Courtney Lee was a typical teenager, brash and daring, who couldn’t wait to bust out of the restraints and rules he had to obey while under his mother’s watch. He would go away to college, be a man on his own and establish his own identity and his own set of rules.
A week into his newfound independence, the new man was in his coach’s office asking for his mommy.
Lee laughs about the all-consuming homesickness that dropped on him like a bout with the flu his freshman season at Western Kentucky, but he won’t deny how bad he felt when he first exchanged his Indianapolis address for one in Bowling Green. He practically begged his mother to let him come home, but all he heard was, ‘Tough luck, stick it out,’ or the click of the phone as she hung up.
Darrin Horn tried everything to make things easier, but nothing the coach said could quell the loneliness that had Lee quite literally sick from missing home.
“I thought we were going to lose him the first day,” Horn said.
Four years, nearly 2,000 points, an 8-1 record in the Sun Belt Conference and a potential first-round tourney spot has a way of erasing bad memories. The kid who once couldn’t bear Bowling Green is now like the town mayor, beloved and adored by a rabid fan base.
Casual hoops fans likely have never heard of Lee. That’s the cost of playing in a league outside the Big Six conferences. The people who matter, however, know exactly who he is. The anticipated mass exodus of freshmen may change things come June, but right now, Lee is slated as a late first-round draft pick.
NBA scouts salivate over Lee’s size (6-foot-5, 200 pounds) and marvel at his ability to create shots for himself and his teammates. Previously content to be a role player, Lee has emerged in his final season as a leader and a less reluctant star, averaging 21.3 points per game. Only once this season — in a win against Middle Tennessee State when he was hit with early foul trouble — has Lee failed to reach double figures in scoring.
That he is a well-seasoned senior in an age of preemie first-rounders barely old enough to drive only makes him more attractive.
“He’s going to be one of those guys who goes to individual workouts and surprises a lot of people,” one NBA scout said. “We know him, the blue-collar guys, but the GMs don’t. He’s going to match up with some guys who have the national reputation and the pedigree and blow them out of the water. This kid can just play.”
Now more mature, Lee admits he was pretty much ready to chuck it all as a rookie in favor of a return ticket home. Then, a few days into those awful first weeks, Lee met junior Danny Rumph, who took Lee under his wing, counseled the freshman by sharing his own homesick pains. Rumph came to Kentucky from Philadelphia, an even tougher adjustment than transplanting from nearby Indy.
Well-liked and even more well-respected, Rumph decided he wasn’t going to let Lee quit. So if Rumph went somewhere, he brought Lee along with him. He shepherded Lee through offseason workouts and on-campus social life.
I knew we were getting a high-major caliber athlete when we signed him. I thought we were getting a guy who could be a potential all-conference kind of player. A potential first-round draft pick? I’d have to say no to that.
Slowly, Lee came around. Instead of plotting ways to travel the 225 miles home whenever he saw a day off in the schedule, Lee stayed on campus. His trips and phone calls home eased up and eventually all but disappeared, relegated to their rightful place of weekly chats and holiday break visits.
In between, Lee and Rumph grew inseparable. They roomed together on campus and for road trips. When school breaks weren’t long enough for Rumph to get all the way back to Philly, he went to Indianapolis with Lee instead.
“If it weren’t him, no, I don’t think I would have lasted,” Lee said. “I probably would have transferred back home, but I was lucky. Danny was the first person I latched onto.”
It’s strange, really, that Lee wanted to go back home so badly. Indiana hadn’t exactly been kind to him, at least not in terms of basketball. A star on a stacked Pike High School team, Lee helped his overloaded roster — Xavier alum Justin Cage and Indiana’s Robert Vaden, who followed Mike Davis to UAB — finish 29-0 in his junior season and second in the nation behind LeBron James’ St. Vincent-St. Mary team.
As a senior, Lee finished second in the voting for Indiana Mr. Basketball, and in that year’s Kentucky-Indiana All-Star game weekend, he scored 48 points in two games.
Indiana and Purdue both looked at Lee, but when push came to shove, neither came up with a scholarship offer.
“He was disappointed but he understood the business of it,” Pike High coach Larry Bullington said. “If anything, I think it motivated him.”
Just a touch.
“If anybody says that they don’t think that way, they’re lying,” Lee said. “There’s always a part of you that wants to throw it in their face, to say ‘See what I’ve accomplished.”’
Horn would love to say he was simply smarter than everyone else, that he pulled one over on all the big boys and stole a player they simply missed on.
He would love to, but he’d be lying.
“I knew we were getting a high-major caliber athlete when we signed him,” Horn said. “I thought we were getting a guy who could be a potential all-conference kind of player. A potential first-round draft pick? I’d have to say no to that. That’s like asking me if, when I was at Marquette, did I know Dwyane Wade would be good. Well yeah, but not necessarily a world champion MVP.”
Lee’s big résumé began his rookie year with Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors and a Western Kentucky rookie scoring mark of 461 points. A year later, Lee was a first team all-conference selection and the Hilltoppers’ second leading scorer (17.4 points per game). As a junior, he moved into the leading scorer spot (17.3 ppg) and again earned all-league honors.
Now a likely lock for conference player of the year, the NBA is calling.
In between his own accomplishments, Lee peeked at Indiana and Purdue and occasionally allowed himself to wonder what kind of player he would be, what kind of teams those schools would have, if he were on the roster.
But the daydreaming is brief now. Lee is convinced he made the right choice, picking a place where he could shine and grow simultaneously.
The private “I told you so” still fuels him to some degree, but Lee has long been inspired by something far more powerful.
In May of his freshman year, Lee was home for a short break before the Hilltoppers headed to Europe for a summer trip. On May 9, his phone rang. It was a buddy, a mutual friend of both Lee and Rumph, calling to ask if the news about Rumph was true?
By then, word had trickled back to the Western Kentucky campus that Rumph had collapsed and died during a pickup game in Philadelphia. An autopsy later would reveal that Rumph had died of hypertrophy cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart.
Lee didn’t want to believe the news, but when he couldn’t reach Rumph’s mother, Viola Owens, he knew something was dreadfully wrong.
Seven days later, Lee was on a plane to Philadelphia to bury his friend.
“They were very good friends,” said Owens. “Danny talked about Courtney a lot. I haven’t him talked to him since the funeral, but I’m so glad to hear he’s doing well.”
Lee said he spent the better part of the summer in denial, waffling between depression and confusion, trying to piece together a life without the guy he “did everything with.”
“It was awful,” Horn said. “The hardest part besides dealing with it all myself was helping the guys through it. Courtney and Danny were unbelievably close. I think Courtney had such great respect for him, so it was very hard.”
Eventually depression and confusion gave way to something stronger. A month after Rumph died, Lee inked a tattoo of his friend’s image on his right arm. It is a reminder of the pair’s friendship but also something more.
In high school, the doubters outnumbered the believers. Coaches thought he was good, just not good enough. In college, Lee doubted himself. He didn’t think he could make it, not that far away from home, not in a town not even a quarter of the size of his home city.
Rumph was always a believer. He believed Lee could stick it out, believed his friend could grow to love Western Kentucky, believed he could be a star.
Now with every made hoop, every step closer to the NBA, Lee gazes at the tattoo and rewards his friend’s faith.
“It took a long time for me to get used to him not being here,” Lee said. “Now I dedicate everything I do to his memory. From the beginning, he was there for me. I won’t forget that.”