John J. Lee
Fifty years ago this week, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. But despite being a high draft pick by the NBA Knicks, John J. Lee opted for graduate school, a decision that made an enormous difference for Yale.
A great basketball player ignores numerous scholarship offers to pay for his college education instead. That player winds up on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a collegian before becoming an early draft pick of his hometown pro team.
But he spurns the NBA in favor of graduate school, then becomes a successful businessman and university trustee. Eventually the school's basketball arena named in his honor.
That could never happen in real life. Well, maybe never again, because that is the short version of John J. Lee's biography.
Lee's father, who originally came to the United States as a member of an Irish national soccer team, decided to immigrate and met another athlete, a swimmer from New England. They married and settled in Brooklyn.
That's where John J. Lee was born in 1936 and where he would become a basketball star at Erasmus Hall High School. As a senior he drew 65 scholarship offers from around the nation. He justified that acclaim with a 24-point effort in a city all-star game before 17,000 fans at Madison Square Garden.
But Lee placed tremendous value on his education (his mother was a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn) and, in the end, he elected to enroll at Yale. "I didn't want to be just another college athlete with nowhere to go after he graduated," he would later tell Sports Illustrated. "If I'd gone to some of those other schools, I'd have ended up with nothing to show for it but four years of basketball -- and a four-year-old convertible."
When he arrived on campus in 1954, Yale's student body was not diverse. Inner-city, first-generation Americans like Lee were rare and the challenge before him -- especially as a mechanical engineering major -- was great. "Learning became central; athletics became peripheral," he later explained.
Yet he excelled at both -- making the Dean's List repeatedly and breaking the school's all-time scoring mark as a sophomore (by averaging 23.3 points a game).
The success of the 6-foot-3 forward came from movement. Lee was in perpetual motion, instinctively anticipating and reacting to others. He was exceedingly difficult to defend. Oregon State had such trouble. The Beavers sent Lee to the line 21 times, and Lee made all 21 attempts, setting an NCAA record (which has been surpassed just once).
He also scored 41 points against rival Harvard in 1956, a figure since unmatched in the series... or at all by a Yalie. Lee became a bonafide star 50 years ago this week, when he appeared on the cover of the Jan. 21, 1957, Sports Illustrated.
Later that season, Lee -- who averaged more than 24 points a game in Ivy games -- led the Bulldogs to their first League championship. Yale would fall to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, but Lee had propelled the program to heights it would later rarely see.
The Bullldogs could not repeat as champions in Lee's senior season as a fellow New Yorker and future Ivy Silver Anniversary pick -- Rudy LaRusso -- led Dartmouth to the crown. Lee was again named first-team All-Ivy as he completed his career with 1,493 career points. His coach, Joe Vancisin, said, "Johnny's not only a student of basketball, but a real student in school -- exactly what he's supposed to be."
Despite his New York Knicks selecting him in the third round of the NBA Draft (with the 20th pick overall, which makes a player a middle first-rounder now), Lee chose to continue his education -- in pursuit of a master's degree in chemical engineering. He would earn that degree in 1959 and embark upon a career in the petroleum industry. He rose to become the CEO of the nation's largest refiner of petroleum products, Tosco Corporation.
Lee remained a close friend of Yale throughout his life. He supported the University's policy of selecting students on academic merit regardless of ability to pay.
The recipient of the 1989 Yale Medal, the highest alumni award at the school, Lee would become a university trustee in 1993. He oversaw the school's most-ambitious capital campaign, the record-breaking $1.7-billion drive in the early 1990s. He also raised funds for the engineering and athletic departments.
In 1997 the Payne Whitney gymnasium was named the John J. Lee Amphitheater and school president Richard Levin spoke of Lee's service at the dedication. "You are the kind of person we hope all our student athletes will become: one who by his leadership and service displays on the court of life the lessons learned on the courts of youth."
Lee passed away as a result of kidney cancer just four years later and President Levin said, "As a scholar, athlete, husband, father, businessman and alumni leader, John Lee set the highest standard. No one loved Yale more or served it better."
— Brett Hoover