One humdrum November night in 2009, a much touted spindly limbed rookie guard found himself inserted in the closing seconds of a game with a foregone conclusion and promptly fouled David Lee (PF, New York Knicks, Old Money). Umbrage was taken, trash was talked. In a game bereft of drama or stakes, a benign altercation would have to suffice for a denouement. The Madison Square Garden camera crew fixed their sights on the comparatively hulking figure of Lee as he viciously admonished the slight guard who had the fucking chutzpah to garbage time foul him. The young guard for his part appeared unflappable, supremely unconcerned with the large white man talking shit. This was, as far as I can tell, the first time the world saw David Lee and Stephen Curry on an NBA court at the same time. They've been together nearly ever since. One dude became the most popular man-boy on the planet and the other guy is David Lee. David Lee, huh, what's that guy with the boring name's story? Well, David Lee is a seemingly pleasant enough rich guy rocketing towards an inevitable reckoning with the point of no return.
When he was just a smaller and younger version of himself, David Lee used to feed jaguars and lions with his grandfather. His grandfather was a fellow who had lots and lots of money, and feeding big cats is something rich grandfathers like to share with their heirs. It also seems like something Caligula would do with his grandson, but apparently this old dude was cool and not the least bit like Caligula. E. Desmond Lee had made his fortune manufacturing metal hangers and wire shelving. He also played a bit of basketball back in the day, loved his model trains, and was nuts about the symphony. The thing we know Grandpa Lee for best was philanthropy. Before he died he had given an atrociously vast amount of money ($70 million) away to various charities and causes, mostly to the good stuff, education and the arts. He lived long enough to see his former feed-the-lions buddy somehow become a professional basketball player, and even more somehow, perhaps owing to the well known generous and forgiving nature of New York Knicks fans, become a fan favorite. Doughy David Lee: a Hero for Our Times!
Since signing with the Warriors the national media has mostly been less eager to write puff pieces. A scrappy white man who can jump is a lot more inspiring for the kids back home than a guy pocketing a cool $80 million and not even being anything close to a messiah. Expectations were sidelined for hopes, because no one really expected that much. Every defensive breakdown was scrutinized, held up as proof that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks and also hey, this guy can’t hold his ground against the big front courts or chase the quick ones out to the three-point line. He’s battled being a punchline from the likes of Kirk Goldsberry, who referred to him disparagingly in a let's face it, way too highly publicized presentation at the Sloan Conference as the “Golden Gate". My counter-point? The Golden Gate Bridge is not terrible.
The best press David Lee seemed to get was a mumbly Shaquille O’Neal dubbing him the “White Chris Webber”, which is...a nice-ish thing to say? Lee never came close to getting the loudest applause at Oracle. No one will write a “Why We Watch” article about him for the Classical. My sense of it is that most Warriors fans at least sort of appreciated the little things he brought to the table, like his White House Press Secretary style sideline interviews and his willingness to get into scrums to back teammates. It's never been proven that Lee is a psychopath or a murderer, or that he enjoys Smash Mouth. And come on, dude almost lost his shooting arm courtesy of Wilson Chandler’s teeth. That probably endeared him to some folks who value Purple Hearts and stuff like that.
Everyone has an opinion on David Lee, the missing piece that never much fit. Golden State of Mind comment sections, the dank alleyways of Twitter, your friends and neighbors.
We need not shed tears for David Lee. Shedding literal tears for that guy would be a weird waste of tears. He was born rich and he will likely die rich. He partied with Snookie. He's tall and not uncomely as they say. It’s not about that of course. When he is gone and mostly forgotten the Warriors will keep on moving, one way or another. This sports thing is all about cycles, and only the smartest and luckiest franchises get to be contenders ad infinitum. It may be that we’ll be back where we started soon enough. But to cherish what we have, where we are, as close to the crown as we’ve been since the goddamn 70s, it feels wrong to not give David Lee some small amount of regard. The world won’t stop for David Lee, or any of us. All that we can hope for is to be remembered somewhat fondly, for being attached in some small way to a part of this living thing that was precious to someone for some amount of time, and for not being involved in betrayal or neglect or destruction or abuse or failed power-plays. David Lee never rocked our sinking boat or tried to single-handedly navigate it past treacherous shoals. He just did what he did. A pick-and-roll savant, great hands, superior finisher around at the rim, some slick midrange jumpers for awhile there...It wasn’t nearly enough to match his pay stubs, but he went about it without throwing a single sulk, even now that’s he’s the new (old) Kent Bazemore. So now I will raise a glass of affordable but not shitty whiskey and make a toast: Here’s to David Lee, who played hard in ofttimes shitty circumstances, a man signed to my favorite team who made them better than they were. I feel mostly no regrets.
Imagine David Lee spending the day with his grandson at the zoo in St. Louis. He’s arranged it so that they will feed jaguars and lions together. The concrete beneath their feet burns. His hair has receded, what little left is white as bone. His body has gone to fat a little, the hint of a heavy middle no longer a hint at all. But he can still keep up with an energetic eight year old. The boy fixes him with an inquisitive look as they watch a sleeping zebra.
“Grandpa,” the young boy says, “Did you fight in the war?”
David Lee’s takes a kerchief out of his fanny-pack and wipes his brow. He sweats a lot now. His thoughts are mostly half remembered shadows, but some things never go: high-fives and thunderous applause and then heckling and the screech of sneakers pivoting on hardwood. And then there was that time he had 37 points and 21 rebounds...
David Lee shakes his head at his eager grandson, “No...but I was a Golden State Warrior for a few years. And you know what? Never mind what haters say, ignore them ‘til they fade away, amazing they ungrateful after all the game I gave away. Safe to say I paved the way, for you cats to get paid today.”