Lee gets grades, not scholarship checks
DALLAS -- For years, college basketball has been threatened by a poisonous, what's-in-it-for-me mentality from too many players. As if they're doing the game a huge favor by playing for something as measly as room, board, books and a lifetime education.
Today, we present the anti-brat. We present Bucknell senior guard Charles Lee, whose family pays -- and pays dearly -- for his privilege of playing basketball while going to college. And after scoring 24 points in the Bison's 59-55 first-round victory over Arkansas, the young man is honored just to be a part of March Madness.
"I knew nothing was going to come easy to me," said Lee, a pedestrian athlete at 6-foot-3. "I'm not the tallest guy, not the quickest guy. But I enjoy playing and want to give something back to the game."
Imagine that quaint concept showing up, here in the NCAA Tournament.
It costs $39,660 per year to attend Bucknell -- and when Charles arrived, the school still was not awarding athletic scholarships. That started the next year, and he still hasn't been offered one. Lee receives need-based financial aid, but not nearly what a full athletic ride would cover.
Charles Lee Sr. is a bus driver and dispatcher in Washington, D.C., and his wife, Jennyfer, is an administrative assistant to the CEO of Fannie Mae. They're significantly in debt from putting Charles through four years at a prestigious school, and putting younger son Jeremy through his first year at Ithaca.
"I've still got 50 grand hanging over my head," Charles Sr. said, sitting in the first row of the American Airlines Center with a broad smile on his face. "But we'll get it done. It's been worth it.
"Hopefully they [Charles Jr. and Jeremy] will get what I never got. I don't want [Charles Jr.] to go through the crap I went through."
Charles Lee Sr.'s father checked out of his life when he was 6 years old, and it was a struggle every day thereafter. He made it through high school and took some continuing education classes at a D.C.-area community college. He's been a working stiff his whole life, never spending a day on Easy Street.
But after catching a 6 a.m. flight, arriving in Dallas 75 minutes before tipoff and hustling a $50 cab from the airport to the arena, Charles Lee spent this day in basketball heaven. Crisply dressed in a navy blazer, khaki slacks, white dress shirt and orange Bucknell cap, Lee watched his oldest boy become a hero on the grand stage of March Madness.
The Patriot League Player of the Year scored 10 of Bucknell's first 13 points to get the Bison off to a quick start, and they wound up holding the lead for 37 minutes and 12 seconds against the Razorbacks. Arkansas used full-court pressure (and all-out desperation) to tie the game at 55 with 1:15 left, but Bucknell forward Donald Brown barely beat a backcourt violation by zipping a long pass to Lee for the go-ahead layup.
It marked the second all-time NCAA victory for a Patriot League team -- both by Bucknell. The methodical, poised Bison, masters of the 35-second clock, made their rep as a legit basketball school last year when, as a No. 14 seed, they shocked Kansas. Now the school that leads the 65-team NCAA field in graduation rate (100 percent in the latest figures) has proved it isn't a one-hit wonder.
They're not just smart guys who play a cute brand of basketball and get lucky every March. They're smart guys who can play.
"They have the SATs, but they've bought into being basketball players," Bucknell head coach Pat Flannery said.
"We don't ever mind the label," Lee said. "We are a bunch of smart guys. Chris McNaughton comes late for practice every day because of engineering labs. We are a bunch of brainiacs, but we also can play ball."
A business major, Lee had a 3.5 grade-point average last semester. That's the exclamation point on a dramatic academic maturation he's made since his freshman year.
Lee entered college at age 17 and was unprepared for the challenge of Bucknell and basketball. He played just 10 games as a freshman before he was benched for the rest of the year for academic underachievement. It was a joint decision by Flannery and Lee's parents.
"When I saw his GPA, I said, 'Hold up, this is not what I bargained for, not why I'm taking these payments on the chin,'" Charles Lee Sr. said. "I talked to the coach and said, 'Sit him down.' Priorities."
When Lee came back as a sophomore, the landscape at Bucknell had shifted. For the first time, the school was offering athletic scholarships -- catching up with others in the changing Patriot League, a league which was formed from schools that did not award financial aid for sports.
"It was a long time coming," said Flannery, who pushed for the change. "As an alum, I had loyalty to the place, but I was losing some enthusiasm. We were just holding on. We didn't have the athletes.
"I didn't come to do a great job, I came to win games. Not at all cost, but to win games."
Flannery sat down with the non-scholarship players and explained what was to be.
"I could see this could rip a team apart," he said. "We decided to be honest with everyone."
The honest truth: Nobody already at Bucknell would get a scholarship. If that was a problem, the coaches would assist them with transferring.
The guys who would become the guts of the current team -- Lee and Kevin Bettencourt -- weren't interested. They didn't come to the school in Lewisburg, Pa., for glory, or for a free ride.
"There's a reason they're at Bucknell," Flannery said. "Part of it is the reason they're going to end up running Wall Street."
Before that happens, Charles Lee wants to try getting paid to play basketball for a change. He's hoping for an NBA tryout, or a chance to play overseas, and he plans to use his salary to help his parents pay those college bills.
Not necessary, Charles Sr. said.
"He's getting a quality education and he's a great kid," dad said.
For now, the Bucknell student-athlete has at least one more game to play. It's a privilege his family is pleased to pay for.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.