Bo Keeley, born in February 1949, was one of the top three racquetball players in the world from 1971 to 1976 and in the top ten until 1979, while winning seven NPA National Paddleball Titles. Keeley won the National Paddleball Singles Championship in 1971, 1973, 1974, 1976 and 1977. He captured the National Paddleball Doubles Championship in 1974 with Len Baldori and in 1976 with Andy Homa. Keeley was the second player in history to win a Professional Racquetball Tournament after Steve Serot, when he defeated Charlie Brumfield 21-8, 21-17 in the finals of the NRC Long Beach Pro Am in October 1973. Keeley won the Canadian National Racquetball Singles Championship in November 1974 defeating Bud Muehleisen in the final. Keeley won his last Professional Racquetball Title in 1980 defeating Marty Hogan 21-5, 21-6 in the finals of the Voight Championship in Los Angeles. During his racquetball career, he defeated every US National Singles Champion from 1968–82, and every professional champion of his era including ex-housemates Marty Hogan, Charlie Brumfield and Bud Muehleisen, as well as, Bill Schultz, Bill Schmidtke, Craig Finger, Davey Bledsoe and Mike Yellen.
Keeley grew up in Idaho and Michigan, and graduated in 1972 with a DVM from Michigan State University (MSU). His father was an electrical and later nuclear engineer, and mother a Welcome Wagon activist as the family moved through fifteen cities in as many years to settle in Jackson, Michigan. Steven Keeley won the Jackson Junior Chess Championship, and, at MSU, multiple intramural sports championships for Farmhouse Fraternity to place them first in the all-fraternity competition for the first time in 100 years. After veterinary school he moved to California where a bureaucratic licensing issue caused him to seek a sports career in professional racquetball and paddleball, in which he gained national prominence.
He became one of the game’s foremost instructors and an author during the 1970s golden era with approximately 100 articles published in Ace, IRA Racquetball, National Racquetball and other trade magazines. In 2002, he refused induction into the USRA Hall of Fame, where incumbent inductees credited him with instructing their games. He was the 2003 racquetball historian and psychologist for the Legends pro tour, and the same year co-invented (with Scott Hirsch) Hybrid Racquetball using a racquetball with wood paddleball paddles.
He wrote what many have called the Bible of the sport, Complete Book of Racquetball (1976, 200,000 sold), and opened racquetball doors in every state, Central and South America with hundreds of clinics and exhibitions, once beating Miss World runner-up with a Converse tennis shoe in a Sports Illustrated exhibition, and others with a seven-inch mini-racquet. Keeley was a stroke and strategy trendsetter, and the first apparel-sponsored pro, flaunting multicolored Converse Chucks tennis shoes. He was featured in Sports Illustrated and other publications as an unusual combination of athlete, intellectual, and 'flake.'
JJ: What are your first memories of playing racquetball and your first impressions of the game?
BK: The first time I heard of racquetball was in the summer of 1971 which I refer to as my 'Summer of Ceiling Balls' when Charlie Brumfield and I invented, or at least made that shot, a part of the game. I had beaten Charlie for the Paddleball Nationals a few months earlier, and so like a good scout he drove from San Diego to Michigan to stay and play ball with me that summer at Lansing so it wouldn't happen again. He came out to play paddleball, and we did daily, after my veterinary school classes, when suddenly one afternoon Charlie piped, “Bud Muehleisen is sending us out some racquets to start racquetball.” I answered, “What's racquetball?” He said, “Wait and see.” The racquets arrived and that was my introduction to the game, with one who was to become the first legend with 21 national titles. We were playing about even at MSU that year.
My first impression of the game was that I preferred paddleball, which was chess with sweat, but that I’d give racquetball, which was bumper cars in a small space, a chance. I transitioned to it quickly and in a matter of one month got as good as I ever played.
JJ: How much do you follow professional racquetball today?
BK: In the autumn of my career, in the early 1980s, after a successful and fun ten-year career as one of the first racquetball professional players, I went cold turkey on racquetball. When I played, I played hard. And then I went on to other things, and played hard, at hoboing freight trains and world travel. The only time I recall looking back was once over the California desert on a bumping boxcar when the racquetball flew out the door, and that was the end of a game I had just invented, boxcar racquetball.
