LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - When Rick Pitino was in the process of becoming Louisville's head coach back in 2001, the last call he made before taking the job was to longtime Kentucky equipment manager Bill Keightley.
It may have been one of the more nerve-wracking moments of Pitino's life. One of the things Pitino knew you never wanted to do was disappoint the man nicknamed "Mr. Wildcat" for his deep devotion to college basketball's all-time winningest program.
"He said, 'Son, have you lost your damn mind,"' Pitino said with a laugh. "I told him, 'Mr. Bill, I'm serious,' and he said, 'Son, have you lost your damn mind."'
Keightley ultimately, perhaps begrudgingly, gave Pitino his blessing. There were few things Keightley held in higher esteem than the Wildcats. The personal friendships he made during 48 seasons on the sidelines were among them.
About 3,000 people - from family members to former players and coaches to fans dressed in Kentucky blue rather than traditional black - paid their final respects to Keightley at Rupp Arena Thursday. Keightley died Monday in Cincinnati from internal bleeding caused by a previously undiagnosed tumor at age 81.
Keightley's casket was placed at center court at Rupp Arena, the chair at the front of the Kentucky bench wrapped in a ceremonial blue ribbon. A series of snapshots taken during Keightley's career with the Wildcats played on the arena's two JumboTrons during the service, which ended with a rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home."
It was the kind of send-off normally reserved for heads of state, and in a way that's what Keightley was. For nearly five decades he helped run the Wildcats like a benevolent uncle, always there with a smile, a hug or a joke destined to be funny, corny or both.
"There's never been a greater assist man in the history of anything," said current Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, who choked back tears while telling stories of the man who helped make him feel at ease under the sometimes unforgiving microscope that comes with coaching the Wildcats.
Pitino, who coached the Wildcats to three Final Fours and the 1996 national title, said his greatest accomplishment at Kentucky wasn't cutting down the nets after winning the championship, but deciding to move Keightley to the front of the bench during Pitino's first season at Kentucky in 1989.
"He told me, 'I don't belong up there, that's for coaches,"' Pitino said. "I told him, well, you're a coach now."
In a way, Keightley was more than that. He was an ambassador, watching the Wildcats play more than 1,400 games under six different coaches and hundreds of players and witnessing three national championships. Seasons came and went, but Keightley never did.
"I can't ever remember him not being there," said former Kentucky guard John Pelphrey, now the head coach at Arkansas. "He was truly an everyday guy."
It was that sense of devotion and his approachability that endeared Keightley to fans.
"He was the heart and soul of Kentucky basketball to a lot of people," said Gov. Steve Beshear. "He could be a friend to anybody and everybody."
Debbie Stephens was standing in a hotel lobby in Atlanta during the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament last month when a couple from Arkansas stopped by and asked her about the older man standing a few feet away with the Kentucky outfit and the great big smile.
When Stephens told them the man holding court with about a dozen Wildcat fans was Keightley, the equipment manager of all things, they laughed.
"They thought he was the governor," Stephens said in an interview before the memorial. "I told them, 'He could have been if he wanted to be."'
Stephens smiled as she told the story. How could she not? The story was typical Keightley.
"He was just the nicest man," Charles Wafford, who befriended Keightley during decades of games at Rupp Arena, said in an interview as a public viewing was being held inside before the service. "When I'd camp out for Big Blue Madness, he was an early riser, and he'd come out and offer us coffee. That's just the way he was."
Yet even as his celebrity and his legend grew, Keightley remained true to his humble roots. A veteran of World War II and a former U.S. Postal Service carrier, Keightley would still push the laundry cart out during basketball practice, and he embraced his unique place in the program's history. He and former Kentucky broadcaster Cawood Ledford are the only two non-players or coaches whose jerseys hang in the rafters at Rupp.
"He always made time for people," Stephens said. "He was always friendly, always ready with a joke or a story. He'd put his arm around you, and you'd think everything was going to be all right."
But Keightley's true appeal was with people like Wafford and Stephens, who wore a bright Kentucky-blue blazer with a pin honoring Keightley's life on her lapel and blue earrings and carried a blue cell phone to the viewing.
"He was just one of those people, you thought he'd be there forever," she said. "He was true blue."
Stephens said the loss won't truly be felt until October when the Wildcats gather at Rupp Arena for Big Blue Madness, the season's first basketball practice. Keightley became an integral part of the spectacle over the years. One season he jumped out of a large blue-and-white cake at center court while fans roared.
"It'd be nice if they just left his seat empty," Stephens said. "I don't think there should be anybody that ever sits in that seat. That seat will always be his."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)