"Come on," says the man. "Denny Crum says that if he were Keith Lee he'd turn pro right now."
But Lee apparently is sincere about going the distance at MSU. A secondary education major with a B—average, he says, "I've known guys who've gotten messed up by pro ball and had nothing to fall back on. I don't want that happening to me." Avarice isn't a compelling motive for Lee, who rooms with teammate Aaron Price in the MSU athletic dorm and spends any extra money he has on his daughter. Nor is Diane Jones pushing for the NBA loot. "I want him to get his degree," she says. "The reason he wants to play pro ball, anyway, isn't for the money. It's just to play with good players."
That sound you hear is 650,000 Memphians exhaling.
During Lee's junior and senior years in high school his team won 60 consecutive games and back-to-back state championships. The 60 in a row established an Arkansas record. The head coach at West Memphis High, Bill Terwilliger, passed out on the bench at last year's state tournament, telling people later, "There's a shock going to state without Keith Lee."
Lee had good preparation in high school. Everyone talks about how skinny he is now at age 20, but as a teen-ager he was a stork's leg. Nevertheless, each day at practice he lined up against a rugged teammate named Michael Cage. The 6'9", 225-pound Cage now plays for San Diego State and at the end of last week he led the NCAA in rebounding. It also helped that Terwilliger made his big men do ball-handling drills designed for guards.
Indeed, Lee's nimble hands—"gentle and quick yet powerful," says Terwilliger—are probably his greatest asset. Against Ball State this season Lee grabbed a rebound and dribbled the length of the floor before beginning a righthanded pass to Center Derrick Phillips breaking from the left. But instead of giving it off to Phillips, he abruptly flipped the ball in mid-motion to Bobby Parks on the right side for a layup. It may not sound like much, but as one witness described the pass later, "It was impossible, a screwball of some kind."
Great peripheral vision, great timing, great touch, great "floor awareness," as Kirk calls it—Lee has them all. He's even a remarkable free-throw shooter, having made 25 in a row at one point this season and having a 79.2% career mark. Rare delicacy for a big man. But is Lee really a big man? "What he is," says Kirk, "is a finesse player. He'll play center for us occasionally, but I wouldn't put him in there on the block, in the tug-of-war."
Lee has tried to gain weight and did, in fact, climb above 200 pounds last spring. But mononucleosis wiped out the gain last summer. "It doesn't bother me," says Lee, who seems to move through life as placidly as he glides across the court. "I like the size I am. I don't eat that much of anything, except for Peanut Butter Cups."
Marty Blake, director of scouting services for the NBA, isn't bothered by Lee's weight, either. "What is 'strength'? What is 'ready'?" Blake says. "I think Keith Lee has the frame to play at 220. But if he doesn't, so what? Look at Louis Orr and Jamaal Wilkes—they're doing O.K. in the NBA, and they're skinny. I don't see any weaknesses in Keith right now. But I'd like to see him stay in school. I think Ralph Sampson showed that it can help anybody."
Lee plays with a peculiar stiff-legged, loose-armed style that is his form of abandon. Sometimes on the wing, sometimes underneath, sometimes at the high post; he's likely to do anything. Against East Tennessee State this season he sank five consecutive jump shots from 20 feet or farther. Against West Texas State he had 17 rebounds. Against Ball State he had six assists. And he's always blocking shots. "He's like Ewing," says Assistant Coach Larry Finch, who played on Memphis State's last great team, the 1973 NCAA runners-up. "Just his presence helps you win."