Sports

Maturity gives WKU's Lee a serious shot at NBA success

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando General Manager Otis Smith glanced at Courtney Lee, the club's first-round draft pick, and cracked, ”He's already passed the team dress code.“

Lee, a shooting guard out of Western Kentucky, was formally introduced at a news conference on Friday.

He looked sharp in an all-black suit with a charcoal tie. The solid no-frills ensemble matched his pleasant but business-like demeanor.

No one knows yet if Lee will contribute as a rookie, but the scouting report on him carries a familiar theme beyond solid defender and efficient shooter. The only question is whether his game is mature as he is.

”Courtney's a serious kid,“ said his agent, Jason Levien.

SERIOUS KID is all but an oxymoron in today's NBA.

While the draft was highlighted by an exodus of college freshmen Thursday, the Magic selected a college senior. The rare species carries baggage. Sounds counterintuitive, but the logic goes like this: He can't be too good if he spent four seasons in school, playing at a mid-major at that.

Lee, 22, said, ”You get that knock a lot, but now that I'm at the highest level, Western Kentucky is off my jersey. You know you have to compete against the best in the world and I want to do that.“

He said he wouldn't be the man or the player he is today if he hadn't stayed in school.

”Definitely,“ he said. ”I matured as a person and a player over that four-year stretch.“

How serious is Lee?

He did homework on available agents himself before he chose Levien. He's so punctual, Levien said, ”If we tell Courtney he has to be somewhere at 6, he'll be there at 5.“

And the Magic apparently will never have to worry about receiving that dreaded late-night call.

”Courtney? He'll be asleep,“ said his brother Anthony Jr.

”I know how to pick people closely,“ Courtney said.

He remains stoic even as his estranged father, Anthony Lee Sr., tries to re-enter his life after abandoning him and his two brothers as toddlers.

All you really need to know about Courtney Lee is that he even supervised the detailing of the tattoo on his right arm, looking at several drafts first.

”I even did some of the drawing,“ he said.

It had to be perfect. The tattoo told the story of where Courtney's life had turned.

He carries the memory of Daniel Rumph with him forever on his arm because he knows how to pick people closely.

If it hadn't been for Rumph, Lee figures he wouldn't have conquered the doubters and his own fears to ultimately earn a degree and a podium seat between Coach Stan Van Gundy and Smith.

”There's no way any of this would have happened without Danny,“ Lee said.

Ignored by major colleges, Lee battled academic issues, winding up at Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, three hours from his home of Indianapolis.

But he became so homesick as a freshman that he wanted to leave. His mother, Teer Butler, refused to let him quit.

Yet it wasn't until Rumph, then a junior at Western, took him under his wing that Lee settled down. They became inseparable. And Lee became a Sun Belt Conference star and enough of an NBA prospect that Houston, San Antonio and Memphis all tried to trade up to grab him.

”I was real close to going back home. Danny, he stayed in my ear, telling me he went through the same thing. It kind of took some of the pain away,“ Lee said.

”I look at him as motivation . . . to never take the game for granted because it can be taken from you any day.“

The game was taken from Rumph the next season when he collapsed and died of a heart condition while playing pickup ball in Philadelphia. Lee lost a friend but gained inner strength.

On Lee's arm is a tattoo of a smiling young man with a basketball in his hands, a Phillies cap on his head and wings on his shoulders. ”He helped me grow up,“ Lee said. ”Danny drives me every day.“

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