On Pro Basketball: The All-Star Who Ended Ugly Streaks for the Warriors and the Knicks

On Pro Basketball: The All-Star Who Ended Ugly Streaks for the Warriors and the Knicks

On Pro Basketball
By MARC STEIN

David Lee has not played a home game at Madison Square Garden for nearly eight years, but the memories don’t soon fade once a player has inhaled the rarefied air of life as a Knicks fan favorite. Lee knows this better than most.

One stubborn example: Lee says he remembers everything about that February night in 2009 when Kobe Bryant came to town and rang up 61 points on the defenseless hosts.

Speaking on the phone recently, Lee laughed as he recalled the signs of an imminent Kobe storm that night and the urgency he felt as he warned Mike D’Antoni, then the Knicks’ coach.

“This is at the jump ball,” Lee said. “Usually Kobe shakes everybody’s hand before the game, but he just stared at everybody. I looked at D’Antoni and told him, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but something bad is about to happen.’”

Lee saw a lot in his first five N.B.A. seasons and, after unexpectedly announcing his retirement on Nov. 19, he spoke with great fondness about much of that time. He is understandably proud of his rise from the 30th overall draft pick in 2005 to the Knicks’ captaincy and of eventually halting the Knicks’ eight-season drought without an All-Star. D’Antoni nudged Lee to a new level when he seized on the young forward’s passing ability, making him an efficient double-double specialist who could also operate from the elbow as a decision-maker.

Lee’s experience as an observant rookie helped greatly when it was time to decide to play on or to walk away at age 34. On his first Knicks team, as part of the impossible-to-please Larry Brown’s disastrously brief coaching spell in the Gotham hot seat, Lee was surrounded by big-name veterans either in decline or barely hanging onto their N.B.A. existence. To name just a few: Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway and Steve Francis.

“I kind of told myself then that I wanted to go out on my terms if I ever had the chance,” Lee said. “That’s not to disrespect anybody that chooses to do that. Everybody’s different, and I wanted to do it my way.”

Lee, mind you, is the first to admit that it was far easier for him to exit early, because he had already won the championship that so many players in their 30s feel compelled to keep chasing.

He won it in 2014-15, in the last of his five seasons with the Golden State Warriors. Lee’s hamstring injury in training camp opened the lineup spot that the inimitably loquacious and versatile Draymond Green has never relinquished, but Warriors fans will remember Lee as the first marquee acquisition of the Joe Lacob/Peter Guber ownership era, as Stephen Curry’s good buddy and as Golden State’s first All-Star after a drought of 15 seasons.

You can look it up: For all of his supposed defensive liabilities, Lee in 2010 became the Knicks’ first All-Star since Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston in 2001, then in 2013 became the Warriors’ first All-Star since, again, Sprewell in 1997.

But it is the title, Lee said, that “changes everything.”

“To retire without having a championship, I think there would really be something missing,” he added. “And I would probably be doing what a lot of vets are doing — trying to align themselves with any team that has a chance.”

That was the original plan in late June when he declined his 2017-18 player option with the San Antonio Spurs. And there were a few job offers for this season, after Lee surprised his detractors by carving out a role under the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, a famously demanding coach like Brown. Lee earned Popovich’s respect, even praise, despite not being a noted defender or 3-point shooter — typically prerequisites to earn the coach’s trust.

Lee, though, did not get the sort of offer he was hoping for. He had convinced himself to hold out for a spot with a true title contender, or a team promising major minutes. When neither situation materialized, starting the next chapter proved too tempting, especially once Lee factored in the good life he had built off the court to go with that championship ring in his safe.

After a summer of injury rehabilitation on his left knee, and just days before his retirement announcement, Lee got engaged to the Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who enjoyed a career renaissance in 2017. While their relationship was blossoming, Wozniacki was rebounding to reach No. 3 in the world, after falling as low as No. 74 last year.

Amid all that, Lee also accepted an offer from the Golden State minority owner Chamath Palihapitiya to enter the world of venture capital. So he is a rookie all over again, poised to start a new job that will allow him to split time between the Bay Area and Manhattan, which also happens to be one of Wozniacki’s favorite places when she can manage a break from tour travel. The stays on the West Coast should allow Lee to keep up with Curry, who was drafted by the Warriors a year before Lee’s arrival.

“I think from the start we both had a chip on our shoulder when he came to the Warriors that we were going to try to start something new,” Curry said, explaining why, on top of their natural pick-and-roll chemistry, he and Lee formed such a close bond.

They hatched so many superstitions and quirky sayings that it seemed at times to those in the Golden State locker room that the two had their own language. To this day, when he thinks of the Warriors’ title run in 2015, Curry refers to himself and Lee as “the last two standing” from Golden State’s bad old days.

“I’m so happy for him,” Curry said. “He’s at peace because he is going out on his own terms, to an extent, which is great. Not everybody gets that opportunity.”

Lee isn’t leaving sports completely. He has accompanied Wozniacki to the last two United States Opens, and at 6-foot-9, he is easy to spot at his fiancée’s matches. It turns out he even has a little-known tennis background.

A left-hander, Lee was an accomplished junior at the 12-and-under level in St. Louis area before deciding to focus on his eventual profession. And now, with basketball behind him, he has begun the reconstruction of his tennis game in hopes of becoming a more credible foil for Wozniacki on the practice court.

“We’ve hit a handful of times,” Lee said. “But it’s not a very pleasant experience, because she’s very competitive and there’s nothing I can really do.

“I can still serve it O.K.,” he continued, “and I’m still pretty good when I get to the net. But getting back timing on groundstrokes — and now at this height — it’s not easy.”

Nor is squeezing that N.B.A.-size frame into a tiny courtside seat to watch his future wife play one of the world’s loneliest sports.

“I tell people all the time — I don’t really get that nervous for a basketball game,” Lee said. “But to watch a one-on-one battle when Caroline’s playing and not be able to do anything except cheer, it’s as nerve-racking as it gets for me in life. It’s very difficult to watch when I want her to win so bad.”

Joining #TeamCaro also means that he is routinely subjected to tennis trash talk via text from his former Dallas Mavericks teammate Dirk Nowitzki — “Dirk loves to give me a hard time if Caroline is playing a German,” Lee said — but he has been prepped to handle pretty much anything by now.

“When you start your career playing for Larry and end your career playing for Pop, you can’t do much better than that,” Lee said.

A half-decade in front of Madison Square Garden audiences also tends to toughen an athlete.

“The best way to put it is that it’s like you’re on an audition every single game,” Lee said. “You’re on a stage. No matter where you are in the standings, you’re in the spotlight at all times.

“I don’t know why, but for some reason I always enjoyed that.”

Published at Fri, 01 Dec 2017 22:00:14 +0000

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