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When Elvis died in 1977, Memphis got the blues. The river city Andrew Jackson had named after the capital of ancient Egypt suddenly had no soul. "Even people who didn't appreciate Presley's music were part of the mourning," says William Morris, mayor of Shelby County, Tenn., in which Memphis is situated. "For a long time Elvis and the Mississippi River were the only things we had."
But Memphis was on the move by the late '70s, trying to shuck its plantation image for a modern, high-tech look. "Going from cotton to computers," says Morris. So Memphis needed a figurehead, somebody who could show the entire nation that the city was united and serious. Elvis wouldn't have done, anyway. Too dated, too gross. Something sleek was needed.
Enter, if you will, Keith Lee, who makes sleek look fat. Standing there now outside the Memphis State University field house, sophomore Lee, 6'10", perhaps 196 pounds, seems absorbed in his hands, huge appendages that dangle limply at the end of preposterously long and skinny arms. When they put a statue of Lee down on Beale Street, next to the one of Elvis, they'll need struts to hold up the globs of metal at the ends. As for being a figurehead, Lee says, "I don't think about things like that. I'm just a basketball player trying to play the best I can." So, on the statue's plaque, they can say he is modest.
Then they can quote others:
"It's hard to express what he has meant to the city and the school," says Memphis State Athletic Director Charles Cavagnaro. "Before this season even started we had a Hoop It Up Day in a mall in a lily-white part of Memphis, and four or five thousand people came out to see Keith and the team. When the season ended last year, we had a rally in a minority neighborhood in south Memphis and three thousand people mobbed the team. A security service had to protect the players from the crush of humanity. People wanted to see Keith Lee and touch him and be near him."
"For years Memphis has lacked a national and international identity," says Mayor Morris. "We've been divided by strikes and by things that happened in the '60s, by low income and the assassination of Martin Luther King. But now there's a revitalization going on, of the city and the people. Downtown, Beale Street, the Peabody Hotel, Mud Island—we're trying to develop Memphis into a business and cultural center for the entire mid-South. And Keith Lee and the Memphis State team have been the most prominent catalyst for the community. The success of the team is bringing legislators and city, county and university officials together on projects, a rare thing, believe me. Poor and rich, black and white—the team makes us all feel a lot better. And publicity. If you're in New York or somewhere and you hear about Memphis State, you're going to be thinking about our city."
Ah, yes, amateur basketball. Maybe Keith Lee studies his hands because so much is in them. Disregarding civic worth, just think of his dollar value to his school. "Well, we've had a waiting list for season tickets since the '72-73 season, when Larry Kenon came in," says MSU Ticket Manager Phil Cannon. "But I guess if we had the space we could probably sell an additional 5,000 season tickets, at between $93 and $110 a seat, just because of Keith." This is why city and county officials have approved a $20 million renovation of the Mid-South Coliseum, MSU's home court, to raise seating capacity from 11,200 to nearly 19,000. State officials are almost certain to concur.
A figurehead—especially a bony figurehead—could crumble under such responsibility, but Keith Lee just ambles along, eating Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, doing his thing and keeping quiet. The honors he reaped last year—everything they award in the Metro Conference, including Player of the Year and Tournament MVP; Freshman of the Year; first team All-America—mean little to him. That he can shoot, pass, rebound and block shots with consummate skill—all that is likewise unimpressive to Lee, who deep inside would rather be a point guard.
"I used to think about being short and doing the dribbling and ball handling," he says wistfully, "but I can't go back. Still, assists are the most satisfying part of the game for me. I'd rather try to hit the open man than shoot. What the headlines turn out to be, well, that's up to the press."
They usually turn out to be about Keith Lee. Last season he was the only freshman in the nation to have double-figure averages in both scoring (18.3) and rebounding (11.0). He also finished second in the nation in blocked shots with 102, ahead of both Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing. At week's end Memphis State was 11-0 and ranked No. 1 by SI, and Lee was averaging 18.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.4 blocked shots and 2.5 assists per game.