Philadelphia brings back bittersweet memories for Lee

Philadelphia brings back bittersweet memories for Lee
March 5, 2013, 1:00 pm
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PHILADELPHIA — It's D.J. White's first official practice with the Boston Celtics and he has no idea what he's in for.

He sits next to Courtney Lee on the sideline. Sensing his new teammate was unsure of what was about to happen, Lee leans over to White and tells him, "we'll go about 30 minutes today."

White nods as Lee continues, "These will be the best practices you ever had, a lot of off days."

Looking out for the new guy is one of the many lessons Lee learned from Danny Rumph, a former teammate at Western Kentucky who took Lee under his wings when Lee arrived on the Bowling Green, Kentucky campus in 2004.

And it was Rumph's untimely death a year later that, like those lessons, has shaped Lee into the player - and to a greater extent, the person - that he is today.

Rumph, moments before his death in the spring of 2005, delivered a game-winning shot in a pick-up game at the Mallery Recreation Center here in Philadelphia which is just 13.5 miles from tonight's game between the Celtics and 76ers.

A coroner's examination later revealed that the 21-year-old guard and Most Improved Player two years running at Western Kentucky, had Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) which is an enlarged heart that under certain conditions may result in death. It was the same condition that led to the death of former Celtic Reggie Lewis.

"You never really move on from something like that, losing a close friend like that," Lee said. "All you can do is try to just live every day of your life to the fullest and know that you can't take any day for granted because you never know if it'll be your last one."

The impact of Rumph's death on Lee's life can be seen every time he enters a locker room and throws on his No. 11 jersey - the number that Rumph wore in college.

And if you look closely at Lee's right arm, you'll see a tattoo with Rumph's image with wings sprouted across the shoulders, donning a Phillies cap while holding a basketball with the number '11' in the middle.

"He meant a lot to me," Lee told "Without him, I honestly don't know if I would be where I am today."

Despite winning a state title at Indiana's Pike High and playing for one of the state's top AAU teams that routinely finished among the top teams nationally, there wasn't a lot of buzz surrounding Lee.

A big part of that had to do with Lee's academics, something Lee admits he didn't take seriously at first which was reflected in his grades.

"He had some work to do academically for sure," Darrin Horn, who coached Lee at Western Kentucky, said in a phone interview. "But we knew he could make it, and was plenty intelligent. It was just buckling down and getting it done."

Said Lee: "Summer school, night school, I did it all. I put myself in that spot, so the only way to get out of it was to work hard, get my grades up so I could go to college."

Lee remembers vividly all the different "characters" he came across in night school, a classroom filled with folks comprising just about every demographic imaginable.

Old men. Young men. Pregnant girls.

"You saw a little bit of everyone in some of those classrooms," Lee said. "But I didn't let that bother me too much. I had to do what I had to do to graduate."

Lee's grades were indeed on the rise, as was his stock in the eyes of schools such as Indiana and Purdue.

But there was still just enough skepticism in his game to keep those schools from fully committing to him the way Western Kentucky did from day one.

"Even when it was kind of shaky that I would qualify, they were still there," Lee said of Western Kentucky. "Once I had my grades straight, I knew that's where I was going to be."

But as Lee soon discovered, life as he knew it was about to change - and not necessarily for the better - once he arrived on campus.

Having grown up in Indianapolis, Lee didn't anticipate just how different or how small Bowling Green was going to be. Lee's hometown of Indianapolis has a population of 829,718 according to the most recent census. That's 13 times the size of Bowling Green.

"So when I went out there to Western Kentucky, it was summer time so there wasn't anybody around campus," Lee said. "It was a small little town, so I got home sick."

His roommate Danny Rumph could relate.

Rumph arrived on Western Kentucky's campus two years earlier from Philadelphia.

So as Lee pined for the brighter lights and the much-bigger city that he left, Rumph knew exactly what he was going through. As Lee recalls, Rumph constantly encouraged him to stick with it, telling him that things would get better and that in time he would become more comfortable.

"So he just took me under his wing, took me everywhere," Lee recalled. "Even though it wasn't home, he did a good job of making me feel at home, know what I mean?"

That meant hanging out in dorm rooms with other players, hitting the gym for some pick-up games because, well, that's where the girls used to work out. And after hours, evening treks were taken to on-campus clubs like the Deuce and Good Times.

So Lee's desire to transfer had indeed waned, not only because of Rumph's influence but also because Lee was making an impact immediately on the basketball court.

"I really do think the two went hand-in-hand," Horn said. "Danny being there to help Courtney, and Courtney seeing so much early success."

As a freshman, Lee set a WKU record with 461 points scored and would go on to be one of the most decorated players in school history. He was first team All-Sun Belt Conference three years in a row.

His senior year, which included him being named Sun Belt Conference player of the year, ended with a trip to the Sweet 16 in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

But all that success had a bittersweet tinge to it with most of it coming after Rumph's untimely death.

School was out and Lee was glad to be back home in Indianapolis. He wanted to get as much rest as he could, knowing he was going to be back in Bowling Green in a couple weeks for summer school.

The phone rang, but Lee was napping and didn't hear it.

His mother picked it up. The news was not good.

First it was Rumph's uncle, and soon after it was Horn telling him that his friend, teammate, mentor was gone.

"Shock" was how Lee described his initial thoughts.

"I was half sleep, so when they woke me up I didn't know what was going on," Lee said. "Then reality set in. I was definitely shocked that my friend was gone."

Gone yes, but far from forgotten. Lee, along with two other teammates, had got tattoos on their arms in remembrance of  Rumph.

Shortly after his death, the Daniel E. Rumph II Foundation was established to help raise awareness to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopthy and Sudden Cardiac Arrest.

Lee has made a point of being actively involved as much as he can in the organization, which includes participating in the annual Rumph Classic Basketball Tournament which will be Aug. 8-12 this year in Philadelphia.

Although the Celtics won't be in town for too long, Lee makes a point of seeing or speaking with the Rumph family whenever he's in Philadelphia.

Every year the Rumph Classic brings out current and former NBA players, many with Philadelphia roots.

Marcus and Markieff Morris of the Phoenix Suns, Hakeem Warrick and Flip Murray - all from Philadelphia - were among those to play with Lee during the Rumph Classic this past summer.

As much as Lee enjoys being around fellow pro players and seeing the joy that the event brings to the Rumph family, it still to this day stings a bit to know that one of the most important people in his life can't fully share in his success.

But Rumph's impact on Lee's life is indeed alive and well.

Need proof?

Look no further than the new guy in the Celtics locker room, D.J. White, who, in Lee, has someone looking out for him who knows better than most just how important having someone in that role can be.

For more information on the Daniel E. Rumph II Foundation, check out And for more on Lee's relationship with Rumph, check out the Celtics' pre-game show at 6:30 p.m. which will include a one-on-one interview by Comcast SportsNet's Kyle Draper with Lee discussing his never-ending bond with Rumph.