After I left the sport in the early eighties, there was no contact until one spring afternoon in 2003, sitting in a sweltering attic near the Encinitas, California beach, waiting for an income tax refund to roll in and wondering what else to do. Out of the blue the phone rang and a gentleman, with obviously large frontal lobes from the sound of his voice, invited me to Florida to tour with the Legends Racquetball Tour as a consultant and historian. I was also the group coach, father figure, guy Friday, everything but their proctologist. The game had changed to hard hitting with the big racquets, and I toured for a year with Swain, Sudsy, Hogan, Peck, Gonzales, Mike Ray, and a few I’m forgetting. I can tell you with certainty, those guys know their stuff.
When the tour turned belly up, I left back to the same travel itinerary around the world to what would sum to 105 countries the hard way, under a backpack, just to see what's there. I suggest this lifestyle to any curious pro in any sport in retirement. I forgot again about racquetball for years, until recently in 2013 when I paused in Miami on the way to the Amazon, and stuck there. I stuck like Tom Hanks in Airport in a single building for nearly a year 24-7 writing 14 hours a day, mostly on racquetball. I wrote and published Charlie Brumfield: King of Racquetball, Chess and Sport, Racquetball's Best: Pros Speak from the Box, and the infamous, scuttled title Advanced Racquetball.
Advanced Racquetball was actually 40 years in the making, and promised in my early best-selling (200,000 copies) The Complete Book of Racquetball. The sequel was completed, all 825 pages with 400 photos, and sits in storage at amazon.com, waiting for me to push the hot button to activate it for public consumption. However, over the years racquetball has changed, but I hadn't. So I worked like Sisyphus on the book for thousands of hours, and then shrugged like Atlas and withdrew it from the public. The single published copy will be in possession of the US Racquetball Museum. For a complete explanation of the little scenario see http://www.dailyspeculations.com/wordpress/?p=10007. That's Marty Hogan, my apprentice, on the cover, not me.
JJ: What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the sport's growth?
BK: I’ve given it some thought, and queried some of the best thinkers in the game, and come up with my own conclusion. Racquetball is dying in America and, witness the Latin invasion into the pro ranks owning 8 of the top 10 spots the last time I looked. I’m the webmaster of the largest Facebook page RacquetBall that's maxed out at 5000, and it should become bilingual. I started Facebook Racquetball Museum US and it's maxed out, likewise, predominantly by Latins. Latins have a verve for life and racquetball fits it to a T. I know this from having done the first Latin clinic tour in the early 1980s through Mexico, Central, and South America when there were a handful of gentry playing in each capital city. I was the Johnny Appleseed of Latin racquetball, and Jeff Leon succeeded me as the pioneer coach, taking it to a new height. I think racquetball headquarters should be moved south of the border, and then you will see things happen. It could be a repeat of the Golden Era of the sport that I went through where everyone - players, sponsors, the government - jumped on the bandwagon. Latin American governments treat their sport champs, including racquetball, as heroes, and where the heroes go that's where the fans and money follows.
Here are some other opinions on the challenges facing racquetball and how to overcome them, excerpted from Advanced Racquetball. You have permission to use it.
