There's something familiar about these Memphis State Tigers. Look, there on the sideline is Larry Finch, the guard who led MSU into the NCAA finals against UCLA in 1973. Still smiling, still pudgy, Finch is now the Tigers' assistant coach, a Mr. Butterworth of the clipboard set.
And look, out on the floor is a younger version of Larry Kenon, Finch's former teammate, who now plays for the Chicago Bulls. Graceful and rail-thin like his predecessor, the kid can shoot and play in transition, Kenon's strengths, but he's probably a better rebounder and shot blocker.
The kid is 6'10" Keith Lee, merely a freshman, merely sensational, merely the player who has returned the Tigers to national prominence. He's second in the Metro Conference in scoring with an 18.7 average, first in rebounding with 11.7 per game and first in blocked shots with 71. He even ranks in the Top 10 in free-throw shooting (77.8%). Raise your hand if you heard of him as a high school player. "I guess I've surprised quite a few people so far," says Lee.
Keith is the only freshman in the country with double-figure averages in scoring and rebounding. Coming into this season, though, he was relatively unknown compared with, say, Georgetown's Pat Ewing or North Carolina's Michael Jordan.
Lee heads one of the strongest classes to play college basketball since the doors were opened to freshmen in 1972-73. Shot-blocking by the 7-foot Ewing (91 in 25 games). Scoring by La Salle Guard Steve Black (19.5 points per game). Passing by Alabama's Ennis Whatley (126 assists in 21 games). Sonar outside shooting by St. John's southpaw Chris Mullin (16.8 per game, 56.5% from the floor). Sonar inside shooting by Alabama's Bobby Lee Hurt (62.9%). All-around play by Jordan (14.3 points per game, 50.4% from the floor, 4.8 rebounds) and Villanova's Ed Pinckney (13.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 62.1% shooting). And any mention of freshmen big men must include 6'11" Michael Payne, whose solid play at center has helped put Iowa at the top of the Big Ten. At George Washington, Mike Brown's 16.3 scoring average and 8.8 rebounds per game have transformed George Washington from a team that slept everywhere (8-19 last season) to one with a wide-awake 12-11 record.
But no other neophyte has lifted his club the way Lee has. After three consecutive losing seasons, Memphis State was 17-3 at week's end and ranked No. 11 in the SI poll. A 62-60 defeat of Florida State Saturday night in Tallahassee made the Tigers 7-1 in the conference. They have lost only to Tulane (58-54), on the road, and appear to be on their way to their first regular-season Metro title. And this year's conference tournament, whose winner advances to the NCAA tournament, will be played at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, where the Tigers have won 14 straight this season.
No one expected such prowess from Memphis State, which had only two starters back from a team that last season finished 13-14 overall and 5-7 in the league. The Tigers were picked to be fourth or fifth in the conference in preseason polls. Says third-year Head Coach Dana Kirk, "I guess, looking at everything, that's just about where we belonged."
A major reason for Lee's, and thus Memphis State's, success is the current good health of 6'9" Center Derrick Phillips. He has recovered from an injury (stress fracture of the tarsal navicular; read The Bill Walton Injury) that kept him sidelined for two seasons. He had a bone graft operation, and four pin-sized electrodes were implanted in his foot to stimulate bone growth. That plus plenty of exercise, not to mention heart, have returned him to the lineup. "I think Derrick's been blessed," is the way senior Point Guard Otis Jackson puts it. And so has Memphis State. Phillips employs his 230 pounds in the pivot, where he's averaging 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds, freeing Lee to play forward and protect his skinny body.
Lee's inside-outside versatility puts him at the very top of the freshman class. Before Brown University met Memphis State at the Coliseum early in the season, Bruins Coach Mike Cingiser watched Lee warming up. "Sometimes you see a guy six-10 shooting jump shots and you think to yourself, 'The jerk shouldn't be out there,' " said Cingiser. "But there he was, 20 feet from the basket, making jump shot after jump shot. When it kept going through the net, we knew we had a problem." They did. Lee had 28 points, 15 rebounds, a school-record nine blocked shots and six assists in a 106-96 MSU victory.
Lee may turn out to be a passing forward in the Larry Bird mold, a consequence of both his natural skills and his work at the high post. His unselfishness has resulted in 55 assists in 20 games, the highest per-game average of any Metro big man. "He has complete alertness, and I think that's what I like about him best," says Kirk. "He sees a man in the fourth row in the stands taking off his topcoat."
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."