With a postseason ban, a dream dies for two Louisville seniors
LOUISVILLE—When Damion Lee found out in October that his transfer destination, the University of Louisville, was being hit with allegations of NCAA infractions, he sent a text to his new teammates: "I'm here for you guys."
Months later, the leading scorer and leader of a top-20 team that days before upset #2 North Carolina, was, in fact, here with them. Surrounded by his teammates, eyes red from crying, the wing spoke with the media just hours after the administration announced it was self-imposing a ban of all 2015-16 men's basketball postseason play.
The accusations, involving members of the basketball program using an escort service, had nothing to do with Lee, and are still currently being investigated by a university committee. Friday, despite the investigation being ongoing, it was announced that enough wrongdoing was determined to conclude a postseason ban was best at this time.
The question is, best for whom?
Lee and teammate Trey Lewis joined the Cardinals this year as fifth-year graduate transfers. Lee hailed from Drexel and Lewis from Cleveland State. Neither had ever been to an NCAA tournament.
"When they came here," said Pitino at Friday's press conference, "they said to me, 'Coach, we've never experienced the NCAA tournament, and Louisville has the record for going far. We just want the experience of going one time and playing in the tournament and seeing how far we could go.'"
Lewis, who joined Lee at the press conference, said it was what drove them coming into the season.
"We came here for a purpose and a mission," said Lewis, "to play for a great school, and the reason we came here was to play in the tournament."
Due to the ban, neither will get the opportunity.
Before Friday, the duo was hell-bent on their dreams. Since the beginning of the season, they led a new team, a team of young guys in need of veteran direction. The blame from each loss was self-appointed by them, to them. They more than fulfilled the role of captain, physically and vocally. Lee's mantra, "Whose got my back?" was a theme all season.
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"He kept saying it over and over," Pitino said, "and after the North Carolina win, they were screaming it in the locker room … I realized and I continue to realize how special they are, because that doesn't happen every day for a coach."
Now, under drastically different circumstances, the realization of what has been taken from two innocent players due to the actions of those before them, has hit.
"Damion and Trey have nothing," Pitino said. "Nothing to look forward to, future-wise, right now. They were hit over the head with a sledgehammer and they are devastated, as well as the rest of the team. The fact is, they weren't involved."
"We both feel like we don't deserve this," Lewis said. "This team doesn't deserve this. We work very hard and we put ourselves in a position to fulfill our dreams and that was to play in the NCAA tournament and we feel like that's been taken away from both of us."
Lewis acknowledged how hurt the rest of the team and program was, also, but the two clearly felt a different kind of pain—the kind that comes with last chances.
"When you're a little kid," Lee said, adding onto Lewis, "and you work so hard for something, and then you get to that moment where you feel like you can finally have it; you can finally taste it, and it just gets ripped away from you … It's like you lost your best friend."
Still, the pair gave respect to their short time at Louisville, thanking the fans and thanking their teammates for how welcoming and warm their time has been, despite the university's attempt at damage control.
And that's very clearly what this was. When University President James Ramsey was asked in Friday's press conference if this was done in hopes that it would be enough, he answered with a simple "yes."
And later, when asked about his choice in acting now as opposed to a year from now, when Lee and Lewis would be gone, Ramsey said he "looked at waiting," but that "taking a self-imposing penalty at this time is certainly in the best interest of the university and our program."
The Louisville program will be without Lee and Lewis next year, two players who worked relentlessly for the school name on their jersey. They showed loyalty when the allegations came out, and they showed loyalty on Friday, when they said they wouldn't have picked any other school, even knowing what is ahead, even though it isn't in their best interest.
The university self-sanctioned despite them, making one really think about the true meaning of the "L1" in the popular phrase "L1C4" ("Louisville first! Cards forever!).
Louisville first indeed.
Haley O'Shaughnessy is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Louisville. Follow her on Twitter.