Keith Lee is unquestionably the most famous basketball player to emerge from the levees and shanties of West Memphis, Ark. In fact, Lee, who is now a junior All-America across the Mississippi River at Memphis State, is just about the area's hottest item since Elvis Presley. But even Elvis had his forerunners, and Lee's is Michael Cage.
A 6'9", 240-pound senior forward with hands from the Julius Erving designer collection. Cage was the 1982-83 Western Athletic Conference Tri-MVP and went on to win a gold medal on the U.S. Pan American Games team, an honor Lee, who didn't even make that squad, can't brag about. A scout for the Dallas Cowboys, never a team to pass up football talent in basketball shorts, told Cage he's a natural-born tight end. Paul Silas, who played 16 years and coached for three more in the NBA, calls Cage "a surefire pro." And Cage's stats—24.6 points, .625 shooting and 12.8 rebounds per game through last Thursday's 61-47 win over San Diego—speak louder than Silas' words. At week's end he was among the NCAA's top 10 in all three categories.
"My life's been kind of like a movie script, I guess," Cage says. "Nobody could warn me about college recruiting because no one 1 knew had been recruited. I came to San Diego and saw the ocean and knew I could be free. When I left home it destroyed my relationship with my family for a time, but my family had taught me to be strong."
James and Iola Cage always knew when young Michael had returned home from the West Memphis Boys Club: They'd hear a basketball bouncing toward the house. That frustrated James, a 6' 5", 240-pound hospital worker who wanted his son to pursue another sport. "He thought I'd play football," Michael says, "but I played basketball, by myself—that is, until Keith came along."
January 16, 1984
Lee and Cage pooled their talents at West Memphis High. Going into his senior year, Cage, then 6'8" and 215 pounds, wasn't rated among the top 150 high schoolers in the U.S. Neither was Lee, who was then a 6'8½", 190-pound string-bean junior. "Keith and I didn't go to those summer camps," says Cage. "We worked on each other. Sometimes he'd play me like it was a fight. I liked that. We became best friends."
In Cage's final season West Memphis went 30-0, "and no rebound was safe," Cage says. Marion Brewer, the coach at Memphis Northside, then Tennessee's top team, knew San Diego State coach Dave (Smokey) Gaines because they had both gone to LeMoyne (now LeMoyne-Owen) College in Memphis, where Gaines played guard from 1959 to 1963. After building a reputation as a fierce recruiter at the University of Detroit, Gaines took the head job at San Diego State in 1979. The next year Brewer sent word that Gaines should look at the big kids in West Memphis.
Many schools, including Arkansas and Memphis State, had already beaten a path to the Cage residence. And they had a big edge over San Diego State. Cage's parents had decreed that he attend college near home. Michael's brother Clifford, now 25, lives in West Memphis. Brother Kenny, 23, had moved all the way across the Mississippi to Memphis. Anything farther away than Oxford, Miss, or Fayetteville, Ark. was considered another universe.
"My science instructor asked me if I knew anything about Smokey Gaines and San Diego State," Cage says. "I told him that I'd never met Mr. Gaines and to tell him no thank you." But Gaines came around anyway. "He told me, 'Mike, I know there's a lot of pressure on you. All I can say is that you can't be bought because you're not for sale, and that you can come visit San Diego State, and we'd be happy to see you stay.' "
Gaines couldn't have handled it better. Cage is impressed by the soft sell with a philosophical twist. Still, no one believed he'd actually go there—his parents refused to give their consent—until the June night he had Clifford drive him to the Greyhound station, where Michael boarded a westbound bus. "I did right, but it was hard," Cage says. "I love my parents. They raised me well. When I remembered the words 'The disobedient child's days will be shortened,' I felt very uncomfortable."
Cage averaged 13.1 rebounds his freshman year with the Aztecs, including 26 in a game against LaSalle. He played virtually his entire sophomore season with a sprained right wrist, and his rebounding plummeted to 8.8 a game, but last year he was back up to 12.6. His thinking has been influenced by Moses Malone, a friend of Gaines's. "Moses told me that if you went after them all, one night you might get every rebound," Cage says.
The NCAA views Malone's association with San Diego State with some suspicion, and, as a result, the Aztecs face possible NCAA probation. Sometime during 1980-81 Malone reportedly bought a dinner for Leonard Allen, San Diego State's 6'10" center, who was then a high school student in Port Arthur, Texas. Malone told Allen during that meal that it might not be a bad idea for Allen to go help of Smokey out. Malone, in the eyes of the NCAA, would have been a representative of San Diego State, and school reps aren't allowed to buy prospects anything. Also, a former Aztec player named David Bradley has charged he received junior-college credits for classes he never attended. "We're just waiting for the other shoe to drop," says Gaines.
Imagine how much scrutiny the NCAA would have brought to bear on San Diego State had Cage been able to persuade Lee to sign on with the Aztecs when he came for a visit after his senior season at West Memphis. Says Cage, "Keith told me, 'Mike, this is where I want to be.' Ah, we would have crushed the world. But he also said the pressure was on to stay at home. I don't think he'll stay at Memphis State past this year, though. Playing at home is a pressure cooker and I think Keith's tired of it."
Cage has gotten grace at San Diego State. "I'm frankly amazed at how far he's come offensively," said Arizona coach Lute Olsen after Cage had 31 points and 12 rebounds in the Aztecs' 90-80 win over the Wildcats last month. "I saw him after his freshman year, and he was a great rebounder then. Now...well, I know we couldn't stop him."
In the middle of the first half against Arizona, Cage was pushed violently—though accidentally—while going for a rebound. On the Aztecs' next possession he curled in a lefty slam and drew an offensive foul, knocking three Wildcats to the court. At that juncture he had 11 points. Five minutes later he had 21.
Cage scores points off the basketball floor, too. "He reminds me of Tom McMillen [the Washington Bullet forward who was a Rhodes scholar]. He has the same gracious ways no matter what the circumstances," says San Diego State president Thomas B. Day, who was an administrator at the University of Maryland when McMillen was there in the early '70s.
If they held an election to determine the best player ever to come out of West Memphis, Lee might squeak by, but not in the Cage household. "Mike brought basketball to West Memphis," says Iola Cage. "You should hear the sound of all the balls bouncing here now."