When Elvis died in 1977, Memphis got the blues. The river city Andrew Jackson had named after the capital of ancient Egypt suddenly had no soul. "Even people who didn't appreciate Presley's music were part of the mourning," says William Morris, mayor of Shelby County, Tenn., in which Memphis is situated. "For a long time Elvis and the Mississippi River were the only things we had."
But Memphis was on the move by the late '70s, trying to shuck its plantation image for a modern, high-tech look. "Going from cotton to computers," says Morris. So Memphis needed a figurehead, somebody who could show the entire nation that the city was united and serious. Elvis wouldn't have done, anyway. Too dated, too gross. Something sleek was needed.
Enter, if you will, Keith Lee, who makes sleek look fat. Standing there now outside the Memphis State University field house, sophomore Lee, 6'10", perhaps 196 pounds, seems absorbed in his hands, huge appendages that dangle limply at the end of preposterously long and skinny arms. When they put a statue of Lee down on Beale Street, next to the one of Elvis, they'll need struts to hold up the globs of metal at the ends. As for being a figurehead, Lee says, "I don't think about things like that. I'm just a basketball player trying to play the best I can." So, on the statue's plaque, they can say he is modest.
Then they can quote others:
"It's hard to express what he has meant to the city and the school," says Memphis State Athletic Director Charles Cavagnaro. "Before this season even started we had a Hoop It Up Day in a mall in a lily-white part of Memphis, and four or five thousand people came out to see Keith and the team. When the season ended last year, we had a rally in a minority neighborhood in south Memphis and three thousand people mobbed the team. A security service had to protect the players from the crush of humanity. People wanted to see Keith Lee and touch him and be near him."
"For years Memphis has lacked a national and international identity," says Mayor Morris. "We've been divided by strikes and by things that happened in the '60s, by low income and the assassination of Martin Luther King. But now there's a revitalization going on, of the city and the people. Downtown, Beale Street, the Peabody Hotel, Mud Island—we're trying to develop Memphis into a business and cultural center for the entire mid-South. And Keith Lee and the Memphis State team have been the most prominent catalyst for the community. The success of the team is bringing legislators and city, county and university officials together on projects, a rare thing, believe me. Poor and rich, black and white—the team makes us all feel a lot better. And publicity. If you're in New York or somewhere and you hear about Memphis State, you're going to be thinking about our city."
Ah, yes, amateur basketball. Maybe Keith Lee studies his hands because so much is in them. Disregarding civic worth, just think of his dollar value to his school. "Well, we've had a waiting list for season tickets since the '72-73 season, when Larry Kenon came in," says MSU Ticket Manager Phil Cannon. "But I guess if we had the space we could probably sell an additional 5,000 season tickets, at between $93 and $110 a seat, just because of Keith." This is why city and county officials have approved a $20 million renovation of the Mid-South Coliseum, MSU's home court, to raise seating capacity from 11,200 to nearly 19,000. State officials are almost certain to concur.
A figurehead—especially a bony figurehead—could crumble under such responsibility, but Keith Lee just ambles along, eating Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, doing his thing and keeping quiet. The honors he reaped last year—everything they award in the Metro Conference, including Player of the Year and Tournament MVP; Freshman of the Year; first team All-America—mean little to him. That he can shoot, pass, rebound and block shots with consummate skill—all that is likewise unimpressive to Lee, who deep inside would rather be a point guard.
"I used to think about being short and doing the dribbling and ball handling," he says wistfully, "but I can't go back. Still, assists are the most satisfying part of the game for me. I'd rather try to hit the open man than shoot. What the headlines turn out to be, well, that's up to the press."
They usually turn out to be about Keith Lee. Last season he was the only freshman in the nation to have double-figure averages in both scoring (18.3) and rebounding (11.0). He also finished second in the nation in blocked shots with 102, ahead of both Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing. At week's end Memphis State was 11-0 and ranked No. 1 by SI, and Lee was averaging 18.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.4 blocked shots and 2.5 assists per game.
Behind Lee the MSU Tigers won the Metro Conference last year for the first time ever and had a 24-5 overall record, the team's best since 1973. Memphis State lost to Villanova in the semifinals of the NCAA East regional tournament, but, as usual, its most wrenching games were played against conference foe and archrival Louisville. Lee dominated those contests, averaging 25.7 points and 12.7 rebounds, and Memphis State won two of three. "He's the best player in our league and he might be as good as anybody in any league," said Louisville Coach Denny Crum after the last game.
If all goes well the Tigers will be 22-0 when they meet Louisville at home for the first time this season, on Feb. 19. The city of Memphis may need a collective sedating by then. For a town that has been jilted by big-time sports—Memphis WFL and ABA teams folded when their leagues went under; the NBA, NFL and major league baseball always expand elsewhere—Tiger basketball has become a civic up, proof that the whole community matters. "Keith Lee has given us that dimension of class," says Cavagnaro. "You can't buy it, you can't order it. You couldn't even have dreamed it."
