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Behind Lee the MSU Tigers won the Metro Conference last year for the first time ever and had a 24-5 overall record, the team's best since 1973. Memphis State lost to Villanova in the semifinals of the NCAA East regional tournament, but, as usual, its most wrenching games were played against conference foe and archrival Louisville. Lee dominated those contests, averaging 25.7 points and 12.7 rebounds, and Memphis State won two of three. "He's the best player in our league and he might be as good as anybody in any league," said Louisville Coach Denny Crum after the last game.
If all goes well the Tigers will be 22-0 when they meet Louisville at home for the first time this season, on Feb. 19. The city of Memphis may need a collective sedating by then. For a town that has been jilted by big-time sports—Memphis WFL and ABA teams folded when their leagues went under; the NBA, NFL and major league baseball always expand elsewhere—Tiger basketball has become a civic up, proof that the whole community matters. "Keith Lee has given us that dimension of class," says Cavagnaro. "You can't buy it, you can't order it. You couldn't even have dreamed it."
Though the Tigers went 13-14 each of the two years before he arrived, Lee hasn't been working alone. Baskerville Holmes, a 6'7" freshman forward with great potential who is the Tigers' sixth man, came to Memphis State largely because of Lee. "I'm from Memphis and I watched a lot of games last year and I like the way Keith was so unselfish," he says. "I knew I'd be playing with a player, not a dummy."
Holmes also knew he'd be playing for a coach with a fanatical drive to win. "If there are 900 horses in a race and I'm riding a donkey, I still think I can win," says Dana Kirk, who's been at the helm of the Tigers since 1979. Kirk has won by emphasizing the recruitment of local talent—nine of the 12 players on this year's team, including Lee and three other starters, are from the Memphis area. Kirk also had the good sense after three games last year to move 6'5" leaper Bobby Parks of Grand Junction from guard to swingman and to start 6'3" Phillip (Doom) Haynes of Memphis at shooting guard.
Since the muscular Haynes, who got his nickname from "killing guys" in touch football games in grammar school, has been a regular, the Tigers have won 34 of 37. In 1980 Kirk instituted Memphis State's fierce full-court matchup press, a kamikaze defense that terrifies opponents into the dumbest turnovers. Of course, the biggest thing Kirk did was garner Lee. As a senior at West Memphis High School across the river in Arkansas, Lee pledged himself to Arkansas State. This didn't thrill the University of Arkansas, which likes to think of itself as that state's only major college. Having heard rumors about recruiting indiscretions at Arkansas State, Razorback Athletic Director Frank Broyles called the NCAA and asked it to investigate. Members of the Arkansas athletic staff then made certain Lee knew his prospective college was sure to go on probation after the investigation. When Lee didn't show up at a press conference to sign with Arkansas State, rumor had it that Memphis State had leaped into the void and "kidnapped" him.
After the dust settled, Arkansas State was on probation, Arkansas was empty-handed and Lee had surfaced at Memphis State. Kirk hadn't hogtied the player, he had merely promised him he could play forward for the Tigers, a position Lee vastly prefers to center. Broyles is still touchy about his role in the affair, calling it "a very sensitive thing" that "developed into a range war." Does Kirk appreciate Broyles's indirect role in delivering Lee? "I didn't send him a letter jacket, if that's what you mean," says the coach.
Memphis State's women's team is playing Jackson State in the MSU field house, and Lee is watching the game from the stands. Lee is particularly interested in No. 21 for the Lady Tigers, who has just dished out another assist. The player is 5'8" senior Point Guard Diane Jones, perhaps the finest playmaker in women's basketball. A native of Bolivar, Tenn., Jones was MVP in the 1978 Tennessee high school state tournament and MVP of the 1981 National Junior college All-Star game while attending Jackson State (Tenn.) J.C. On Sept. 4, 1982, Keith and Diane announced their engagement. They met during a game of two-on-two in 1981, and each has been the better for it. "I don't just talk to anybody," the reserved Lee explains to digging reporters. "And I don't, either," Diane will add softly. But they talk to each other, sharing confidences and hurts. Both of Jones's parents are dead, and Lee, who has an older sister and a younger brother, was raised by his mother, who is now ill. "Keith gives me a feeling of security," says Jones. "And a lot of things he's going through I can help him with. My mother died of cancer when I was 12. It almost seems like Keith and I were meant to be together."
Jones and Lee each have a child as a result of earlier relationships—Lee's daughter lives with her mother in West Memphis; Jones's son lives with her older brother in Whiteville. Jones will graduate in June with a degree in marketing, but she'll try to find a job in Memphis "to stay beside Keith." And of their potential for genetically blessed offspring, she says, "If it's a boy, I want him to play ball like Keith. And if it's a girl, I want her to be at least six feet tall, and still play like Keith."
During a time-out a man walks up to Lee and says, "O.K., how long you gonna stay in school?" It's a question that Lee hears wherever he goes.
"I'm leaning on staying," he says.