Before Johnny Lee was even really a freshman at GW, when he was just one of hundreds of Colonial Inauguration attendees living on campus for the first time, he had a mission: Find men’s basketball head coach Karl Hobbs and talk to him about walking onto the team.
This search led him to Smith Center, where he happened to run into Assistant Director of Athletics Jason Wilson as he exited the building. Lee asked Wilson if he knew where he could find Hobbs.
“He was looking at me like I was crazy,” the 5-foot-8 Lee said in a recent interview, noting that he was “a lot scrawnier” at the time.
“I was like, ‘Oh, are you interested in being a manager?'” Wilson recalled of the exchange. “It was so rude of me to say anything like that, but I wasn’t meaning anything harmful or judging him.”
But Lee was undaunted by the implied discouragement.
“He was just like, ‘Yeah,'” Wilson said, shrugging his shoulders. “Just so humble.”
From such inauspicious origins emerged an underdog story now well known among devotees of Colonials hoops. Lee became a known commodity on the courts at the Lerner Health & Wellness Center, where he played with and against members of GW’s basketball team. They took notice, the team’s coaching staff followed suit and in his sophomore year, Lee joined the team as a walk-on.
Fast forward a few years and the tale of Johnny Lee has taken a few more unlikely plot twists – ascension from bench filler to regular contributor, scoring a career-high 14 points on the road against a top 10 team, starting at point guard no less than 11 times. But now, with graduation nearing, it is time for the next chapter to be written.
What’s in store? Well, that’s yet to be determined. Come May, Lee will be getting his degree in religion, but has no plans to enter the ministry. One alternative is graduate school – Stony Brook and Lipscomb, located in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn., are possibilities – where Lee would be able to use his remaining year of athletic eligibility to play one more season of collegiate basketball.
His eventual goal, he said, may very well be to end up in a position similar to Wilson’s, working in collegiate athletic administration. Their relationship has changed a great deal since that first chance encounter nearly four summers ago. After spotting Lee around campus, balancing not only the demands of being both student and athlete but also holding a job at HellWell, Wilson took notice of Lee’s work ethic.
Not only did Lee juggle those responsibilities, but he did so with his trademark enthusiasm and charm.
“I’d see him over in practice – he’d be smiling. I’d see him walking down with his books for class – he’d be smiling. I’d see him checking out locks – he’d be smiling,” Wilson said. “He was just an impressive guy and I took a special interest in him.”
So Wilson went about getting to know the young man behind the smile, taking on a role that Lee describes as “mentor.” Both Wilson and head men’s basketball coach Karl Hobbs think Lee could thrive in a role like Wilson’s.
“I just think he’d be great,” Wilson said. “He’d be a natural at it.”
“I think whatever he sets his mind to, he’s going to succeed,” Hobbs said. “The sky is the limit for him.”
No matter the exact path, Lee’s experiences at GW have fueled a love for the game that he doesn’t see fading anytime soon.
“Either way I’ll still be around basketball,” he said. “I’m not ready to give it all up yet.”