It’s been about 32 hours since Marcus Lee announced he was withdrawing his name from the NBA Draft and leaving Kentucky to transfer to a different school. I’ve spent those 32 hours trying to make sense of Lee’s decision, and honestly, haven’t made much progress.
Lee’s decision has been difficult to digest because it seems so out of character. During his three years at Kentucky, Lee seemed like the perfect “program guy.” Sure, he wasn’t a one-and-done, but he was a valuable contributor, especially in the locker room. Alongside EJ Floreal, Lee helped each crop of new guys blend into the next, keeping the pressure-cooker atmosphere that is Kentucky basketball light and fun enough to manage. In addition to that, he devoted himself to the community off the court, volunteering in his spare time and becoming an advocate for children in need, such as Kelly Melton. His contributions to the community were so impressive he was selected to represent the SEC at the 2016 NCAA Leadership Forum, a huge honor not just for him, but the program. He might not be an elite player, but Kentucky basketball always seemed proud to have Marcus Lee, and it seemed the feeling was mutual.
That’s why, to use his own brother’s words when asked about transfer rumors last month, Lee’s decision to leave UK feels like a slap in the face. We’ve gone over why Lee leaving makes little sense, but now, I want to shift to the next topic: how he’ll be remembered.
Marcus Lee first popped onto our radar back in July 2012 as a “mobile big man from California.” Considered at the time the 18th best player in the 2013 class, Lee got an offer from Kentucky during a visit with John Calipari on September 16, 2012. He committed a week after visiting for Big Blue Madness, picking the Cats over Louisville and California. At the time, we knew him as a springy, athletic forward with a fauxhawk that loved to play volleyball. In a time when fans are desperate to get to know the players who come and go so quickly, I think those traits helped people connect to Marcus early on.
Lee started his freshman season with a bang, scoring 17 points in 15 minutes in his college debut vs. UNC Asheville. That performance would go on to be his season-high in scoring, as an illness set Marcus back later on that season, but his best performance was yet to come.
The Michigan game
Ask any UK fan what Lee’s best game as a Cat was and they’ll immediately say the game vs. Michigan in the Midwest Regional. With Willie Cauley-Stein on the bench with a sprained ankle, Lee stepped in and scored 10 points and eight rebounds to help Kentucky advance to the Final Four. What’s so great about that game is how Lee transformed into a totally different player than the one we saw struggle most of the season. In the two months prior to the Midwest Regional, Lee had only scored four points total; against Michigan, he was assertive, dominating the boards and scoring ten points in the first half.
The air guitar
Before the bow and arrow was the air guitar. The 2014-15 season was fun for many reasons, one of them being Marcus Lee’s air guitar motion on the bench after big shots:
If we mention the air guitar, we have to mention…
Lee’s role at Kentucky was mostly “energy guy,” and a lot of that energy came in the form of clapping. In fact, I’d argue one of Lee’s greatest accomplishments at Kentucky might be taking a trademark Duke move and making UK fans love it:
All of the lobs
If Marcus Lee does one thing well, it’s catch a lob. With Lee, the lob became the auto-lob over the last few years, which is probably why he has the highest field-goal percentage (68%) in UK Basketball history, a baffling stat otherwise. This is one of countless examples, but probably my favorite:
His friendship with Kelly Melton
That dunk got us all out of our seats, including Kelly Melton, Lee’s 10-year-old friend who’s battling leukemia. Lee and UK Football players Max Strong and Landon Foster have been friends with Kelly for a few years, visiting him in the hospital and hanging out with him during free time.
Kelly’s not the only one; there are countless stories of Lee visiting kids in the hospital or reaching out to help others. (If you have a kid who’s done one of the Calipari camps, I’m sure you have a Marcus story too.) I remember asking Lee during the 2014 NCAA Tournament what it meant to him to hang out with kids who are suffering from illnesses like Kelly’s, and he got a little frustrated, telling me he doesn’t hang out with Kelly because he’s a sick kid, he hangs out with Kelly because he’s his friend. Calipari calls that servant leadership; Marcus Lee just calls it a way of life.
In March, Jason King of the Bleacher Report wrote a great feature on Lee which included a lot about his friendship with Kelly. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to check it out.
One of the nicest guys in the room
How will I remember Marcus Lee? Probably as anyone who’s ever met him will: as one of the nicest guys in the room. Lee was one of the first players I ever interviewed and always helped ease my nerves with a few jokes or a smile. Whereas a lot of players go on auto-pilot with their answers, Lee was always very thoughtful with his, which I really respect. Unlike some, Lee didn’t seem to mind media sessions too much; in fact, he and his partner-in-crime EJ Floreal often made the most of them, whether it be yukking it up for the cameras on the way to the court, stealing the camera and microphone to conduct their own interviews, or letting everyone in on a fun behind-the-scenes tidbit (don’t forget, it was Lee who first told us about the team’s love for Super Smash Brothers, a story that went on to dominate the headlines during the 2015 Tournament run).
As I said earlier, over three years, we’ve come to love Marcus Lee for all of the reasons listed above, which is why the past month has been so strange. I wish nothing but the best for Lee in the next chapter of his life; I just hope the way in which he’s leaving doesn’t overshadow what he did while he was here.