Brains, brawn and bravado are three necessary traits in successful NBA power players, but the Golden State Warriors have lacked that trinity of qualities at the forward position for too many seasons to count.
Lee’s mother, Susan, is a Missouri alumna, and his father, Gary, is a TCU graduate. Lee attended Chaminade College Prep in St. Louis, where he was a two-time National Honor Society member. Clearly, education was as important as basketball in the Lee household.
The brawn was also a family gift. Lee was just 6 feet 1 inches tall as a freshman in high school, but grew four inches as a sophomore and another three as a junior, finally topping off at 6 feet 9 inches in college. Hard work in the weight room buffed out a body that competes nightly against the biggest and strongest professional athletes in the world.
The bravado is a little trickier to place, as 99 percent of NBA players have supreme confidence in their game. Leading your teammates, however, is a skill many of the game’s greatest players have yet to fine-tune. Credible veteran leadership was a real vacuum in this young and growing Warriors locker room.
“I was hopeful that he would be the guy that he has been, but I didn’t know for sure,” said Warriors general manager Larry Riley. “You have a sense of what you are getting when you make a trade – you do the background [research] and so forth. There’s an old saying that you really don’t know a player until he is in your organization or you coach him. He’s been a little bit more vocal and outgoing than I might have expected and really in a positive way.”
Added Warriors coach Keith Smart, “A leader leads by doing things when no one pays attention. David does that.”
One might look at the five years Lee spent as a New York Knickerbocker for his procurement of moxie. Knicks fans came to love the hard-working Lee, even though the team struggled mightily on the court. Living and working in New York can either wear you down or strengthen your resolve, and Lee took to the Apple like a fish to water.
“By no means was it miserable in New York,” reflected Lee. “Losing is never fun, but the crowds, the media, just the city itself; I really did enjoy my time there. NYC – it’s a very unique place with a lot going on. It’s the center of everything, it seems.
“But I like the weather out here a lot better. I don’t miss that cold winter weather. I like the slower pace of San Francisco. It’s a big city that’s got every amenity that you could want, but at the same time it’s a little more laid back. I love living here, and I’m happy I made the choice to live in San Francisco.”
Lee is gone but not forgotten in New York, as evidenced by his triumphant return trip to Madison Square Garden with the Warriors early in the season.
“It was a very surreal feeling going back to the Garden and getting ready in the visiting locker room,” he assured.
“New York was all that I knew, and that organization was my only NBA home for five years. I really enjoyed going back there and getting a win. That was the most important thing.”
Lee, who was demonstrative throughout the game, recorded 28 points, 10 rebounds and 4 steals in 40 minutes in the Warriors 122–117 win. During a timeout at the 6:48 mark of the first quarter, the Knicks played a video tribute to Lee, titled, “Thank you David.”
The fans responded by giving him a standing ovation.
“Very cool, very touching,” he affirmed, “and not a night I will soon forget.”
Before being selected in the 30th and final pick of the first round by the Knicks, Lee played four years of college ball at Florida for the legendary Billy “The Kid” Donovan.
Lee spoke with admiration for his former coach. “I learned how serious he is about the game of basketball. He is one of the more intense human beings you will ever come across in any walk of life. He’s a guy who helped me and really brought my work ethic to where it is now.
“College was a much more difficult transition for me than even the jump to the pros – it was tough. I was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and thought I would waltz in and average 20 points a game, but it was a real challenge. It took a while to get used to. Let’s just say coach Donovan pushed me through that adjustment period rather sternly. He taught me a lot about the game and how I needed to approach it day in and day out.”
During Lee’s sophomore year at Florida, Donovan said this about his prized recruit: “When he touches the ball, it’s always good because of his ability to put it on the floor and create and make passes. He’s as good of a passing big man that I’ve ever been around. We become a better offensive team when he gets a chance to touch the ball.”
