As with most freshmen, Lee's weakness is defense. Playing primarily against the opposition's center, Lee has fouled out of two games and has been in foul trouble in several others. Kirk feels some referees haven't adjusted to Lee's considerable shot-blocking talents—he's been called The Air Traffic Controller—and are too often unjustifiably whistling him for a foul. But some of his defensive shortcomings may ease when he's able to muscle up on his opponents. By working out on Nautilus equipment, he has already added 15 pounds since arriving on campus but he's got a long way to go. He weighs 196 pounds fully dressed, and that's skinny.
By the time Lee's through in Memphis, though, those pipestem calves may rank right up with Elvis Presley's pelvis as a local treasure. They're selling KEITH LEE FOR MAYOR T shirts down at the Talkin' Tops shop in the Mall of Memphis. And a junior high coach is calling his team's center "Keith," which isn't unusual except that the player's real name is Myra Saulsberry.
Keith Lee for dogcatcher shirts would've been more popular a year ago, when Lee was a senior at West Memphis (Ark.) High School, bound, apparently, for Arkansas State, to which he pledged his heart and jump shot as early as October 1980. At 8 o'clock on the morning of national signing day, April 8, 1981, Lee said he was still committed to Arkansas State, and the media that cover the team were alerted to make the one-hour drive to West Memphis for a noon press conference. Lee never showed up. He'd been scared away by reports that Arkansas State would be put on probation for recruiting violations. The school that blew the whistle on Arkansas State turned out to be the University of Arkansas, whose athletic director, Frank Broyles, had urged the NCAA to investigate the Indians. Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton even wrote a letter to Lee warning him that State could be put on probation. If the Razorbacks weren't going to get the best player to come out of the state since Sidney Moncrief, they were damned if little brother was.
On April 27, Lee signed with Memphis State. (It isn't true that Broyles was given Memphis' key to the city.) And, sure enough, in October Arkansas State was put on a two-year probation.
No one at Memphis State wants to talk about how close it came to losing Lee, and Lee doesn't, either. He's enjoying his starring role in the MSU turn-around and, although he's reticent around strangers, he's popular with his teammates and coaches. He calls Finch and Lee Fowler, another assistant coach, who is white, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, after the black and white protagonists of a former TV sitcom.
"I just knew I wanted to stay close to home, and the people who've been watching me," says Lee. "And I wanted to be near my little girl." (His daughter, Lanesha, is six months old; her mother is a student at West Memphis High.)
Kirk's challenge now is to keep Lee out of the pros. Louisville Coach Denny Crum, after watching Lee rack up 30 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots against his team, suggested that the pro scouts should certainly be looking at Lee, as if they aren't already.
Kirk and Lee say it won't happen. Kirk: "We both think talk of hardship is ridiculous." Lee: "I believe I'll be here four years. I like Memphis. I like where I'm staying, the way I've been playing, the way everything's been working out."