'One shot away'
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Michael Lee still wonders about the shot, the one he took in the far corner of the New Orleans Superdome court April 7. The one that never reached its intended target in the 2003 national championship game.
Lee still can see Hakim Warrick's hand coming at him. He can still feel the helpless feeling as the seconds ticked down on Kansas' title hopes. There was no time for a fake, or to make another move. Lee had the ball with no time but to try and win the national championship with a 3-pointer.
The shot came with three seconds left. It would have tied the game. But, as anyone who follows college basketball knows, Warrick blocked Lee's shot out of bounds.
Never mind that Kirk Hinrich threw up one last attempt at the buzzer. The game was decided on the play that still haunts Lee and the rest of Lawrence, Kan.
Kansas lost to Syracuse 81-78, and as a result, was denied a national title for a second straight year. In the days, weeks and months that followed the title game, Roy Williams ultimately left Kansas for North Carolina. Bill Self was hired from Illinois to replace Williams. Seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison were drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. And on Friday, finally, another season of Kansas basketball began in Allen Field House.
In that time, Lee has watched the title game just three times. He knows he had a window of opportunity that comes to few who've ever played college basketball. He could have made one of those shots. He could have grabbed one of those moments that would lived on beyond his years, archived next to those by Lorenzo Charles, Michael Jordan, Keith Smart and others in the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, he's just the guy who took the shot that Warrick blocked to give Syracuse and Jim Boeheim their elusive national championship. Warrick's block, instead, became the moment frozen in time from 2003.
Lee? A footnote, really.
"I try not to think about it, but it's something that doesn't leave your head too easily," said Lee, reminiscing Friday before Kansas celebrated "Late Night in Phog."
"Sometimes I think I should have shot it faster, pumped fake, or I mean a lot of things," Lee said. "I don't think there's another dude in NCAA basketball who could make that play, except Hakim Warrick."
There's no doubt Warrick was the right man for the job in those split seconds. The Syracuse forward's arms hang low off his 6-foot-9 frame, he has exceptional timing on blocked shots, and he seemed to know just the right time to jump out on Lee when the ball was reversed. Remember, Lee wasn't being guarded by Warrick as those seconds ticked away.
|"||Sometimes I think I should have shot it faster, pumped fake, or I mean a lot of things. I don't think there's another dude in NCAA basketball who could make that play, except Hakim Warrick. "|
"Maybe he could have shot it a split second earlier, over his hands," Simien said.
"Nah, there's nothing Mike could have done to get the shot off quicker," said Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts, who saw the shot on TV and has gone over it again on tape since he arrived in Lawrence from Illinois as part of Self's staff.
"Warrick is a great athlete. I don't think Mike hesitated at all. Warrick got a jump and got out there to block it. You would be too nervous to shot-fake for fear that you couldn't get it off. But hopefully (Lee) will be in a situation where he can get another shot like that."
What makes the shot in question even more ironic is that it was taken by Lee in the first place -- not exactly a household name on a Kansas roster that was filled by All-Americans. But, with Keith Langford having fouled out, Lee was on the floor for the final play out of necessity, rather than by choice. Lee averaged just 4.9 points in 16 minutes a game last season.
But like many of the Jayhawks this season, Lee's role figures to change under Self.
Williams might have given Lee a chance to play important role minutes last season, working in the rotation with Hinrich, Miles and Langford, but Self could use him even more. The new coach loves players like Lee, veteran guys who are tough defenders and can make shots as the third or fourth options in the offense.
"Coach Self wants me to have more of an aggressive approach to the game," Lee said. "If I'm going to be a shooter, I need to make shots and come off the pick ready to shoot. Last year I got a lot of my 3s (21 of 42 for 50 percent) when everything broke down in the offense. This year he wants me hunting for my shot a bit."
Lee's offseason was spent rehabbing a torn MCL, which healed on schedule this summer. But despite the time off the court, former high school teammate and current backcourt mate Miles said his good friend is a tougher player after taking the shot. In fact, Lee could wind up being the glue to the Jayhawks that Self looks for (see: Lucas Johnson at Illinois).
"Mike Lee is a good player on his own and gives this team a chance to be good," Self said. "You have to have a guard like him to guard the opposing team's best perimeter player. He's our toughest guy and understands his role. He gives us balance, and you need him to win."
As for taking game-winning shots, Lee said he doesn't care if he ever gets another chance like the one that came his way in New Orleans. He's focused on two more seasons at Kansas, which means two more shots at winning a national championship as a team.
"Sometimes I sit down and think that we could have had a national championship, but we were one shot away," Lee said. "Sometimes I think when I'm not going as hard as I could, I go back to that situation. I say to myself, 'maybe this is why you got the shot blocked.' Or maybe, 'you're not working hard enough to get the shot off quicker.' I use that as motivation sometimes. But I've got two more years to try and get another one like it."
Moments like the one this past April in the Superdome sometimes happen to the most unlikely players. And they happen in all sports, just ask Aaron Boone, who became an instant hero in New York for walk-off home run against the Red Sox in game 7 of the ALCS.
Lee took his shot. Whether or not it would have made history, we'll never know. Warrick got in the way.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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