CRAWFORD | From Lewis and Lee, leadership that transcends a scan - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | From Lewis and Lee, leadership that transcends a scandal

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Damion Lee and Trey Lewis speak to reporters after Louisville announced its postseason ban. (AP photo) Damion Lee and Trey Lewis speak to reporters after Louisville announced its postseason ban. (AP photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Amid the scandal, and University of Louisville response, and all the emotion of the last several days, I’m struck by a single fact:

The best example of true leadership you can find in all of this has come not from the administrators or even coaches involved in the decision to ban the men’s basketball program from the postseason. The best example of leadership came from two players.

Trey Lewis and Damion Lee were recruited to be leaders on this basketball team but they didn’t show up as big men on campus. They showed up and started building relationships.

Lewis got to town first and immediately reached out to teammates. He took guys to the movies. He sat up talking to them at night. The door to his room was always open. He asked teammates questions about their lives, about their families. He set up a team group chat and group texts.

In fact, when Damion Lee came to visit Louisville for the first time, Lewis was there waiting for him.

“The first guy I saw,” Lee said. “I was just putting out feelers. But with Trey, it was like a match made in heaven. . . . This has been a great opportunity, having a brother and roommate like Trey, playing for the best coach in college basketball.”

The two stayed up at night talking about their lives, their teammates, and steps they needed to take to make this a positive season. They watched film from the previous season. They watched practice video. They broke down every player they were going to be playing with, trying to learn strengths, where they could be effective with the ball.

One of the luxuries, Lee told me, of being at a program like Louisville was an app called “Game Plan,” where they could call up video from practices. He was addicted to it. They grabbed teammates and, before ever playing a game together, were looking at plays and having conversations like, Lee told me, “if we run this, I can do this and sort of counteract what the defense will do here.” Then they’d go out to the practice court and run through it.

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Early on, they didn’t talk a great deal. They let Mangok Mathiang, a returning captain, do most of the talking. He’s the vocal leader. Lewis is the motivational leader. He sends out Bible verses and motivational quotes every day. Lee is the leader on the court, the leader by action. But early on, Lee said to even the incoming freshmen, “We can learn from you. There are things you know that we don’t. Speak up.”

In Puerto Rico, Lee told me this: “For us, this is one chance to be a part of a big program, and the college basketball experience we’ve seen guys have on TV and all around us, and we know that it starts with building relationships and building a team.”

That’s leadership. It’s not dictating matters from the top. It’s getting to know people. It’s putting in the work yourself. It’s wading into the middle of a situation, a team, a company, a city, and building up the people around you.

That’s why, when Rick Pitino told his team that it would have to miss the postseason this year, the players immediately went to Lee and Lewis and embraced them.

Lewis began his college career at Penn State. He wasn’t satisfied with his playing time there, had a disconnect with the head coach and wanted to get close to home, so he left for Cleveland State, where he became the team’s leading scorer.

But he was at Penn State during that program’s upheaval with Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. He saw what that kind of scandal can do to a town and a program. When these allegations hit Louisville, he thought it interesting that he would find himself in Louisville when they were going on.

“I was there when all those allegations were going on, and Coach (Joe) Paterno actually died,” Lewis told me before the season. “I was there during all that time. I went to his funeral, and all those things, the memorial when we held up candlesticks. I saw, from a crazy perspective, I saw how many people these things can affect. In those teams, all you can do is stick together as a team and have true brotherhood, and that’s what I’ve tried to bring here. I’ve just told them I’m here for them. . . . I believe there’s a true lesson in that, and I’m happy that I went through what I went through to be able to bring that experience here.”

Lewis is a big reader, and writer. He tapes Bible verses everywhere. There have been four taped to his KFC Yum! Center locker all season.

As a kid, he learned magic, and would put on shows for his family.

Lee’s lessons in leadership came from his mother, and his grandparents. Lee was an only child. His mother, Michelle Riddick, is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. She taught him persistence and tenacity. She taught him not to give in to adversity, or in the face of challenge.

“If you knew everything she did for me, you would want her to be your mom, too,” Lee said. “She’s literally my everything.”

With his mother’s military background, he was cut no slack. “I was always on punishment,” he said. There was no question but that he would go to college. There was no question that he would graduate in four years, if not three.

Riddick was an Operation Specialist in Desert Storm. She served in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as a telecommunications specialist.

Lee grew up around his aunt and cousins, and his grandparents, though he lost his grandfather at age 11, and his grandmother just five years ago. He called her, “Nanny,” which stuck with me, because that’s what I called my grandmother, who died in January of last year.

Lee said back in August, at ACC media day, that he doesn’t know a great deal about his mother’s military service. 

“I’ve not asked her in detail about that, because that was a tough time for her,” Lee said. “. . . I probably didn’t start really listening to her untill I was a sophomore in college. I argued with her about everything. When things would go wrong, I would take it out on her. Like, when I lost my grandmother, that’s still the hardest thing to ever happen to me in my life. . . . But my mom has been great to me. Once I started listening to her, and going to church with her, I kind of felt better. It’s been rough, a little bit. I was hard-headed as a kid. But once I got hurt, and tore my ACL, junior year, that’s when everything started to click, and that’s when I started to listen more to her and be more appreciative.”

She was the one who told him not to lean on being a big man. She told him, you have to be able to handle the ball. She made him work on his shooting. Lee said he’s grown to appreciate what his mother sacrificed, not just for him, but for the country.

