The Long Goodbye
by Adam Hermann
Damion Lee’s favorite basketball player of all-time was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Allan Houston was a member of the New York Knicks from 1996, when Lee was 4 years old, until 2005. Lee grew up admiring Houston’s ability to bury three-pointers with ease. Houston shot 40.2 percent from behind the arc during his 13 seasons in the NBA.
In his room growing up, Lee had a poster on his wall of Houston in a white Knicks jersey, rising up for a jump shot on the left wing. In front of him, the out-stretched arm of Michael Jordan just missed turning Houston’s shot away.
Lee liked the way Houston handled the ball up the floor. He liked his jump shot. During his playing days, Houston stood 6-foot, 6-inches, 205 pounds. Lee is listed at 6-foot, 6-inches, 200 pounds.
“I mean, I didn’t know I was going to be this tall,” he says with an aw-shucks laugh.
When Lee was a freshman at Drexel, the Dragons won 19 straight games but were turned away from the NCAA tournament. As a No. 3 seed in the National Invitation Tournament they were paired with Central Florida in the first round and, in the post-snub rage, tore the Bulls apart with an 81-56 dismantling. Lee scored eight points, making three of seven field goals.
After the game, he was browsing through a batch of photos taken that night and one jogged his memory.
An image of Lee in his white Drexel jersey, rising up for a jump shot on the left wing. In front of him, the out-stretched arm of Marcus Jordan, Michael Jordan’s son, just missed turning Lee’s shot away.
Maybe it was fate. Maybe he really was meant to be at Drexel.
Or maybe he was supposed to end up in Houston’s hometown of Louisville.
It’s 10 A.M. on a Monday in early May and Damion Lee is striding through the Daskalakis Athletic Center lobby. He’s wearing a heather gray T-shirt with blue lettering that reads, “Drexel Basketball.” His navy basketball shorts are sliced with yellow racing stripes down the sides. His Nikes are a vibrant cardinal red.
Lee, a senior, is gliding through the last weeks of his four years as a student at Drexel University, a smile constantly stretched across his face and the ends of his black hair a creme brulee orange, an extra burst of look-at-me for the basketball sensation. In a few weeks he will graduate with a degree in communications. His graduation party is slated for June 20; from there, he’s planning on flying to Los Angeles for six days to visit an old friend and enjoy a down week. In early July Lee, 22, will arrive at Louisville University, where he will attend graduate school and play his fourth season of college basketball.
But for now he’s still a Drexel student, and he’s hungry after finishing his morning workout. He’s following a prescribed workout plan he received from the coaches at Louisville after he committed to Rick Pitino and the Cardinals April 23. On Mondays and Fridays, he starts his days with weight lifting. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he lifts in the evenings. Wednesday is a rest day.
“No offseason in this sport,” he says as he walks out the double silver doors and into the 84-degree Philadelphia heat.
Lee has an 11 a.m. class, but first he has to grab a snack. He heads to Seasons, a university-sponsored dining option known for its fresh ingredients and cafe-style fare. He orders a ham and cheese croissant, a blueberry muffin and a bottle of water, and runs into his former teammate Sammy Mojica while waiting in line. They give each other playful looks, both towering above their fellow students.
Going to pay, Lee greets the woman behind the register with a smile.
“How are you today?” she asks Lee.
“I’m good,” he answers, taking his muffin. “Got class now, you know.”
“Where’s your class?” she asks.
“Um,” he murmurs, grasping for the building’s name. “It’s, um. Hmm.”
He stifles a laugh.
“I don’t remember what it’s called,” he finally admits sheepishly. Lee was late to this statistics class twice at the beginning of the term. He missed the first one entirely and he was 15 minutes late to the second meeting because he couldn’t find the building. It’s in Stratton Hall. Eventually he went to his academic advisor and asked her where Stratton Hall was.
“She looked at me and said, ‘You’ve been here for four years and you don’t know where Stratton is?’” he recalls, laughing. He shrugs his shoulders.
Lee’s is unique brand of senioritis. He’s attended Drexel for the prescribed four years, the four he signed up for. But his time on college campuses isn’t over. He’s got another year in line at Louisville. He’s preparing himself to leave University City, his home since he was 18 years old, but not the college world.
“It’s really wild to think about it,” he says as he approaches the appropriately-labeled Stratton Hall. “I feel like University Crossings has been my address forever. I’ve lived there since my first day on campus.”