“The pace of the game will continue to increase because of better racquet technology and a bigger pool of stronger players.” - Corey Brysman
“Don’t regulate or standardize racquets. Let innovations take the game to new levels. In general, the game is too fast because of the ball. Keep the one-serve rule to start rallies to keep spectators and entice television. It also takes a lot of pressure off the referee in calling faults at 170 mph a hair from the short line. The change to the one-serve rule has been at a sacrifice to my own game, but it’s for the better of the sport. Professionalism by each player, ref, and director should be raised to a level comparable to tennis and golf. Sportsmanship will trickle by example from the pros and legends down to the youth and body of players. We need heroes, not villains.” - Mike Ray
“Ultimately, it will be the same as golf where they have to put restrictions on the equipment that over time has created an imbalance in the offense and defense of the players on the court causing the core of the game to suffer.” - Charlie Brumfield
“Get the game on TV and bring in more money. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Also, what happens if you take a 2”x 8” lumber in standard 10’ lengths, and put two together horizontally across the front wall to form a $20 collapsible, squash-like tin that’s installed or removed in a minute? The game changes to hard hits without kills for longer sweating rallies and greater spectator appeal. We’re missing the boat, and I say this as the self-proclaimed all-time best at a sport I’m trying to demolish for the good of the future game. Now we’re trying to appeal to the limited racquetball population, but should aim for the ignorant millions who don’t give a ding-bang if there’s a tin but will watch and play more once they feel the excitement.” – Sudsy Monchik
“The older game with smaller racquets and slower balls demanded better stroke mechanics, execution and strategies. The modern game with hi-tech equipment brings up the level of the general play. So, today’s more powerful players should remember their source, and I’ve seen both sides. The future? We’ll never go back to the small racquets, but we should think about a slower or larger ball to regain the old game virtues.” - Marty Hogan
“I see more youth and power down the line.” - Ruben Gonzalez
“The Louisiana Racquetball Association has some creative works that I hope other states have or will launch as grassroots racquetball programs. The first is a beginning racquetball program at schools and colleges. We started from scratch in intramural programs at high schools, including one at a catholic high school. The catholic schools are big, connected and competitive and we hope the recent program will branch. I simply approach the athletic departments at the schools or colleges and they point me to the right person in the intramural department. The reception has been good, and the programs successful. The biggest selling point is to get kids onto the court, like putting food in front of hungry people. Then I line up free clinics to really introduce them to the sport. These can be done by local players, though Wilson graciously sends Derek Robinson on a nationwide 80-stops per year ‘Big D Road Show’ of free 2-hour clinics. Another grassroots approach is into the boy scouts and girl scouts. We just presented racquetball alongside other activities like volleyball and kayaking into the Louisiana girl scout camps, and our sport was voted the number one pick by the girls. So, you see, with strong beginnings by state organizations made up of dedicated individuals, racquetball can spread like wildfire.” - Charles Lee, President of the Louisiana Racquetball Association
“Two things can improve the general sport: More grassroots juniors development as the crop of the future, and more state organizations that along with the various associations and tours may come under one umbrella. In my ideal world of professional racquetball, the ball or racquet is slowed a bit a la car racing and baseball where there’s enforcement of rules to keep the sport where they want it. Electronics may invade the game with big scoreboards, ‘tattle’ tape’ foot fault and short lines, a sensor band for skips, in-court GPS and speed gun, with front wall camera portals and instant replays flashed on a wall. It’s a great game that’s had success, and can move along with the care of enough people.” - Jim Spittle
“The Japanese have an innovative and abbreviated round robin method of tournament draw where each entrant is placed in two draws of 32, or two draws of 64, and the winners of each play in the finals.” - Jeff Leon
“I would like to see the game grow south of the American border, and north as well, of course. But I’m a proud representative of the Latin American racquetball players, and want more people to love the game as I do. Racquetball is played throughout Mexico, with pockets in Chihuahua, Mexico City… and I hope more spring up. The main change should be in how we promote the sport in where it’s played and who the sponsors are. Large sponsors like Coca-Cola, Corona Beer or Marriott Hotels should put up about a million dollars a year to have their name advertised in a 20-stop season tour for 50 grand per tournament in expenses and prize money, and played at sites other than court clubs such as the malls.” - Alvaro Beltran
“I would like to see, at the pro level at least, the game taken out of the court clubs and into the beach, malls, fantasy parks for the masses. This would evoke the most dramatic shift in the history of the sport. On the court, I predict it will become more of a contact game. You’re going to have to create space because guys are so fast these days. You’ll have to physically post and block to create an open court for the kill that can’t be reached.” - Derek Robinson
“I’d like to see a portable court suitable for television, and the game taken out of the health clubs and into malls, theaters, Disneyland and Grand Central Station. These are places where there are already lots of people, and you get the ‘billboard effect’ of being witnessed by many passersby. I disagree that a squash-type tin should be installed and, in fact, think the ceiling should be taken out so there’s constantly exciting rallies. There could be fans up there to catch the out-of-park balls and not feel so isolated from the people.” - Cliff Swain
“The good of the game depends much on a correct, standardized teaching format, because as the new players learn, so will they teach the future generations. As this skill rises among the playing population, the interest in the sport will escalate, more facilities will arise, and all that goes with it.” – Dave Peck
