The most popular player on GW’s men’s basketball team has scored a total of 10 points in his collegiate career. He has played more than seven minutes in a game only three times. He had one-third of his 15 career assists against the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Wednesday night. Yet every time the 5-foot-8 Johnny Lee (as he is universally called by broadcasters) enters a game, fans at Smith Center erupt and begin to chant his name.
“My parents listen on the radio and the first time I got in they were like ‘What is that sound? What are they saying? Are they saying Johnny Lee?” the Nashville native said. “I was like ‘Yeah.they do that.'”
He added, “(Fans) just see a little guy out there and think ‘Oh, I’ll just cheer for the little guy. I’m excited about the fan support but I don’t think they see me as a basketball player. I think they see my stature. But it’s cool.”
Lee, a sophomore whose mustache draws attention to the smile fixated below it, is a prototypical underdog: a friendly hard-worker who has had to overcome physical shortcomings and doubters his whole life.
His high school coach told him he was not good enough to play Division I college ball, despite getting offers from two small local schools. He even doubted himself after not making the team his first year at GW. But after becoming friendly with members of the team by spending countless hours playing at the Lerner Health and Wellness Center, Lee got word from assistant coach Greg Colluci last year that he would be one of the team’s three walk-ons.
The season was not easy. Lee was a four-year starter on his high school team, making his high school coach’s grueling practices more tolerable. GW head coach Karl Hobbs’s practices are intense too, but Lee only saw the court in garbage time – when what he did did not affect the game’s outcome.
“Sometimes in self-reflection I thought, ‘Why do I do this?’ but when you get on the court you get a feeling that’s nowhere else,” Lee, a theology major, said. “I do the work to feel the feeling I feel on the court.”
Now, with Carl Elliott graduated and his successor, sophomore guard Travis King, out for the season, Lee has become the team’s most experienced point guard. In a Nov. 24 loss at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Lee played a career-high 18 minutes and was asked to lead the team in the absence of benched senior guard Maureece Rice. Yet he has had to reconcile his natural inclination to lead with the reality that, as a walk-on, he may be disregarded by some scholarship players.
“If I see someone doing something wrong I might yell at them but I really just want to see everyone on the team succeed,” Lee said. “As a point guard, you can make other people look so much better and I like doing that. Usually, they take it in stride.”
Hobbs said Lee made an immediate impression on him but did not have room on the roster for him during the 2005-2006 season. When room opened up the next year, Hobbs made sure to find “that little guy, Johnny Lee.” A “little guy” himself during his playing days, Hobbs called Lee “a blessing” who is, more than anyone else on the team, an extension of the coach on the court.
“What he does is he comes into a game and settles us down,” Hobbs said. “Sometimes we get a little erratic out there and I’ll throw Johnny in there for a couple minutes and he kind of settles us down. He’s like a little general out there.”
It is almost impossible to have a conversation with someone about Lee without two things coming up: his height and his personality. Whereas he could use his speed to get past high school players, collegiate players are almost as fast, but much bigger. As a result, Lee’s value on the court at this level is limited, but his knowledge of the game is valuable. Lee has accepted his body, but how often does he think about what it would be like to be one of the big guys?
“All the time,” he said. “But any hope of that kind of died when I was maybe in tenth grade and I realized this was all I had to work with. I don’t think it’s been that much of a burden. I would like to (be taller) – but that’s the way things are. I still have other assets others say they wish they had.”