A student gives Lee a wave and he waves back, exchanging a “Hey, what’s up, man,” a frequent occurrence as Lee walks around campus. This past season, he epitomized the big man on campus. He averaged 21.4 points per game during the regular season for Drexel, the fifth-most in the entire country. He sliced up opposing defenses as the singular offensive threat for the team. Most students on campus knew what he was capable of. And even if they didn’t, they knew he stood for something. There aren’t too many 6-foot, 6-inch students on Drexel’s campus.
Since he announced he would be transferring March 30, Lee said he’s had plenty of students come up to him around campus and wish him well.
“They’ll wish me good luck at Louisville, all that stuff,” he says. “Most of the time they’re really cool.”
Sometimes he’ll get approached by a disenchanted fan. Once, while he waited for his sandwich in the campus Subway, a student asked him why he was wearing a Louisville basketball T-shirt. When Lee told him he was transferring, the student was stunned. Lee explained to him why he was leaving — “I just told him it was for personal reasons, for me,” he said — and the student said, “Well, I guess somebody else has to step up next year.”
“I don’t walk around like, ’Oh, I‘m a big deal,’” Lee says of his fleeting status on campus. “It’s just the way it is, I guess.”
It’s what happens when your graduate school decision lands on the front page of ESPN.
In the back of a sparsely attended lecture for a class called “Weather,” Lee and former teammate Freddie Wilson sit next to each other. The two are glued to their iPhones. Lee’s often scrolling through some sort of social media. His iPhone lock screen is a picture of him photoshopped into a Louisville uniform. His phone is wrapped in a blue-and-yellow Drexel case.
“You know Damion, he checks all of that stuff,” Mike Tuberosa, Drexel’s associate athletics director for communications, said of the former Dragon’s media consumption during this past season.
Wilson turns to Lee and grabs his attention for a second, showing him a tweet the two laugh about for a handful of seconds before Lee returns to his own screen.
Lee said there weren’t any problems with his former teammates when he told them he was leaving them this summer. When the news broke on Twitter March 30, he sent them a mass text message explaining his decision.
“I just told them, I’m doing this for myself and for my personal reasons,” he says. “I explained, it’s not like I’m leaving them behind. They know what I’m doing next doesn’t take away from what already happened.
“They understand,” he says. “Some people, on the other hand,” he continued, cracking a wry smile before trailing off and refusing to continue.
On May 6, ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil published a story about the spike in graduate transfers in college basketball in recent years. She spoke with Drexel men’s basketball head coach James “Bruiser” Flint about the “graduate transfer problem,” and the story included Flint’s first public comments about Lee’s decision.
In late March, Lee said Flint had taken his decision to transfer a little hard. Flint’s comments to O’Neil didn’t change that view.
“The thing is, you develop a kid and all of a sudden he’s going somewhere else,” Flint told O’Neil, speaking about Lee. “He wants to go to play at a higher level, but he went to Drexel for a reason — because he wasn’t recruited at that level. He wasn’t a player at that level. Now he is, but we helped him get there and now that he is, he’s out.
“I know if it were me and my family, they’d be saying get your butt back to Drexel,” Flint told O’Neil. “You’ve exceeded your expectations because of what they helped you become. You don’t leave now.”
Lee lets out half of a sigh through his smile. He doesn’t want to talk about Flint’s comments as he leaves class. He doesn’t think there’s any need to talk about it anymore. It doesn’t seem to be weighing too heavily on his mind.
During the season, the two often traded jokes in post-game press conferences. Flint often made fun of Lee for coaching his teammates during practices. He called him “Coach Lee.” Lee would grin and glance down at the floor when Flint brought this up, then look at Flint and exchange a knowing smile before starting his answer.
Now, it seems those knowing smiles between the coach and his star have faded.
Between classes, Lee takes his phone out again, this time to make a call.
“Hi, yes, I’d like to make a reservation for tonight at 7,” he says, his phone pressed to his ear. “Two people. Yes. Thank you.”
He won’t call it a date, but he’s having dinner with … somebody tonight. He can’t hold back a smirk.
“I’ve got to keep some things private, right?” Lee says, laughing before burying his head in his phone to try and keep a straight face.
On his way to a tutoring session at 1:30 p.m., Lee’s phone buzzes and he slides it out of his shorts.
“Wow,” he exclaims, his mouth gaping and his eyes widening. “Wow. Wow.”
He received a text message from a close friend. Former University of Arizona assistant coach Damon Stoudamire is leaving Arizona to become an assistant at the University of Memphis.
His friend wrote, “Everything happens for a reason.”
During Lee’s recruitment period, after he announced his intent to transfer from Drexel, Arizona was largely lock-in-step with Louisville in its attempts to recruit Lee to join their team. He visited Arizona first, and before his visit there were rumors that the Wildcats were leading the race for the most coveted transfer player in the country.
