Basketball stars agree: There's more to Country Day legend Kurt Keener than 800 wins

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News
Former Detroit Country Day basketball star Shane Battier shakes hands with Kurt Keener in 2007 during a ceremony to retire Battier's jersey.

For the last 41 years, Kurt Keener has gone out of his way for the game of basketball.

Finally, the game has gone out of its way for him, sending the former Detroit Country Day coach to a place that he never thought he’d be.

Prior to a matchup between Gilbert Christian (Ariz.), where Keener has spent the last five years of his career, and Scottsdale Coronado on Jan. 24, fans in attendance directed their attention to a video board in the gymnasium for an announcement: Keener had been named a coach in the McDonald’s All-American game, which takes place Wednesday in Atlanta.

“I was quite surprised,” Keener told The Detroit News. “When I moved out here to Arizona, I just kind of figured that ship had sailed, as far as me getting an opportunity to do that.”

The announcement was met with loud applause. Gilbert Christian then handily defeated Coronado — before another announcement took place after the game in honor of Keener, who had just claimed his 800th prep coaching win.

The second video featured some familiar names in the grander basketball community.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, former first-round NBA draft picks Chris Webber and Shane Battier, and Hall of Fame broadcaster Marv Albert were among 34 former players and colleagues of Keener’s to offer kind words of congratulations, on a night where two colossal milestones coincided for a man who’s never spent much time looking back.

“You do this because you love it and you think you can have a positive impact on kids,” Keener said. “You don’t realize all the time what impact you’ve had on people in their lives, so that was special and very, very humbling.”

Kurt Keener and his wife Nedra listen to tributes on the night he is honored for his 800th win in January at Gilbert Christian.

Keener, 63, has plenty of accolades to his credit: He won nine state titles at Country Day. He’s produced dozens of Division 1 college players and seven NBA draft picks.

In the video, Webber said, “The most important thing he taught me was teamwork.” But it’s how Keener manifested a similar doctrine to his players’ lives off the court that has turned a high school coach into a lifelong friend.

 While accompanying Battier’s AAU team on a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1996, Keener offered to give the eventual two-time NBA champion a ride three hours south to visit Duke while the rest of his team headed back to Detroit. There, gazing through window panes of locked doors, Battier got his first glimpse of Cameron Indoor Stadium, where his number now hangs from the rafters.

“I’ll never forget the day,” Battier told The Detroit News. “That was a special moment to be there with him.”

Keener’s career ethos was inspired by his own high school coach at Ferndale, Dan Bauer, who was a role model for Keener, as Keener’s father, Walt, was often working long hours to provide for his six children.

More than basketball

Keener is a historian by trade, primarily teaching ninth-grade world history at Gilbert Christian.

As Webber pointed out, Keener is also a “historian of sport.” Those under Keener’s tutelage are keen to the prism by which any good historian views the past, in which missteps and oversights are considered valuable life lessons.

A specific example of this, Keener recalled, was after Georgetown’s 1984 NCAA championship win, when a 21-year-old Patrick Ewing struggled to articulate in a nationally-televised interview on one of the game’s biggest stages.

“I remember turning to my wife and said, ‘If I ever get a player like that, I’m going to help him be able to shine.’”

Kurt Keener coaches at Country Day in the 2006 Class B state quarterfinals at Calihan Hall.

Despite arriving at Country Day with what Keener described as a “Madison Avenue smile,” it wasn’t long into Webber’s high school career that Keener balled up a piece of aluminum foil, placed it on top of a stick to look like a microphone, and instructed the 1991 Naismith Prep Player of the Year to “relax … smile … elaborate … look at the camera when you talk.”

As a part of the most famed freshman class in college basketball history at Michigan, Webber was thankful for the mock interviews.

“One of the reasons Coach Keener is the best high school coach from Michigan is because he thinks about more than just making you a better player,” Webber told The Detroit News, via email. “He helped lay a foundation for my thought process prior to talking to the media as a player.”

Now a game analyst for NBA on TNT and a studio host for TNT’s “Players Only” coverage, Webber credited Keener with “getting me right … for what I do now.”

Country Day dynasty

After winning six state titles between 1989 and 1997, Country Day struggled to live up to the remarkable precedent it had set. Headaches that are prone to rise at the high-school level began to surface.

“I was struggling with some kids, some kids who were hard,” Keener said. “And maybe more than the kids, I was struggling with some parents.”

The obvious way out would have been to move on to the college ranks. Because of the recruitment of Webber and Battier, Keener’s Rolodex included names like Izzo and former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, and Keener considered reaching out for an interview.

But timing, they say, is everything.

Kurt Keener hands a Class B regional championship trophy to his Country Day players in 2012.

When Keener considered making a leap to the next level, his two sons were enrolled in Country Day’s junior high and high school. He was uneasy about the idea of commuting to East Lansing or Ann Arbor, and he didn’t want to pull his kids out of a school they’d attended since kindergarten.

Then, when testing the waters about a possible departure, a handful of returning seniors reminded him of the gravity his presence held — and the reason why he got into coaching in the first place.

“I had been in that program my whole basketball career, started in kindergarten in the Junior Jackets program,” said then-senior Rick Palmer, who now coaches at Brother Rice and will be one of Keener’s assistants in the McDonald’s game alongside Gilbert Christian assistant Jim Tappas.

“My dream was to play for him and play at Country Day.”

That was all Keener needed to hear.

“To know how much the kids and the program wanted me to stay, that probably was, between that and my own family, what turned the tide,” he said. “I didn’t pursue college anymore after that.”

Of course, Keener would leave for Gilbert Christian in 2013, after 35 years at Country Day and nine state titles — but that decision was about timing, too. Keener’s wife, Nedra, suffers from lupus, and the harsh Michigan winters had begun to agitate a long list of symptoms that include rheumatoid arthritis.

“I just felt it was the right time for me and my family,” Keener said. “Especially my wife, who has dedicated so much of her life to me, to get out of the cold and the winter, and all the things that were a bit of a challenge to her health and comfort.”

The Gilbert Christian student section honors Kurt Keener on the night of his 800th coaching victory.

Keener is now enjoying a new kind of life – one that still revolves heavily around the hardwood, but will also help him ease into a retirement scene as he stands a chip shot away from the 18th green of his career.

If nothing else, the change of scenery has been a success, he said, because he hasn’t shoveled snow in five years — and it’s certainly not a coincidence how often he called his brothers back home this past winter, dropping reminders here and there that that he leaves January practices in a T-shirt in shorts: “I was giving them the business.”

And with state titles at Gilbert Christian in 2015 and 2017, it’s evident he’s still the same coach. Though, now he’s learned to be a little more patient.

“I have to keep in mind that these guys are young,” he says, “and I have to be positive.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.