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December 14, 2007BOWLING GREEN, Ky. ? The spotlight? It never has been about the spotlight.
It's not that Western Kentucky swingman Courtney Lee is uncomfortable on the big stage. He just never craved it.
If he did he wouldn't be playing here. If he was more of a "me-first" guy ? which, let's face it, the college basketball world has plenty of ? his career scoring average wouldn't be the relatively modest 16.5 points per game that it is.
Lee has learned how to fit in. He did it at Indianapolis Pike High School, a top program in a state known for its hoops hysteria. He started for the Red Devils for three seasons, and played on a team that went undefeated and won a state title his junior year. But it wasn't his team until he was a senior, after Justin Cage, 2003's Indiana Mr. Basketball, had graduated and gone to play at Xavier and classmate Robert Vaden had transferred to prep school.
THE COURTNEY LEE FILE
Claim to fame: Second in the Sun Belt in scoring (21.3 points per game) and a potential NBA first-round pick.
Favorite basketball player: Michael Jordan. "Going into the eighth grade I was a football player. Then my brother and I watched a tape of Michael Jordan and we saw the dunk contest with him and Dominique Wilkins. That changed my whole outlook on sports. From then on, I wanted to play basketball."
Favorite food: His great aunt's lasagna.
What he's listening to: Jay-Z and Lil' Wayne.
Favorite video game: NCAA 2K8. "XBox 360. I stay with the system. It's always in my room."
If I could be Coach Horn for a day I would: "I'd leave practice up to the assistant coaches and go somewhere and vibe out."
Saturday, WKU (7-2) and Lee will be on the national stage as they take on Tennessee (8-1) as part of the Sun Belt Classic doubleheader in Nashville. The other game will see Middle Tennessee State (3-5) take on Memphis (7-0). The Western-Tennessee game is on ESPNU; the MTSU-Memphis game is on ESPN2.
"It's a big opportunity not only for myself but for the program, to let people know that we can play with anybody," Lee said. "Personally it's a chance for me to get more exposure and to play against some big-name guys."
Lee is a big-name guy himself now. NBA scouts are aware of Lee's scoring ability. DraftExpress.com lists Lee, a 6-foot-5, 200-pounder, as a first-round pick, No. 22 overall.
"There was buzz last year about leaving early (for the draft), and they told me I had a legitimate shot to be drafted," Lee said. "But Coach (Darrin Horn) and I sat down and talked and came to the agreement that I wasn't ready.
"On and off the court, I have to grow as a player and a person. I have to be sharper mentally and I have to get in the weight room and get stronger, quicker and faster. I have to work on my all-around game and just get better each day."
So far, Lee has raised his scoring average to 21.3 points per game, four points per game more than last season. He's tied for 13th nationally in steals with 2.9 per game. He's shooting 50.7 percent from the floor, the highest average of his career. All this comes despite being the focus of every opponent WKU faces.
"I've seen something different every night defensively," Lee said. "I stepped my scoring average up and teams are seeing that and putting their best defender on me. And they always have one sagging off ready to help. I've seen box-and-one, zones, two guys facing me the whole time.
"I get the points through my teammates. That's one thing coach emphasizes: playing together and playing unselfish. After a few cuts and a few screens, I get open shots and I'm able to hit them, and my teammates get me the ball in a position to score."
Lee was part of Horn's first recruiting class at WKU. The Hilltoppers were one of Lee's earliest suitors, and Lee had family in Bowling Green. Horn spoke of playing up-tempo, and Lee figured it would be a good fit.
The coach and the star player have grown together. It hasn't always been easy.
"When I was a freshman, it felt like it was the hardest thing in the world to play here," Lee said. "He stayed on me. When you're a freshman, you don't understand. You're like, 'Why is he staying on me like that?' When you grow older and mature, you realize he's seeing the potential and he wanted to keep pushing me."
Horn has kept pushing. He'd like an NCAA Tournament appearance on his resume, too. He knows Lee is the key to getting there.
"I knew from day one he was a special player because he had all of that athleticism and that certain something you can't teach," Horn said. "The bigger the challenge, the brighter the stage, he wants the ball.
One of the first people Lee met when he arrived at school was Danny Rumph. Rumph, a guard from Philadelphia, was Lee's freshman roommate.
"Danny and I were close," Lee said. "We bonded when I first came here. He showed me the ropes. It just seemed like he wanted to stay by my side. We connected real close. We were on the verge of being best friends."
The Hilltoppers went 22-9 in 2004-05 and made the NIT. Lee averaged 14.9 points per game, second to Winchester's 18.2. Rumph was named the team's most improved player after averaging 9.0 points.
But while he was home in Philadelphia during the offseason, Rumph collapsed and died May 9, 2005, on Mother's Day, after playing in a pickup game. He was found to have cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes cardiac arrhythmia and sudden death. He was 21.
"I was home in Indianapolis," Lee said. "I got the news at like 4 a.m. I was asleep. Somebody called, and I didn't want to believe it at first.
"I sat and thought about it and said, 'It's not true,' and I went back to sleep. When I woke up, I had like 15 missed calls from my teammates and coaches telling me Danny was gone."
Lee, Winchester and Wilborn got matching tattoos on their right arms in memory of Rumph.
"(Rumph's death) took a toll on me," Lee said. "I realized I can't take this game for granted. You never know if you're going to be alive tomorrow, so you can't complain about practice, you're tired or whatever. I never look at it like that.
"You never know if you'll have another 24 hours to play this game. I try to improve every day and play as hard as I can."
Those words come as no surprise to Lee's high school coach, Larry Bullington.
"He had great stamina, great energy, and he could go hard all day long," Bullington said. "We have had some great ones here, and he's right at the top athletically as far as the way he could run and jump and shoot it off the dribble or off the pass."
Lee is a pure scorer, no doubt, but he also wears the mantle of "leader." It's a role into which Lee has grown over time, and he's finally feeling comfortable with it.
"It didn't come naturally," Lee said. "The vocal leadership skills took a while to come. My freshman and sophomore year, I played the follower. Becoming a vocal leader, it takes work. For one, you want to lead by example. When you lead by example, they'll automatically follow. When you can help people by working hard and doing the right things and let them see that ? that gives you the space to correct them and be able to say something to them.
"You have to hold each other accountable. If you see a mistake and you get on somebody and they continue making the same mistake, it turns from trying to talk to them to ripping them. Being in the position that I am ? they look up to me as one of the main players ? I feel like I need to do that, but I also need to tell them how much I need them, too."
Lee doesn't need them to reach the NBA. But he does need them to finish his college career in the only appropriate place, in the spotlight of the NCAA Tournament.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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