“She’s very stern,” Lee said. “I used to make excuses for everything. That doesn’t fly. Her background, being in Operation Desert Storm, that’s something that I thank her for every day, fighting for this country. She still gets on me about certain things, but I’m more mature now. She taught me not to run away from anything, to face any consequences, and face the truth. That has made me a better man.”

So now you know a little bit about these guys who got dropped into this situation. And why they’re able to face it, even though they didn’t cause it.

I remember talking to Lee at media day about these allegations, right after they came out, and him saying, “we just have to embrace everything that’s going on.”

I remember thinking, and writing, that Lewis could’ve used a lot of words there, and I was intrigued that he used the word “embrace.” But Lee explained.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative,” Lee said. “This experience at Louisville, every part of it, is a blessing and an opportunity. I have a tattoo on the inside of my arm that says my gift is my curse. Things you are blessed with, people may try to turn it and turn it into a negative. But we just need to embrace everything, live in the moment, and try to be successful, not only for our families but also for our brothers and the coaching staff. . . . Adversity is opportunity. We’re going to take this and make it positive for this team.”

The day the news first hit, Lee said he immediately sent a text message to his teammates. He told them that there was nowhere he would rather be than with them, and that if any of them needed them, he was there, and that “no matter what happens just know that I’ll always be your brother.’”

So on the day when the worst news hit, that the thing he and Lewis had hoped most to experience, a trip to the NCAA Tournament, would not happen, Lee said, as the entire team stood behind him and Lewis, he still wouldn’t trade his time with these teammates.

“It’s a blessing to be at the University of Louisville, playing with these guys,” Lee said. “Trey and I were truly devastated when we first heard the news. To put ourselves in this position, No. 2 in the ACC with a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, we were heartbroken. But we’re grateful to have these guys behind us. You haven’t seen all the work we put in since last summer, early mornings to late nights, in the gym, the trip to Puerto Rico, seeing the growth has been amazing. And the last thing, this school, this city, this community, has been so welcoming and gracious to us, I can honestly say there is no other school in the country that we would rather go to, no other coach, no other team that we would rather play with. It’s tough times, but there is definitely a silver lining in this storm. We just want to say thank you to everyone who has supported us.”

Lewis agreed with those thoughts. He said, “We don’t deserve this,” but said the players would accept it and move on.

He’s right. They don’t deserve this. Life often isn’t fair.

Throughout this, my thoughts have turned to a guy that neither of these players could have known. His name is Ralph Beard. Ralph was a fixture at Louisville games for many years and, of course, was one of the great players in University of Kentucky history.

Ralph Beard grew up poor in Louisville. He took $700 from gamblers to influence the outcomes of games. He claimed till the day he died that he never gave anything less than 100 percent on the court. Those who watched him play with vouch for him. But he was banned from basketball for life, and he had to live with that. He went into insurance and other things.

I never got to see him play on those fantastic Kentucky teams of the 1940s. I only knew him later in life. He always said that he wouldn’t stop hurting over losing basketball until the first spade of dirt hit his casket. And he never did.

But he was, I can say unequivocally, one of the most gracious, classiest men I ever met. He defined for me the resilient spirit of people to live with dignity after misfortune hits, whether it is of our own making or someone else’s.

Damion Lee and Trey Lewis had nothing to do with the scandal that is hitting this Louisville program. Yet they have in some ways been put forward as the university’s face during this time. They made the trip to ACC media day alone. They stood up, asked to stand up and speak, on the day the school banned itself from the tournament.

They have showed class in the midst of a storm of scandal.

Marques Maybin, a former Louisville standout who now is a radio co-host for 93.9 FM in Louisville, said that Lee and Lewis may have gotten more attention, and garnered for themselves more respect, in how they’ve handled this adversity than they might have in any NCAA Tournament run they could’ve made.

He’s probably right. But any players will tell you — just let them play the games.

That chance, for these two, isn’t going to come. But they’ll not be forgotten. In their first game after the ban was announced, Boston College’s players came to midcourt and stood and applauded as Lewis was introduced (Lee did not play because of a knee injury).

Finally this. There are those whose sympathy for them has been tempered because they don’t like the practice of graduate players leaving smaller programs for one season at a bigger program.

The practice is under attack. It may soon be ended. Let me say this: If it’s all right for a player to come to school for one season, then better his life or opportunities by leaving to pursue a career in the NBA, then how is it not all right for a player to spend three to four years at a school, earn a degree, then better his life or opportunities by transferring to larger program for one graduate season?

Once a player has earned his degree and played 3-4 seasons at a school, the school has completed its obligation to him and is free not to renew his scholarship (as has happened at Louisville and elsewhere). But they’re going to argue that the player’s obligation to the school continues? That he shouldn’t be free to pursue a graduate opportunity somewhere else and play immediately? That’s providing opportunity to the athletically elite, but not to the academically accomplished. It’s backward.

It is a shameful argument. It’s an argument designed to protect the interests of coaches and schools. And isn’t that what everything in college athletics in 2016 is moving away from? You can’t be “players first” and make that argument.

Read the stories of these two players and tell them that they didn’t deserve to play this season at Louisville, or wherever they chose.

They didn’t deserve to miss this postseason. But both have bigger things ahead. They, more than anyone, have displayed what leadership ought to be about in their brief time here, and will not be soon forgotten.

Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.

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