During his visit to Arizona, Lee said he and Stoudamire clicked immediately. They had similar stories, both sons of single mothers growing up and finding a calling in basketball.
“He was a guy I just clicked with, you know?” Lee says. “And this is a guy who played in the NBA, won Rookie of the Year. He was somebody I could talk to and learn from.”
The other string pulling Lee towards Arizona was guard Stanley Johnson, who played his freshman year for the Wildcats and earned Freshman All-American honors from the United States Basketball Writers Association. When Lee visited Arizona, he and Johnson talked for a while. Johnson told Lee he felt a little conflicted. Johnson wished the 2015 NCAA Tournament had ended differently. The Wildcats lost to the University of Wisconsin in the Elite 8, ending a season that at times held championship promise.
At the time of Lee’s visit, Johnson was debating whether to stay at Arizona for another year or enter the NBA Draft. He told Lee that, if Lee ended up becoming a Wildcat, he would likely stay to play another year.
On April 23, the same day Lee chose to attend Louisville, Johnson announced he would enter the NBA Draft.
Waiting for his tutoring session to begin, Lee takes his phone out of his pocket as he talks about why he chose Louisville. He talks about the program with a reverence often reserved for empires and kingdoms.
He gave Arizona serious consideration, Lee said, but Louisville was always his leading choice. He puts his phone on the conference room table and turns it to landscape mode, opening up his photos. He slides through pictures of the practice facility where he shot around with his new teammate, Trey Lewis. Lewis, a former Cleveland State player, is transferring to Louisville as well. He and Lewis shot in the practice facility, Lee said, and they talked a lot during his visit.
Lee continues to scroll through the camera roll, stopping on a picture of Rick Pitino sitting in the front seat of a car.
“There he is, Pitino,” he says, a slight smile appearing for a second.
Pitino is what locked Lee in to Louisville. The pull of the future Hall of Fame coach was just too alluring to turn down.
“He empowers his players,” Lee explains, a focused look on his face as he talked about his new coach. “He empowers everybody he works with.”
Lee began to rattle off products of Pitino’s coaching tree. Kevin Keatts, who Lee faced at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington twice this past season. Steve Masiello, who has transformed Manhattan College into a mid-major name to know.
“Something people told me is that his status in the NCAA is essentially that of a godfather,” Lee says as he shows off a video he took of the KFC Yum! Center, where Louisville plays its home games. The arena is reminiscent of a pro stadium: LED banners, an imposing number of empty seats.
Lee continues to swipe left, landing on photos of Pitino and assorted assistant coaches standing with Lee after a game of laser tag. He continues to pictures inside Pitino’s house, including his NCAA Tournament championship trophies.
“That’s the goal now,” he says, sticking on the photo of the trophies for an extra few seconds. “Trying to get another one of those.”
All day long, Lee has focused more on what the future holds than what he’s leaving behind. He said he isn’t concerned with what could have been in his senior year. He knows what his senior year could have brought — conference player of the year accolades, movement up the program record book, all of that. Lee’s new focus is singular, and it’s exacting.
Don’t ask him about what he’ll miss. Ask him what he’s excited for.
When Lee leaves University City, he’s going to change his phone number.
“Too many fake people have my number right now,” he says, his eyes attached to his phone. The people he truly cares about, he says, he’ll reach out to and give share new number. “My contact list is going to be very small when when I leave here,” he says, showing the imaginary electronic address book contracting with his hands. Wide to narrow.
“It’s not like I’m throwing these four years away,” he clarifies. “I’m still going to watch the games. And then afterwards I’ll talk to my guys, and I’ll be like, ‘What were you doing out there?’” He laughs. Then he sighs. “I genuinely care about those guys,” he says.
But he’s ready for a new chapter. Along with the new phone number, he’s growing his hair out. He’s going for dreadlocks, and he’s thinking about growing out his beard as well. It’s a new start.
When Lee visited Louisville, he didn’t just fall in love with the head coach and the pristine practice facilities. He fell in love with the city, the opportunity, what it all represented for him — a fresh slate, and a place where he can create something of his own.
“It’s the ideal situation, as far as what you want in a college town,” he says. “In fact, it’s not even a college town. It’s more like a college city.”
Lee loved the “laid back” environment of Louisville, a city with “a chip on its shoulder.” He sees business opportunities, the communications student leaping at a chance to market himself. When he visited, Pitino explained to him that a number of players return to the city and live there after they’ve finished their playing days. Lee can imagine a future for himself where he does the same thing.
“I’ve got, what, 15 years left to play? Max?” he asks. He’s clearly thought about this before. “Fifteen years, max. So that’s when I’m almost 40. Then I’ve got the rest of my life, and this way I’ve got these two degrees and this situation where I can succeed.
