BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WDRB) — The first time Courtney Lee walked into E.A. Diddle Arena at Western Kentucky University, he was just happy for a chance to play basketball.

He had played on a talent-laden Indianapolis Pike team that won the state 4-A title in 2003, but wasn't recruited by a lot of high major programs.

“When I first got here I was just happy to have a scholarship,” Lee said Thursday night, not long before they unveiled his jersey in the Diddle Arena rafters right beside that of the arena's namesake.

“I was overlooked a little bit, so I was just excited to get here and work," he said. "Over the years, all the accolades started to build up, but I never took anything for granted.”

WKU unveiled Lee's jersey in the rafters at halftime of a 71-66 overtime win. It was altogether appropriate, given that Lee shares the school's all-time scoring record with Jim McDaniels (2,238 points), and that he led the Hilltoppers to a 96-34 record in his four seasons, including a Sweet 16 finish in 2007-08.

He was drafted with the 22nd pick in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic, and currently plays for the Memphis Grizzlies.

But the great thing about Lee is that he has spread goodwill from WKU throughout the NBA. Wherever he has gone, he has been a player trusted by teammates. And he has spoken freely and frankly about the faith instilled in him by his mother, Teer Butler and his grandmother, Laverne Johnson. The ceremony moved him to tears.

He has told various groups and media outlets that his mother gave him two great gifts: his first basketball, and his first Bible. He had Philippians 4:13 tattooed on his arm, “I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me.” It was a lesson that was driven home when he followed his mother and grandmother along to Bible studies.

Even on a night put together to honor him, he kept mentioning other people.

“I appreciate coach (Darrin) Horn, for giving me the chance,” Lee said. “. . . I had great mentors, an older teammate, Danny Rumph, who pushed me every day, and helped me realize that every day is not given, there's nothing you can take for granted.”

Rumph died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — an abnormal growth of muscle fibers in the heart — during a pickup game in his hometown of Philadelphia in May of 2005. He was only 21. Since then, Lee has worked to bring awareness of the condition in whatever city he has played, and he still works with the Daniel E. Rumph Foundation that the player's family started.

Lee is doing well, by any measure. He made it to the NBA Finals as a rookie. He has made better than $16 million in salary, and will make $11 more in the final two years of his current deal. His current team has the third-best record in the NBA and leads the Southwest Division of the Western Conference.

He has started 36 of 39 games at shooting guard, averages 11.4 points per game and is the team's top three-point shooter by percentage.

On a night to honor his college exploits, Lee said his main feeling was gratitude.

“This is the coolest of the cool,” he said. “. . . I'm the same person I always was. I never take anything for granted and try to stay humble. You ask me did I think any of this was possible? I'd say no. But I'm happy I met those people who pushed me along my journey.”

He shares the school's scoring record with McDaniel, and instead of lamenting that he wasn't able to claim it outright, said he's happy to share it with one of WKU's all-time greats.

“I'm happy it went down the way it is, tying with Jim McDaniels,” he said. “He was a great player, he's a great mentor and a great guy, and I'm glad to stand side-by-side with him in the record books.”

Lee said he took some life and basketball lessons from McDaniel. And he says he still sees WKU fans in Memphis cheering him on in the FedEx Forum.

“All the time,” he said. “It's the craziest thing, I'll see teammates, people I went to school with, professors I had, they always have their Western Kentucky signs and I always try to go out and acknowledge them.”

There are a lot of great basketball players. We need more great people. Courtney Lee has tried to exemplify that during his career, whether at WKU or in the NBA.

Those aren't always the kinds of guys whose names rise to the rafters. They don't give those awards for being a good guy.

But it's nice to see one honored that way all the same.

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