“It started with the ‘pro’ ball made by Seamco that was green and identified the pro circuit. There were many other reasons however, why the ball got faster and faster. The major reason started on the court before every game because, you’ll remember, there were so many different kinds of balls that players getting together to play would hold two balls head high and drop them… They always took the ball that bounced the highest. Also, the balls were pressurized and began to go flat after opening. You’ll recall we used to keep flat balls soaked in hot water to exchange every few points to keep the pressure up. The underlying problem was that everybody wanted to hit it harder and faster, and people begin to forget what bounce actually produced the best rally for the good of the game. The ball got livelier and the rallies shorter. Later, the bigger racquets were introduced but the ball really didn't change, and the pace of the ball got faster and faster. It's called progress?” - Dr. Bud Muehleisen
“There will be good changes in the coming decade in the game’s organization and actual play. I think the various present organizations (men’s pro, women’s pro, amateur sector, intercollegiate, etc.) should be brought under one umbrella for the purpose of smooth, synergistic progress. Once everyone’s on a single ball, television has to be brought into the sport to turn around a losing battle. On the court, we’ll see more superior athletes, and I would like to see the equipment change to slow the rallies back so the intellectuals and control players have an equal hand to compete. I don’t think the racquets are going to get smaller or less powerful, but there can and should be ball slowing via internal pressure, size or thickness. The one-serve rule returns a pleasant control element from older days that I suspect will enter all divisions except the youngest who need two serves.” - Jim Hiser
“A re-examination of what works and what needs to change, and ACTION. There is too much talk, too many great ideas, but not enough follow through. This sport is great, and it should be shared with the masses, not just continue to be confined to our little racquetball family.” - Rhonda Rajsich
“I have always thought that a 4-wall racquetball court should be similar in size to a Jai-alai fronton court or Irish hardball handball alley. The racquets can become weapons in the untrained player's hand.” - Andrew Hollan
“Get a consistent and widely accepted ball and stay with it. The game needs to go back to the rally with 8-12 exchanges at least. Then the chess-like dimension will return. Serve and shoot is not fun to watch.” – Davey Bledsoe
“Better IRF. Exposure, take the portable courts to the streets. Very few people (outside racquetball) are going to know that the "best" tournament is going on underground at an LA Fitness, for example.” – Susy Acosta
“Get people who have more interest in growing up the sport instead of growing themselves financially.” - Cristina Amaya Cassino
“I'll say this, I love indoor much more than outdoor, but I believe in the outdoor game as a spectator sport more than indoor. I believe in outdoors sustainability so much more than indoor because you're outdoors and that's all that needs to be said of that!” - John Ellis
“Racquetball will find growth in outdoor. We also need to get more juniors involved. The racquetball heyday is this new generation, and their children and growth. It’s time to wake up and introduce the game to youth.” - Charlie Pratt
“For racquetball to succeed the game must slow down to allow the masses to once again be able to pick up the game quickly and enjoy. Plus, it will actually be exercise.” - Dave Fleetwood
“Tell you what... I recently watched a short YouTube clip of a match between two top pros. I watched and I was bored. I became less of a racquetball fan after seeing that the game was going too fast, especially after I started playing squash which is almost nonstop action! Drives me nuts to watch these guys bouncing the ball all over the court, extending the downtime, with too much time between rallies and not enough time during the rallies. Racquetball should take a lesson from squash.” - Brian Hawkes
“It is a little paradoxical, but slowing the ball down would actually make the players move more and more quickly. What was exciting in the slow ball era was watching the pros give each other tours of the court with fantastic acrobatics. I will leave that up to the future of racquetball to decide.” - Rich Wagner
“We have to popularize it with the youth. We need a lot of help there.” - Cheryl Gudinas
“I teach junior tennis as well. When juniors start out in tennis, they go through 4 balls that bounce differently until they get to the “real” ball. I think racquetball needs to think like tennis. Kids are physically and mentally challenged to keep up with the pace of the ball. If racquetball should get a slower bouncing ball and maybe a larger, slower bouncing ball, it might be easier to teach Juniors.” - Kerri Stoffregen Wachtel
“There are too many different entities. We need one solid umbrella to be able to plan for the future. Mexico and South America are the future. They are breeding racquetball players.” - Jose Rojas
“Racquetball still acts like a sport in its infancy, with rival factions, politics, cliques, and most seriously the exchange of ideas. Today the exchange of knowledge isn't about full and open disclosure where secrets about technique are shared, innovative methods are welcomed, and a realization most of all that the sport is still evolving. Blow it wide open to a wider audience by sharing. We needn’t dummy it down for the masses who actually can understand more than chop sticks on a baby grand, and the complexities of the biomechanics of movement need to be better understood and granted simply explained, but completely revealed, because whoever plays racquetball can understand actually what they’re doing. For examples, impart topspin, crossover to return serve or to escape the box, jam serve and out the way, step into the ball vs. jump stop into a closed stance, roll their wrist and close their racquet face and still hit the planet, and use the sidewalls like handball and pro RB players. On the business angle, we need to worry less on squeezing the small market for all it's got, or more accurate doesn't want to part with, and worry more about getting every tennis player playing RB when it's cold, like Joe Sobek did. Every Pro athlete or gym rat using RB to anaerobic cross train, and every church, school, rec center or YMCA court could fill every Saturday morning, 2-3 nights a week, as well as at the crack of dawn, and with the working stiffs at lunch time and those retirees and lucky stiffs with flex schedules, too.” - Ken Woodfin
“A lot. There needs to be more people involved with the sport on many levels: Juniors, high schoolers, college kids, adults, and pro players all need to grow. There needs to be a way to increase the value in advertising for other companies so there can be more money come into the sport.” - Andy Hawthorne
JJ: If Marty Hogan he grew up and played in the current era how do you think he would compete with the pros today?