Though the Tigers went 13-14 each of the two years before he arrived, Lee hasn't been working alone. Baskerville Holmes, a 6'7" freshman forward with great potential who is the Tigers' sixth man, came to Memphis State largely because of Lee. "I'm from Memphis and I watched a lot of games last year and I like the way Keith was so unselfish," he says. "I knew I'd be playing with a player, not a dummy."
Holmes also knew he'd be playing for a coach with a fanatical drive to win. "If there are 900 horses in a race and I'm riding a donkey, I still think I can win," says Dana Kirk, who's been at the helm of the Tigers since 1979. Kirk has won by emphasizing the recruitment of local talent—nine of the 12 players on this year's team, including Lee and three other starters, are from the Memphis area. Kirk also had the good sense after three games last year to move 6'5" leaper Bobby Parks of Grand Junction from guard to swingman and to start 6'3" Phillip (Doom) Haynes of Memphis at shooting guard.
Since the muscular Haynes, who got his nickname from "killing guys" in touch football games in grammar school, has been a regular, the Tigers have won 34 of 37. In 1980 Kirk instituted Memphis State's fierce full-court matchup press, a kamikaze defense that terrifies opponents into the dumbest turnovers. Of course, the biggest thing Kirk did was garner Lee. As a senior at West Memphis High School across the river in Arkansas, Lee pledged himself to Arkansas State. This didn't thrill the University of Arkansas, which likes to think of itself as that state's only major college. Having heard rumors about recruiting indiscretions at Arkansas State, Razorback Athletic Director Frank Broyles called the NCAA and asked it to investigate. Members of the Arkansas athletic staff then made certain Lee knew his prospective college was sure to go on probation after the investigation. When Lee didn't show up at a press conference to sign with Arkansas State, rumor had it that Memphis State had leaped into the void and "kidnapped" him.
After the dust settled, Arkansas State was on probation, Arkansas was empty-handed and Lee had surfaced at Memphis State. Kirk hadn't hogtied the player, he had merely promised him he could play forward for the Tigers, a position Lee vastly prefers to center. Broyles is still touchy about his role in the affair, calling it "a very sensitive thing" that "developed into a range war." Does Kirk appreciate Broyles's indirect role in delivering Lee? "I didn't send him a letter jacket, if that's what you mean," says the coach.
Memphis State's women's team is playing Jackson State in the MSU field house, and Lee is watching the game from the stands. Lee is particularly interested in No. 21 for the Lady Tigers, who has just dished out another assist. The player is 5'8" senior Point Guard Diane Jones, perhaps the finest playmaker in women's basketball. A native of Bolivar, Tenn., Jones was MVP in the 1978 Tennessee high school state tournament and MVP of the 1981 National Junior college All-Star game while attending Jackson State (Tenn.) J.C. On Sept. 4, 1982, Keith and Diane announced their engagement. They met during a game of two-on-two in 1981, and each has been the better for it. "I don't just talk to anybody," the reserved Lee explains to digging reporters. "And I don't, either," Diane will add softly. But they talk to each other, sharing confidences and hurts. Both of Jones's parents are dead, and Lee, who has an older sister and a younger brother, was raised by his mother, who is now ill. "Keith gives me a feeling of security," says Jones. "And a lot of things he's going through I can help him with. My mother died of cancer when I was 12. It almost seems like Keith and I were meant to be together."
Jones and Lee each have a child as a result of earlier relationships—Lee's daughter lives with her mother in West Memphis; Jones's son lives with her older brother in Whiteville. Jones will graduate in June with a degree in marketing, but she'll try to find a job in Memphis "to stay beside Keith." And of their potential for genetically blessed offspring, she says, "If it's a boy, I want him to play ball like Keith. And if it's a girl, I want her to be at least six feet tall, and still play like Keith."
During a time-out a man walks up to Lee and says, "O.K., how long you gonna stay in school?" It's a question that Lee hears wherever he goes.
"I'm leaning on staying," he says.
"Come on," says the man. "Denny Crum says that if he were Keith Lee he'd turn pro right now."
But Lee apparently is sincere about going the distance at MSU. A secondary education major with a B—average, he says, "I've known guys who've gotten messed up by pro ball and had nothing to fall back on. I don't want that happening to me." Avarice isn't a compelling motive for Lee, who rooms with teammate Aaron Price in the MSU athletic dorm and spends any extra money he has on his daughter. Nor is Diane Jones pushing for the NBA loot. "I want him to get his degree," she says. "The reason he wants to play pro ball, anyway, isn't for the money. It's just to play with good players."
That sound you hear is 650,000 Memphians exhaling.
During Lee's junior and senior years in high school his team won 60 consecutive games and back-to-back state championships. The 60 in a row established an Arkansas record. The head coach at West Memphis High, Bill Terwilliger, passed out on the bench at last year's state tournament, telling people later, "There's a shock going to state without Keith Lee."
Lee had good preparation in high school. Everyone talks about how skinny he is now at age 20, but as a teen-ager he was a stork's leg. Nevertheless, each day at practice he lined up against a rugged teammate named Michael Cage. The 6'9", 225-pound Cage now plays for San Diego State and at the end of last week he led the NCAA in rebounding. It also helped that Terwilliger made his big men do ball-handling drills designed for guards.
