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Making His Break

The Explanation for Brian Keefe's Leaving UC Irvine for Boston College Might be Simple, Except Keefe Isn't Saying What it Is.

December 27, 1996|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Three thousand miles and not all that much closer to unraveling the mystery of Brian Keefe's departure from UC Irvine. It's easier to navigate the labyrinth of streets twisting around the Boston Commons than it is to find your way to the root of Keefe's decision to transfer to Boston College.

And Keefe, who led the Anteaters in scoring last season as a sophomore, isn't forthcoming with a direct answer.

"Personal matters I'd rather not discuss," he says.

New Coach Jim O'Brien has some theories, but deflects any direct questions to Keefe. Old Coach Rod Baker may have some clues, but he's not commenting on the subject of "players who left the program."

Given the absence of eyewitness

accounts, we're left with speculation. So, let's examine a couple of popular possibilities:

BOSTON BLUES

Keefe grew up 20 minutes from Boston College in Winchester, Mass. UC Irvine's distant locale, he said at the time, was the only reason he spent two weeks of soul-searching before accepting a scholarship there in 1994.

"I know he was apprehensive about going out there at first," O'Brien said, "but he's indicated to me he had a very positive experience there. He has been very complimentary about the coaching staff, the kids on the team, the school. That's why I think homesickness is a big factor."

The homesickness theory probably wouldn't stand up in court, though.

Exhibit A: Keefe's girlfriend, Anteater volleyball player Lara Nelson, is still at Irvine. Talk about your long-distance relationships.

Exhibit B: Plane tickets. Lots of them. Despite the cross-country trip, his parents saw many of their son's games at Irvine.

Exhibit C: The sailing column of the Daily Pilot. Keefe's sister, Stephanie, works and lives in Newport Beach.

Exhibit D: Winters in New England. Keefe apparently never pined for snowstorms and roaring fires. "I'm already missing the weather in Irvine," he said, pulling a long, hooded leather jacket over his sweatshirt. "Especially today."

It was sunny and 30 degrees.

Hardly a Nor'easter.

And Keefe's own testimony on homesickness--he doesn't want to even say the word--is hardly convincing.

"A little bit, I guess it's good to be home," he said. "And once I had decided to leave, I looked at some other schools, but it helped that this school was so close to home."

EAST vs. WEST

The skinny, tough kid from Winchester didn't develop into an awesome physical presence during two years at Irvine, but he established himself as a solid Division I basketball player. He proved to be a tireless worker--janitors on both coasts have tossed him out of gyms so they could lock up for the night--a role model of physical and mental toughness and a team leader on the court, in the locker room and in the box scores.

"I was totally surprised when he first called me about transferring," O'Brien said. "I mean, we had followed his progress and were happy he was having such a good career at Irvine. He was starting and scoring a lot of points. It was quite a success story, really."

That taste of success may have given Keefe a renewed craving for sweet East Coast hoops and soured him on the bland Big West. Had he become a player worthy of a better brand of college basketball?

"I remember saying when I first got out West that basketball was better back here, but now I would just say it's a different style," Keefe said. "There's talent everywhere, but here it's more, well, intense."

Keefe has also said he wanted his grandparents to be able to see him play, but it's hard to blame a kid from Boston for choosing the Big East over the Big West for less altruistic reasons.

Let's see, would I rather play in a major arena packed to the rafters with die-hard, life-long fans or Titan Gym . . . hmmmmm.

SHADOW BOXING

One former Irvine assistant, who couldn't offer any concrete examples of discord, hinted there must have been a rift between player and head coach. But Keefe and Baker have adamantly denied it.

"We got along great," Keefe says.

And there certainly is no evidence to doubt him.

Keefe was deeply honored when Baker named him team captain when he was only a sophomore. He's grateful the Irvine coach gave him the chance to play as a freshman, even a chance to start ahead of senior Chris Brown--who had been the most prolific three-point shooter in the nation as a junior--when Brown struggled as a senior.

And this breakup can't have had anything to do with playing time--Keefe averaged 33 minutes a game, second on the team to the nation's No. 1 assist man, point guard Raimonds Miglinieks. It also can't have had anything to do with his role--he led the team in scoring (16.4 points a game) and three-pointers attempted (160).

"I enjoyed a great two years out there and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the people at Irvine," Keefe said.

OK, but if it was one big, happy Anteater family, then why leave?

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