BK: Marty Hogan grew up simple, to a common, caring family, and participated in all sports before he found racquetball from football to diving and girls. When he graduated high school and moved to the racquetball mecca, San Diego, he trained hard enough, but was a natural. When the game shifted a year later, in about 1972, to the fast ball, he was a shoe-in national champion. He was a great champion and a good guy. He never drank, smoked, hardly cursed, and loved his grandmother. But that isn't what you asked. How would he compare to today's pros had he ever grown up 20 years later? He would have overpowered the field up to Swain and Kane. He would have played even with Swain and had an edge over Kane. Just my opinion.
JJ: How much have you been able to watch Kane play? What are your thoughts on a matchup of the two had they been in the same generation?
BK: I'm not a good judge of Kane because I only saw him play twice, in 2003 before he either hit stride or the playing field got watered down. I’m not sure of which, because I’ve only seen videos of him since, most recently a week ago the 2014 US Open that he dominated, again. Records don’t mean anything. There is, in the big course of the history of any sport, the champions by the record, and the champions by the talent. Anyone may judge the former by examining the statistics such as at Boss Statistics. However, it takes not only a keen, but an old eye to judge the champs by talent, and I’d say only Muehleisen and Brumfield could do this accurately. They've seen everyone, from alpha to omega. But if you ask me, having seen the same, my only exacting appraisal is from watching him on the US Open video.
It was an excellent film, and caught the gist of the game. It revealed the talents and deficits of the players. In any sport there are the things they do well, and the things they do poorly. At the championship level everyone does things well, so it boils down to who does the least number of things poorly. A lack of negatives determines the winner. I sum this with a concept you can put in your pocket, called Physical and Mental errors. If you go through the video, both players made unforced physical errors every third rally - a skip ball, serve off the back wall, etc. Few in the bleachers saw these because they were hypnotized by the fantastic athleticism, shots between the legs, and speed of the balls. But there were sundry unforced skips and shots coming off the back wall. In championship racquetball, at least in the first 20 years of the game, those two players, because of unforced errors, would have ranked 4th to 8th. The other type of errors are mental errors during a rally. These are taking the wrong shot from a court position, and again there were about one mental error per three rallies by each player. In championship individual sports, there should be about one physical error and no mental errors ever in a championship match.
JJ: Where you think Brumfield would stand with those two had they all been from the same generation, same equipment, same era?
BK: What I say about Charlie Brumfield may be an eye opener. No one knew his game better than I, because we learned it together, and then he chased me in my dreams for the finals for many years and was my nemesis. He was a nightmare to play. This is like trying to describe an orgasm to a virgin. You have no idea how hard it is to buck Brumfield off your back and mind during a match. He controlled the crowd, ref, and television audience. His initial goal was to get into the opponent's mind, and from there all good things will come to thee. His next objective was not to hit a rally ending shot, but to place the ball such that his oak body was in the way of the opponent chasing it. He won 22 national championships. BUT if there had ever been a level playing field with a superman ref who couldn't be dominated by his will, then Brumfield would be diminished to the best of the rest. He had zero backhand and a poor serve. However, he could hit those consistently at 20-20 in the third rubber match.
