Posted Dec 24 2010 7:51AM
HOUSTON -- Each day when the Rockets finish practice, when the last scrimmage is over, the last drills are done, the last weary man has made his way down the stairs to the locker room, usually one weary body still is out there on the floor trying to do just a little more.
"Never waste a chance to play basketball," said Courtney Lee. "The next game isn't guaranteed."
It's a lesson Lee learned the hard way after his roommate and best friend Danny Rumph died of a heart attack five years ago when they were in college at Western Kentucky.
"School had been over for about a week and we were both back at our homes, but I had talked to him on the phone that afternoon," Lee said. "Laughing, joking, making plans. You know, all the things young guys do."
Lee thinks about Rumph not just at the Christmas season, but every day of the year. His right arm bears a tattoo of the friend who just may have changed his life.
What Rumph had done in their two short years together was immeasurable. As a homesick freshman on the Bowling Green, Ky. campus in 2003, Lee was ready to pack up his car and make the three-hour drive home to Indianapolis. He was ready to transfer to Indiana or Butler.
"But some of the coaches knew how bad and depressed I was feeling and they got somebody to swipe my car keys and hide them, so I couldn't go home," Lee said. "Then Danny stepped up and kind of made me his project."
Rumph was a junior and had already been through the uncomfortable period of adjustment in a strange town when he'd arrived from the East Coast and Philadelphia.
"Danny wouldn't let me out of his sight for that weekend," Lee said. "He took me everywhere with him. He took me out to eat at restaurants. He took me to parties. He introduced me to just about everybody he knew. He showed me there was a place for me."
It was one college weekend that started to give Lee, now 25, a different outlook on so many things.
"Danny was a competitor on the court and a guy who didn't want to let an opportunity ever go by," Lee said. "He taught me to fight on every possession, make every play count."
The fundamental lesson that he learned from Rumph that very first weekend was a simple one -- never give up.
"I think all the time about how my life might have turned out different if Danny had let me go home that weekend," Lee said. "What if we hadn't become like brothers? What if I had transferred and gone to some place where my role wasn't as defined and things didn't work out the way they did for me at Western Kentucky? Do I make it to the NBA?"
Lee eventually tied Jim McDaniels as the all-time scoring leader in school history, helped the Hilltoppers reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament and was taken by Orlando in the first round of the 2008 draft.
Lee never got to celebrate that achievement with one of the people who would have enjoyed it most. On a spring night in 2005, the phone rang again and it was his best friend's uncle, Darrin Horn, now the head coach at the University of South Carolina, calling to tell him that Rumph had collapsed while playing a pickup game. He died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart that shuts down under stress. He was 21.
"At first, I didn't believe it and I didn't know how to react," Lee said. "But once the situation set in, it was a life-changing experience. It helped me mature faster. It made me grow up. Danny was all about preparing yourself to be the best at whatever you do and losing him taught me that you can never take anything for granted. Not even tomorrow."
The tattoo on his right biceps is a drawing of his friend wearing his Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap on his head, with wings sprouting from his shoulders and holding a basketball with the No. 11 inside. A couple of other Western Kentucky teammates, Anthony Winchester and Elgrace Wilborn, have the same tattoo that Lee had sketched out.
Lee wore 11 to honor Rumph during his rookie season with the Magic. But when he was traded to the Nets, Brook Lopez already had the number claimed. So he chose No. 6. When he arrived in Houston, No. 11 was on the back of Yao Ming.
"I wasn't getting it away from the big guy," Lee said grinning. "So I chose No. 5. You know, the 6 and 5 make 11. There are a lot of ways I'm thinking about Danny every day, especially now around the holidays."
He thinks what Rumph might tell him about a path that's taken Lee from the NBA Finals with Orlando as a rookie to the worst record in the league with New Jersey a year ago now to a Houston team that struggled at the start and has lost Yao for the rest of the season.
His 19.1 minute and 7.5 point per game averages are the fewest of his career, though shooting 46.2 percent on 3-pointers is his NBA best. Yet there's no complaining, just more work.
"Danny would tell me that the only situation you can worry about and control is your own," Lee said. "You go out onto the court every day and put all of yourself into everything you do.
"Danny would have loved to have been playing basketball anywhere at any time. Every day is another opportunity. "
A lasting message from a friend at Christmas and the rest of the year as well.
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