Slightly more than 16,000 watched Lee lead Marquette to a 67-59 win over North Carolina for the national championship. In addition being named the Most Outstanding Player, Lee was memorialized on the cover of Sports Illustrated, captured making a short jumper between two defenders. Lee’s white jersey billows off him as he creates space between Rich Yonakor and Walter Davis for two of his 19 points.
Though he has a copy of the cover in his home in Puerto Rico, Lee doesn’t remember that play. He does remember looking over just before the final buzzer, when victory was in hand, and seeing coach Al McGuire crying.
“It was emotional,” Lee said.
The motivation for the championship started weeks earlier when McGuire, just 48 years old, gathered his team at a Milwaukee restaurant called “The Clock” and told them he was going to retire at the end of the season. Lee said all of the players and coaches cried most of the night.
But McGuire got the team focused and they began to win again, eventually ripping off victories against Cincinnati, Kansas State and Wake Forest in the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament to earn a trip to Atlanta.
“We thought we had a good team and a good chance to win the championship,” Lee said.
They squeaked by North Carolina Charlotte on a last-second layup. Lee didn’t shoot well, scoring 11 points and missing 13 of his 18 field-goal attempts. But it was his pass to Jerome Whitehead that led to the winning basket.
Lee’s shooting touch improved in the championship game as he was 6-of-14 from the floor and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line to lead the Warriors (as they were known then), who made 23 of 25 free throws.
Lee said McGuire helped the team by lodging them away from the downtown area, where the other three teams stayed. It was better to keep them out of trouble.
“And himself, too, probably,” Lee said, punctuated by an ever-present laugh.
Marquette wasn’t able to defend its title during Lee’s senior season. He was drafted by the Hawks with the 10th pick of the 1978 draft. He played one season before being traded to Cleveland. He retired in 1980 after suffering an injury.
Today, he runs a sign company and the Guaynabo Basketball Academy, located outside of San Juan.
He has three sons, ages 31, 13 and 6. The younger two are playing basketball. The middle one has “a little bit of game,” he said. The younger one has his father’s body.
He said they sometimes hear or see their dad’s exploits on ESPN, Facebook or when coaches visit him during the annual San Juan Shootout college basketball tournament. But he doesn’t think they understand exactly what their dad did.
“Both of them still think they can beat me playing,” he said, with another laugh.
He said he’s not as quick as he used to be, but he still seems confident. He said he will wait until they get a little bit older before that first father-son one-on-one game.
Lee said he’s not sure if he’s going to return to Atlanta for the Final Four and be a part of a crowd that would swallow what he played against in 1977, but he knows that previous experience changed his life in some small way.
“Every time you win and fulfill your dreams, it gives you confidence to go on to the next step,” he said.