Visitors to Graceland know it as the trophy room, but hardcore Elvis fans know it was once the racquetball court where Elvis and his "racquetball mafia" of bodyguards, personal physicians, and visiting pros would play for hours.
"Elvis walloped the ball around the court like he was strumming a guitar for the fun of it."
That's the opening line of a new memoir by Steve "Bo" Keeley, an author, adventurer, and former national racquetball champ who knew the Memphis racquetball scene in the 1970s as a touring pro. It is part of Elvis lore that the King liked touch football, karate, and motorcycles. But his love of racquetball apparently exceeded all of those and was a big part of his final years, until he died in 1977 at the age of 42.
The life of Elvis has been told so many times that you rarely hear anything new, but Keeley is no ordinary author. He interviewed Memphians Randy Stafford and David Fleetwood, along with Elvis' sports doctor and several others. After leaving the tour, Keeley got a degree in veterinary medicine, practiced for several years, then turned to full-time writing and adventure travel, hopping freight trains around the world and adopting the name "Bo," as in hobo. His books include Executive Hobo and Keeley's Kures.
Racquetball, an easy-to-play indoor court sport, was booming in the 1970s at (then) Memphis State University and at local clubs such as Don Kessinger's and the Supreme Court. Elvis, his physician, George "Dr. Nick" Nichopoulos, and Memphis businessman William B. Tanner put money into the sport and built personal courts. (Tanner's was atop the seven-story building next to Lipscomb & Pitts on Union Avenue Extended.) The Memphis racquetball mafia included bodyguards Red and Sonny West, road manager Joe Esposito, and harmony singer Charlie Hodge. The pros were hard-partying hustlers, and one once took $700 from the locals using an antifreeze bottle as a racquet.
"Elvis wore white tennis shoes, shorts, and his safety goggles, which were huge, because Dr. Nick didn't want anything to happen to his eyes," Keeley says. "He played daily, or nightly, before heading out into the darkened Memphis streets on motorcycles, with the bodyguards and the racquetball mafia in sidecars, to movies and nightclubs."
Elvis had a decent karate-strong forehand but didn't play tournaments because he would have been mobbed. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, forbade anyone from taking his picture on the court and blocked his friends from starting a chain of clubs in Memphis and the Southeast called Presley Center Courts.
Elvis would have been a natural for the cover of racquetball's promotional magazine, but he never did it. This was partly because of Parker's protection and partly because of a feud with Tanner and a rival organization and tour based in Chicago.
"So while Batman (actor Adam West), Lana Wood (a Bond girl), and Governor (Jim) Thompson of Illinois got coverage, Elvis in racquetball remains a secret," Keeley writes.
I was one of the millions of Americans who took up racquetball in the 1970s. I remember Keeley, still in his curls, was one of the stars of the tour. I never met him, but I played a few notable Memphians, including John "The Bull" Bramlett (he kept his temper after I hit him twice with the ball), future World Champ Andy Roberts (I got one point), and Tanner, who feuded with lots of people.
After Elvis died, Graceland was soon closed and the court wasn't used again. When Graceland reopened to the public, the court was filled with gold and platinum records, and a lone racquet under glass with an old, blue ball. It is an article of faith among some of the mafia that Elvis died on the court, not in the bathroom upstairs next door.
I like to think that the jocks are right. Jumpsuit Elvis was surely weary of Las Vegas. He would never see 40 years or 200 pounds again. He was back in Memphis, at home, away from the camera's cruel eye. A cry would go up in the middle of the night: "Everybody up! Let's play racquetball!" And away they would go, friends playing a game with a ball. There are worse ways to go.