Brumfield could give Marty Hogan at his best nearly the doughnut with the old slow ball. He used to sing, 'Here comes the heavenly Doughnut Truck’ when the best from the east, like Hogan, arrived in San Diego to test him. He similarly would have annihilated Kane, except Kane would have broken after five points under Brumfield's mental thumb, and then thrown down his racquet and beat Charlie to a Brumstick in the service box and lost by forfeit. That was with the slow ball that bounced like a doughnut. With the fast ball, Charlie's flaws came out, and Hogan and Kane could dominate him nearly as equally as he did them with the previous ball.
JJ: What was Brumfield like off the court?
BK: Charlie is the smartest, as in IQ, person I’ve ever met. And I’ve mingled with Olympic champions of various sports and the best the CIA ever had. I met all of them through my accurate backhand, and never became either. Off the court, Brumfield was the same as on. It was no act; it was all an act. He could disarm any individual or group in seconds. He should be running the pentagon. We sat down at a swank dinner party once with the ladies tilting their pinkie fingers around the wine glasses at the correct angle, when the lobster was served. Brumfield, at the head of the table, screamed, 'These are bigger than the crabs on a Tijuana whore!’ It was non-stop with Brumfield off the court.
JJ: What is your favorite racquetball memory as a pro? Favorite racquetball memory in general? What's the greatest match you have ever watched? Greatest match you have ever been a part of?
BK: My favorite memory as a player is reading a good paperback before and after matches. The sport was a peripheral life activity. I trained hard. My daily training for one decade without ever missing a day except for tournaments was:
Bicycle one hour into the wind
Run seven miles
Racquetball match for one hour
Weights for 30 minutes
Practice for one hour
Bicycle into the wind for one hour to home
Wind down jog for 30 minutes
I was five years older than most of the players on tour, and they called me Grandfather I guess because when they came to me with a question I always had an answer for them to go away with. I was the first unofficial sponsored money player (under the table from Leach), the first apparel contract (converse with the dual colored Chucks), and ran the first clinics and camps. So I had a finger on the pulse of the game, but my heart wasn’t in it. I preferred to be outdoors.
My most gratifying moment was versus Hogan in the finals at the Denver Sporting House. To set the scene, I destroyed Marty with the slow ball and he blew me apart with the fast ball. For this match we had a medium ball. In two games I made zero mental errors and one physical error. I don't get proud, because it gets in the way of execution, but that was a great moment. I lost 20-20, 20-20. It was on glass and I could hardly see the serves. I had to clean my lens-less frames so the gallery didn’t think I was blind.
One of the greatest matches I ever watched was Cliff Swain versus Jason Mannino at the Coral Springs Quad club for a proper amount of money to inspire the winner and sadden the loser. It was shoot, dive, shoot, dive for an hour and Swain took it by a margin as narrow as a racquet string on a hot day.
JJ: What do you see when you watch a racquetball match? What do your eyes follow? What do you analyze?
BK: As in life, I see in a racquetball match only the things I don’t know. Emerson said, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” And so I try to enter each frame of life with new eyes. You can guess that I didn’t see much new in racquetball. It was a great event when something strange happened, like a doctor seeing an exotic case. However, for reconnoiter, I was honestly an ace, and could tell in the opponent's handshake in mine, or on the racquet, what he could and couldn't do with his strokes. I could tell by a glance in his pupils like an ophthalmologist whether he was prone to mental errors, and just when, if ever, he would crack under pressure. I looked for asymmetry in his stride and the wear of his shoes to guess where he would have trouble moving to. But the basic answer is that all you need to know about an opponent are: is his backhand weak? Does he have a strong serve? Can he hit continuous ceiling balls? And does he bear up under pressure? That can be reduced even further, like one big headline to cover all the day's news, to have a game plan that will work against all. Then scouting isn't necessary, and in fact may be contraindicated. My game plan was to kill every setup, and when I couldn’t kill then I would hit a shot that would get another set up. Each rally was just waiting in prey for the coup de grace. It's called the Big Game and it holds today. At the pro level the only way to play is with the strongest offense, which is to kill every setup. Everyone else falls by the wayside, because the balls are so fast, the racquets so big and advanced, and the strategy is strictly offensive.
JJ: What is the essence of the game of racquetball from your own perspective?