Indeed, Lee's nimble hands—"gentle and quick yet powerful," says Terwilliger—are probably his greatest asset. Against Ball State this season Lee grabbed a rebound and dribbled the length of the floor before beginning a righthanded pass to Center Derrick Phillips breaking from the left. But instead of giving it off to Phillips, he abruptly flipped the ball in mid-motion to Bobby Parks on the right side for a layup. It may not sound like much, but as one witness described the pass later, "It was impossible, a screwball of some kind."
Great peripheral vision, great timing, great touch, great "floor awareness," as Kirk calls it—Lee has them all. He's even a remarkable free-throw shooter, having made 25 in a row at one point this season and having a 79.2% career mark. Rare delicacy for a big man. But is Lee really a big man? "What he is," says Kirk, "is a finesse player. He'll play center for us occasionally, but I wouldn't put him in there on the block, in the tug-of-war."
Lee has tried to gain weight and did, in fact, climb above 200 pounds last spring. But mononucleosis wiped out the gain last summer. "It doesn't bother me," says Lee, who seems to move through life as placidly as he glides across the court. "I like the size I am. I don't eat that much of anything, except for Peanut Butter Cups."
Marty Blake, director of scouting services for the NBA, isn't bothered by Lee's weight, either. "What is 'strength'? What is 'ready'?" Blake says. "I think Keith Lee has the frame to play at 220. But if he doesn't, so what? Look at Louis Orr and Jamaal Wilkes—they're doing O.K. in the NBA, and they're skinny. I don't see any weaknesses in Keith right now. But I'd like to see him stay in school. I think Ralph Sampson showed that it can help anybody."
Lee plays with a peculiar stiff-legged, loose-armed style that is his form of abandon. Sometimes on the wing, sometimes underneath, sometimes at the high post; he's likely to do anything. Against East Tennessee State this season he sank five consecutive jump shots from 20 feet or farther. Against West Texas State he had 17 rebounds. Against Ball State he had six assists. And he's always blocking shots. "He's like Ewing," says Assistant Coach Larry Finch, who played on Memphis State's last great team, the 1973 NCAA runners-up. "Just his presence helps you win."
This season's starting squad is well balanced, getting all-around floor play from Haynes and Parks, muscle from the 6'9", 225-pound Phillips and whippet speed from freshman Point Guard Andre Turner. It is hard to say what kind of game strategy works best against the Tigers, though ganging up on Lee isn't one of them. He'll simply pass off, and as Kirk says, "We've got other players who'll appear in the NBA."
If Lee has any shortcomings they are his defense, where his lack of weight becomes a disadvantage, and a sort of adolescent mischievousness he occasionally displays during practices and dull games. Terwilliger recalls how he once had to paddle Lee for not hustling in practice. Early this season Lee raised Kirk's hackles by letting fly with a 45-foot jumper in the second half of the Wyoming game. The Tigers were leading at the time 61-40. "I thought I could make it," Lee said later. After a while he amended that. "The name of the game is having fun," he said. "You should do what the coach tells you, but if you can't have fun, it's like a job. And it's not supposed to be a job, is it?" No, it's not. And Kirk has even told Lee he can take the shot again, when the Tigers are up by 30.
"The most important things to me are God, my family and basketball," Lee says. "I mean, put school in there before basketball. And when I say family, that includes Diane."
But this is the 10th anniversary of the 1973 team, and Memphians are wild for a big winner. Even though no tickets are available for Memphis State games, people seek them. One man has offered to donate $15,000 to the basketball program in exchange for two season tickets in the "golden circle" area of the arena. "He'll give the money anyway," says Cavagnaro. "But we'll never get him seats. There's no way." Dick Hackett, the recently elected mayor of the city of Memphis, told a reporter, "One of the reasons I ran for mayor was to get season tickets to Memphis State games." "He's telling the truth," says ticket manager Cannon. "He was on our waiting list."
Kirk tries to downplay MSU's prospects for the Final Four, pointing out that the team has a relatively weak bench, an untested point guard and is in the unaccustomed and unwanted role of the "hunted rather than hunter." But it doesn't work. The Tigers are for real and, at least at home, where they've won 26 in a row, nearly invincible. During games in the Mid-South Coliseum a bare-chested, buffalo-headed fanatic known as the Medicine Man jumps up and down behind the backboard whenever an opponent tries a free throw. It's an amusing, albeit unsporting, act, but it doesn't occur all that often because referees seem terrified to call fouls on Kirk's team. After his Wyoming team was outshot 35 to 3 from the stripe, Coach Jim Brandenburg snarled to newsmen, "I don't want to talk to anybody in Memphis."
Opponents must understand that something that means so much to a whole populace isn't going to be surrendered gracefully. Though they may want a piece of the Memphis Thin Man, they'd do well to remember a line by the late Memphis Fat Man. "If you're lookin' for trouble," Elvis sang in King Creole, "you came to the right place."