Lee’s accomplishments in high school are far too numerous to list, but besides the two-time National Honor Society recognition, his time on the court was highlighted by being named second-team All-American by the Sporting News his senior year while averaging 25 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 blocks a game. Lee scored 21 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds in the 2001 McDonald’s All-American game, and he selected Florida over powerhouses including Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas.
On the first day schools could contact him during the recruitment process, Lee got 47 calls from coaches and overall received 6,000-plus letters from colleges. He even nicknamed Donovan “The Stalker,” proving his humor and confidence matched his playing ability.
Lee’s love for the game started like so many youngsters, just shooting baskets in the backyard.
“I grew up watching Michael Jordan play, and I would emulate him while practicing,” he said. “I was in St. Louis and he was in Chicago, so my Dad used to take me up once or twice a year to watch his games. Playing ball was just something I always enjoyed when I was a kid.
“I think that is the most important thing about the game, and this is what I say when I talk to youngsters at camps: find the thing that you enjoy about the game. Because the amount of work you have to put into basketball to get to the college level is incredible, and to get to the pro level goes without saying.”
After joining the Warriors and going through a terrific training camp that united the team chemistry, the squad got off to a blazing hot 6-2 start, including wins over Houston, Utah and a rejuvenated Memphis team.
Then a near-tragedy shocked the team. Lee had performed brilliantly against the Knicks, but was injured in that game, sustaining an unintentional bite wound on his left shooting elbow from former teammate Wilson Chandler. The laceration became downright serious.
“This injury,” Lee recalled, “went from something that I thought was going to be a two-day situation, to all of a sudden they were saying we might have to cut your triceps muscle and you’re never going to play again, to ‘you’re fine.’ It was a very scary situation, and I learned how serious infection can be.
“They said if we can’t find the right antibiotics to counter the bacteria then I’m going to have to start getting things cut out of my arm, and I may never have the same arm to play basketball again. My left arm is my shooting arm. And really, I was only out for two and a half weeks, so all of this happened in that short of a time period. It happened quick. I was just in disbelief half the time. I’m just glad the worst didn’t occur, and I’m back able to help the team now.”
Lee returned to the court as soon as he was cleared but experienced incredible pain. The stitches would come apart whenever there was significant contact, and in the NBA, there is always banging at his position. He was undeniably affected by the half-inch gash in his shooting arm.
Once the injury healed, the Warriors resumed their momentum and reeled off six wins in nine games. With a very favorable schedule for February, including eight home games against the likes of Chicago (Feb. 5), Phoenix (Feb. 7), Denver (Feb. 9), Oklahoma City (Feb. 13), and Boston (Feb. 22), the team is healthy again and ready to make a real push toward playoff eligibility.
Lee will be there, leading the frontcourt charge.
“He’s such a versatile player at the four [power forward] spot,” observed teammate Stephen Curry. “He adds vocal leadership to our team and a lot of energy. He can play pretty much inside and out. He creates mismatches for us and keeps the ball moving. When he’s on the floor, the ball never becomes stagnant. People who study his game know that he makes a lot of plays for his teammates whether moving the ball or being quick to a screen and just the way he sees the game.
“He can put it on the floor, he can pass the ball, and he can shoot the ball. Not a lot of guys in this league can do that,” observed basketball sage and Sacramento Kings assistant coach Pete Carril.
“He opens up a different skill set for me being able to work off a big guy on the perimeter. We keep the pressure on the defense with his shooting ability. We work a lot of pick-and-rolls together and dribble hand-offs where his big body can get in the way and free me up, which usually leaves one of us open, and that’s a pretty good threat to have on the floor.”
With Curry maturing into a seasoned pro, Monta Ellis continuing his all-court domination and Lee creating havoc up front, the Warriors have their best trio of players since the “Run TMC” days. Time will tell if the team can nurture or add the necessary pieces to complement this burgeoning talent, but in the meantime, things are looking up for the Warriors again.