Lee overcomes tragedy to lead Hilltoppers
Western Kentucky's Courtney Lee (AP Photo/Steve Ne
Western Kentucky's Courtney Lee (AP Photo/Steve Ne
Posted Mar 24, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. - There's a tattoo on Courtney Lee's right arm of his former teammate, Danny Rumph, smiling with a ball in his hands, a Philadelphia Phillies cap on his head and wings on his shoulders.

There's Rumph's first name on one of Courtney Lee's sneakers and his uniform number and last name on the other.

There's also Lee, still at Western Kentucky nearly four years after he almost left the school if not for his buddy.

"There's no way I'd be here today if it weren't for Danny," Lee said after torching San Diego for 29 points to give the Hilltoppers their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1993. "I think about him every day."

Especially when the final horn sounded on Sunday afternoon and Western Kentucky, led by its senior, had knocked off the Toreros to set up a regional semifinal matchup with UCLA in Phoenix.

Lee was a big-time talent coming out of Pike High in Indianapolis. He averaged 18.1 points on a team loaded with a handful of current Division I players, including UAB star Robert Vaden. However, schools stayed away because of his academic deficiencies — everyone except for Bradley and Western Kentucky.

The official visit to Bowling Green, Ky., went well. Well enough that he committed to play for the Hilltoppers. However, it's difficult to judge a school when a school rolls out the red carpet.

When he got to the school in May for an early summer school session, he was miserable. He wanted to return home and transfer to one of the area schools — Butler, Indiana, Purdue or Xavier.

"I was one and a half feet out the door," Lee said. "I was homesick. I was lost."

He called home every day.

Finally, his mother starting hanging up the phone on him.

"She played a role, but Danny was the reason why I stayed," Lee said. "He told me he had the same feeling and he was 17 hours away from Philadelphia. I'm only three hours away."

Lee and Rumph, then a junior, became inseparable. Lee took his newfound buddy back to Indianapolis every other weekend, and the pair would visit all the malls in the area and play pick-up at Pike.

After his freshman season in which he quickly established himself as one of the Sun Belt's elite talents, Lee had finally become comfortable in small-town Bowling Green. Then, on May 9, he was hit with the shocking news.

Rumph had collapsed and died of a heart condition while playing a pickup game in his hometown.

"I can't say enough about what Courtney's gone through," said fellow senior Ty Rogers. "It was a tough situation, to lose one of your best friends at 19 years old."

Lee was depressed, but this time he didn't think about running away. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound swingman has excelled since and gotten the attention of NBA executives. One NBA general manager said he'd be shocked if Lee wasn't a first-round pick in the June draft because of size, strength and ability to score in a variety of ways.

However, Lee is taking it one step at a time, since now he understands that nothing is guaranteed. Not after seeing his friend's life taken away.

After the victory against San Diego, in which he also knocked down the most critical shot of the game — a 3-pointer that answered a trifecta that gave the Toreros their first lead since early in the first half — Lee was peppered with questions about Rumph.

He proudly rolled up his sleeve to show off his tattoo. He picked up his foot to display his sneakers. He spoke about his prized possession, four airbrushed basketball jerseys with Rumph's face on the front and his name and number on the back.

"I want to keep his memory alive," Lee said. "To show how close we were."

Western Kentucky will take on UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, but Lee won't be intimidated. Not with all that he and his teammates have been through.

Head coach Darrin Horn, a former player at Western Kentucky who was receiving some criticism entering the year for his inability to take the Hilltoppers to the NCAA tournament, said it was a process. Lee was an integral part, along with fellow seniors Ty Rogers and Tyrone Brazelton, of installing a system that he said takes some time with mid-major programs.

"Everyone wants to be in the tournament, even more so at our place," Horn said. "Even though it may not always be realistic."

Lee and his teammates have finally made a name for themselves on a national stage, but that's not nearly as important as remembering where he came from — or where he may have gone.

Jeff Goodman is a senior college basketball writer for FOXSports.com. He can be reached at GoodmanonFOX@aol.com or check out his blog, Good 'N Plenty.

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