BK: The essence of racquetball for me at or near the top for ten years during the Golden Era was as a stepping stone to, as the Little Prince advises, 'pursue things of consequence'. I was, and am, hungry for other things in life, and I just jumped in that little sport's vehicle and found them: adventure, romance, knowledge, travel, and compassion.
JJ: Have you ever read the book The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey?
BK: I read Tim Gallway's The Inner Game of Tennis early in my racquetball career, and suggest this classic to anyone in sport, or who breathes, for that matter. The sole problem is separating the wheat from the chaff. The book assumes everyone has an 'inner dialogue' and a set of other negative psychological attributes that must be squelched in order to play any sport well. While it's true that an inner dialogue, etc. must be stopped, as a rural kid growing up with chickens I never had one, except when the thought of it was inserted into my mind by the book. So, I had to use their techniques to squelch their inner dialogue.
However, the one thing I’ll be forever grateful to the book is the trick of 'worst case scenario'. That technique has saved me on the court, in business, romance, and even survival in the wilds. In the worst case scenario one mentally rehearses what's the most terrible thing that can happen to him in a nerve wracking situation. Once that's been rehearsed, it's been 'lived' through and is no longer a threat, and is merely laughable. There is no longer 'the only thing to fear is fear itself' because one has lived the fear. It becomes as boring as a second kiss, rather than a nightmare. By having pre-rehearsed the worst case scenario, such as skipping the ball on game point, getting a frog in the throat during a speech, losing your pet Woody, or have the tiger actually eat you, the important outermost pieces of the puzzles of life are set, and the mind is free to function clearly. When the mind is free, the well-practiced body takes over for continual peak performance.
Many years later, just before the sun set on my racquetball career, i was sitting alone in my garage one freezing winter day with only the body heat of the Dobermans and from the waterbed for warmth, when the phone rang. It was Gallway and his partner Robert Kreigel (who had just co-authored Inner Skiing) asking me to collaborate on a book called Inner Game of Racquetball. I had been through enough at that point in my life - a clinic tour through Central and South America, hoboing boxcars to USA cities to do clinics and tournaments - that I didn't get enthused easily. Yet, this tickled me, and I became animated. I quickly responded that I’d be happy to help, and that I was a deep thinker on the game of racquetball and had collected a shoebox full of notes on the psychology of the game, including anecdotes. There was a click on the other end of the line, and then only the sound of the Dobys looking at me with question mark eyebrows. They didn't want a thinker; their theory of sport and life was to become mindless to perform well'; my theory was to control a well-oiled mind to perform well. I had blown it.
JJ: How much credit do you give to the power of the mind in taking the great ones to another level and how much of their greatness is simply a matter of superior skill level from hours and hours of improving their craft? Have they simply out worked everybody else? Are they exceptional compared to others because of their mental capabilities? Is it a combination of both? What are your thoughts? How much of becoming great do you think lies in the mind of the athlete and how much do you think is in the physical body?
BK: Attaining 'level' in sport depends on definition. Fans & media ooh and ah over the state, regional, and Olympic champs, and yet there's a narrow neck in the hour glass up into the sparsely populated pros in any sport. It's the difference between an amateur champ and a number one pro, which is about 14 points a game in one to 15. The amateur strains with power of mind, hard training, good coaching, and some luck to make a peak performance that equals what a pro does on his worst day. That's some difference!
So, as I’ve said before, the traits to become #1 are:
1. Genetic gift without which no one gets to a competitive #1.
2. Inclination and time to practice long hours.
3. An organized, analytical chess playing mind.
4. A strong coach or role model is helpful but not necessary.
5. The patience to walk away from drugs, alcohol, romance and secondary influences.
6. A weak peer competition helps but isn't always available.
7. The secret to being #1 in a strong field is an edge, a tiny advantage repeated over and over to make everyone else below #1.
The most interesting of the above list, that's open to everyone to crawl up through the neck of the hour glass into the pros, is getting an edge, which is a slight advantage over the field that's repeated over and over to victory. it helps if this edge cannot be duplicated or defended against. For me, the edge was being ambidextrous from toes to hands to eyes to the crown of my head, and thus having a strong grace of movement and thought. I'm not particularly smart, but I move like a monkey in the jungle.