“When I’m done, as long as I take care of what I need to take care of on the court, I’ll be set up. It’s amazing.”
It’s 3 P.M. now and Lee is sweeping the hardwood of Sam Cozen Court. The floor is dusty, so Lee takes a wide-mouth mop and runs it back-and-forth, width-wise, until he can squeak his sneakers to his contentment.
He’s wearing another gray T-shirt now, this one emblazoned with the words “Louisville Basketball” and an Adidas logo. His white socks are decorated with black and red candy stripes, and he’s switched his Nikes out for a black-and-red pair of Adidas Boost sneakers.
It’s a whole new look for the future Cardinal.
Lee and his former teammates are playing a game of pickup at 3 p.m. — or, at least, that was the agreed-upon time. Lee is the first player on his old home floor, a Cardinal in the Dragons’ lair.
The notoriously sweltering venue is living up to its reputation. Lee’s orange Powerade bottle gathers condensation as it rests next to the speakers he brought to the game. As players trickle in, a patchwork of the last five years of Drexel basketball streams into the gym. Dartaye Ruffin, class of 2014, walks over to Lee and they exchange a handshake before they start stretching. Ruffin played his first season of professional basketball in Sweden during the 2014-2015 season. Samme Givens, class of 2012, rolls into the gym as well. Givens plays professionally in Germany.
Lee cues up “Welcome Back” by Young Jeezy, saying it’s for Ruffin. He breaks into an impromptu dance, which sophomore forward Rodney Williams mimics for a few seconds before they both start laughing.
The games themselves, full-court five-on-five ball with three rotating teams, alternate between semi-serious and outlandish. As the scores tighten, so do faces. Lee plays on a team with freshman point guard Rashann London, senior forward Kazembe Abif, sophomore forward Mohamed Bah and sophomore guard Ahmad Fields. He lets the rest of his teammates take the majority of the shots as he settles in, remaining largely on the perimeter and focusing more on setting up Fields, who lights the basket up. Lee’s team wins its first two games before being ushered off the floor in a close loss.
Lee and Fields sidle up next to each other on the sidelines as the other two teams prepare to face off. An older man in a teal shirt walks towards the court, and players in the know give a small roar and welcome him into the fold.
“Who’s that?” Fields asks Lee.
Lee points to the banner stitched with a No. 10 jersey hanging in the rafters. It’s Michael Anderson, one of the best players in Drexel men’s basketball history. He takes the floor, finishing off a few layups.
Only two jerseys hang in the rafters: Anderson and Malik Rose. With Lee leaving University City at No. 10 on the school’s all-time scoring list, it’s likely to stay that way for a while longer.
When Lee and his team return to the floor, he’s ready to turn it up a little bit. It’s getting later. This will be the last game of the day.
His team builds up a solid lead in the early going, and then Lee takes things into his own hands. He drops in a slicing layup, and on the next possession he pulls up from deep and knocks down one of his trademark three-pointers.
As his opponents make their way down the floor, he stiffens up on defense. Lee’s team gets a stop, and he winds up with the ball in his hands once again. One shot away from a third win.
Lee, now in a rhythm and eager to end the game so he can get ready for his “not a date,” brings the ball down the floor and meanders around the three-point line for a few seconds. Williams comes out to the arc to defend his former teammate, sticking a hand in Lee’s line of vision. Lee pulls up anyway, and the ball finds nothing but nylon and then squeaky-clean hardwood. Game over.
Lee looks at Williams and dons a silly grimacing face, lifting his lip and thrusting his chin with fake machismo. Williams stares him down for one, two, three seconds.
Then the two break into laughter and exchange a hug.
Lee is planning on heading to the barbershop later this week. He’s got a busy last few weeks on campus standing in between him and graduation. He’s still working on his senior project, a personal portfolio.
He’s heading home this weekend for a friend’s graduation party, then coming back to hammer out his final exams and walk at graduation, just as he planned he would when he arrived on campus four years ago.
Lee didn’t plan on playing basketball elsewhere, but he booked his flight to Louisville a few days ago. It’s all very real now.
“It’s so surreal, you know?” he says, shaking his head. “But it’s exciting, too. I’m excited.”
And as far as leaving Drexel in the rearview, he said it’s just part of the process.
“You know, it is what it is,” Lee says, gingerly avoiding the topic.
He sounds like his old coach.
Article Design by Noel Forté
Article Layout by Adam Hermann
Reported and Authored by Adam Hermann
Special Thanks to: Damion Lee for agreeing to be shadowed for this piece.