There's heart and there's mind in reaching goals of sports performance. You know the type of player who works out harder than anyone else, and achieves a 4-8 ranking. Sometimes they brag that the only thing one needs to succeed, as they have, is to try harder. And on the other hand are the cerebral players who have invested their hours in thought, such as accountants or computer scientists, and surprisingly weathermen, who train less hard physically but mix right up with the heart guys in 4-8 ranking. The top four places in a sport like racquetball (when the field is strong) is for those who have BOTH heart and mind. You can't get there without both or stay there with an injury.
Work on your weaknesses to climb the ranks. If you're a worker-outer and shredded out all over the court, then take up chess to improve your racquetball game; but if you're a Brain Boy then come down from high tea into the trenches with the mudders and train like a maniac to become more physically fit. Thus one closes in on #1.
JJ: What are your thoughts on the best way to introduce kids to the game? Is there a learning progression for young kids (around grades 3-4) you think is a good roadmap to follow? If you had to create a player from scratch, what would you teach and in what order?
BK: Kids should play first for fun, and second with a verve to dominate. If u like it and think you'll be good, it requires hundreds of hours of practice. At the beginning level the defensive player beats the offensive one, as at nearly all sports. However, in a couple years, almost always, the aggressive attacking player takes home the trophies. If I reversed my vasectomy in an effort to produce a player in two different tennis shoes, I would shoo him to an offensive game from the get go. Learn to kill, then learn the defensive shots such as ceiling. You'll lose with me for a year, and then you'll win, like Hogan. I don’t mean that he's my kid, only that I mentored him.
JJ: What advice would you give to a good Open player who is striving to reach a new level in his game? Are there certain things in training, approach to practice, playing mindset, etc. that you think are beneficial in taking your abilities to the next level?
BK: My expertise as an instructor was teaching pros, because it takes a peer to counsel a peer. So I feel qualified in saying that what takes a player from Open to Pro is:
1 - Play aggressive. Only strong offensive play wins in the big leagues. If the ball can be shot, kill it. Otherwise, hit a return with the thought that the next shot will be a kill.
2 - Drive, drive, drive. The better pros must be able to drive serve the ball repeatedly that is not a short, nor come off the back wall. Practice until you can hit 8 of 10 drive serves that don't come up short or off the back wall.
3 - Count your physical and mental errors. To be a pro, you shouldn't be making more than one physical error (e.g. a skip, or lofted kill attempt) every five rallies. you should not make more than one mental error (taking the wrong shot) more than once every ten rallies.
4 - Learn the legal screen serve. this is the watershed serve.
5 - It's given that any pro must be in top shape.
6 - Given that all the pros are in top shape, it becomes a matter of executing the above facets under pressure to become #1 in the world.
JJ: What are your thoughts on players becoming great who have picked up the game later in life? Do you believe it is possible to achieve greatness in racquetball having learned the game in your adult years?
BK: Greatness can be achieved at any stage in life if you do it for yourself, and measure your progress to become what you may. It would be difficult, however, for a player of Master's age to compete with the young set of pros.
The big advantage of starting to play as a toddler is the movements become ingrained that later in life the execution is a muscle memory, without having to filter through the upper brain. This makes you quicker, faster, and smoother with consequential stamina. People call you a 'natural'. This is not the case with someone who takes up a new sport later in life, unless he's begun earlier with similar sports having parallel movements.
Niederhoffer was thrown into a swimming pool as a tyke with a tennis racquet and tennis ball that always rolled back to him, and he 'drowned' in tennis to become a champion, and later in squash and racquetball. Sudsy and Mannino were swinging racquets in NY when other babies where swinging rattles, and went from the crib to the championship court. The big edge in all sports is to begin at a young age.
JJ: What were your favorite racquetball drills you used to improve your game?
BK: I practiced a differently than most, and probably longer. Once, there was a 24 hours session outdoors barefoot trying to figure out a spin when the calluses on my feet wore off and I tracked blood in the house and got yelled at by the landlady. As a beginner, I practiced the basics. As an open player I practiced only the weaknesses. As a pro nothing needed practice, so the long hours on the court were to maintain, like shaking the cobwebs out the air filter periodically.
And then I became left-handed, and went through it all again. It reminded of the most important shot to practice in solitaire. Here it comes - that’s the fly kill. It's the most difficult shot, and once one can hit it from anywhere on the court off both wings, all of the other shots are simple. The last shot I mastered was the backhand volley from 39-feet anywhere along the back wall.