It’s rather cliché to say an elite competitor was born with uncommon drive and an insatiable hunger to survive.
But that description truly applies to Damion Lee, a key offseason addition for the Phoenix Suns.
“I really should not be here,” the 6-5, 210-pound Lee told Suns.com last week, explaining that, because of oxygen problems, he came out of the womb purple and that doctors were concerned about whether he’d be OK.
Fighting back has always been a way of life for Lee, who was born in New York and spent many of his formative years in and around Baltimore.
His mom, Michelle Riddick, and grandmother (“his “nanny”), Ruth Riddick, helped head up the household that included other relatives, and helped lead young Damion toward basketball.
“Mom’s favorite player was Dominique Wilkins,” Lee said.
Watching Wilkins undoubtedly provided the entertainment and high-profile visibility that kept Lee focused on the allure of the NBA stage.
As Lee excelled through his early teens, he found his fearlessness among his leading qualities on the court. Beating opponents off the dribble, getting below the free-throw line and hitting tear-drop runners was a go-to move.
“My grandmother, her favorite player all time was Allan Houston,” said Lee, whose NBA game now shares similarities with the way Houston played during his long, successful career.
The players Lee has chosen, followed and tried to emulate include Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Lou Williams – each of whom has a special skill set that pushed them to All-Star levels.
The darkness of ACL rehab and the sunshine from Sydel Curry
Lee’s natural chip on his shoulder helped push him to return from a pair of devastating knee injuries. The first was in his third season at Drexel – in a game against the University of Arizona.
(The second occurred in late December 2016 while he was with the G-League Maine Red Claws. It was yet another hurdle to clear, especially tough given Lee’s first two months’ worth of production -- averaging 17.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.)
He is quick to give great credit to those who cushioned the many blows thrown his way, making his path bearable beginning from an early age.
“Just understanding where I was in life, and the sacrifices people made for me,” Lee said. “My mom drove an hour and a half each way, every day my freshman and sophomore years in high school.”
The incessant personal drive is really in honor of the “people who have sacrificed their time and energy for me,” he said.
Lee became a mainstay with the Drexel Dragons of the Colonial Athletic Association, earning conference rookie of the year honors for his 2011-12 season.
But it was a volleyball player for another CAA school, Elon, who changed the course of Lee’s life.
Lee knew about Sydel Curry’s famous family – brothers Steph and Seth, and father, Dell – but qualities far beyond fame drew his interest.
And she liked being around him. He was a gentleman who treated her with the utmost respect.
Now married three years (their fourth anniversary is in September), the two make a powerful team but also blaze their individual trails.
Sydel was not without struggles of her own, suffering multiple concussions during her athletic career and finding the need to concentrate on her mental health.
She found a niche, too, and her YouTube channel devoted to mental health and lifestyle now counts more than 100,000 subscribers.
"Being vulnerable, being relatable,” Lee said are the keys to Sydel’s success at reaching a wide audience. “A lot of what she talks about shows she’s relatable to teenagers as well as people that are older than us.”
Lee is emotionally invested in Sydel’s pursuits and speaks eloquently of his role.
“As men we always try to fix things (but) we don’t have the answers,” Lee said in a podcast interview with Marc Spears. “It’s better just to be there, just listen, rather than try to fix or trying to have an answer; try to correct things.”
From a competition standpoint, it didn’t hurt to join a family whose off-the-charts desire to win fit comfortably with what Lee had nurtured since birth.
Game night with the Currys?
“Oh, they’re all competitive,” Lee said. “Playing cards, game nights. But I’m in it to win it. … We all push each other.”
Lee voiced support for Louisville at his L.E.E. Way Foundation golf scramble last month, benefitting Louisville and Maryland youth by providing financial resources for scholarships and youth programs.
More hurdles to clear
The challenges continued during college.
Lee, who played four seasons at Drexel but missed most his junior season after tearing his ACL, transferred to Louisville with hopes of finally playing in the NCAA Tournament. But shortly thereafter, the school announced a self-imposed ban on postseason play.
No Big Dance.
And then, Lee went undrafted, launching a G-League and NBA Summer League odyssey.
He put up 18 points, six rebounds and three assists per game with the G League's Maine Red Claws and was back on the NBA radar. But then another torn ACL prematurely ended his first professional season.
Lee was traded to the Santa Cruz Warriors prior to the 2017-18 season and earned a callup from the Atlanta Hawks on a 10-day contract in March 2018. He hit a 3 for his first NBA points, and appeared in 15 games for the Hawks to close the season.
He signed a two-way contract with the Golden State Warriors prior to the 2018-19 season and averaged more than 20 points per game for Santa Cruz that season while also appearing in 32 games for Golden State. He entered the 2019-20 season again on a two-way deal with Golden State, but his days in the G League were done.
Winning time in San Francisco
The 2021-22 Golden State Warriors built on the momentum that followed a difficult road during the COVID era.
Having won back-to-back NBA titles in 2017 and 2018, the Warriors lost in the Finals in 2019 and fell to 15-67 the following season. As the Warriors considered improvements over this span, Lee had forced himself on to the team’s list of priorities. In January 2020, his contract was converted to a standard contract from a two-way, forever changing his financial fortunes.
An abbreviated, 72-game season saw Golden State finish 39-33, and Lee posted career highs in 3-point field-goal percentage (.397) and free-throw percentage (.909).
Warriors coach Steve Kerr praised the stability in Lee’s game – and his life – during a radio interview with 95.7 The Game last October.
“He and Sydel, his wife, are having a baby, too," Kerr said at the time. "There’s just a lot of great things going on in Damion’s life. He’s just right at that sweet spot where he’s ready to help (I think) a good team win a lot of games.
“I’ve long felt that’s one of Steph (Curry’s) secrets to his success, he loves his life. He loves his family, he loves his hobbies, his daily existence on the Earth, he just enjoys it so much. ... If you can get things in order and you’re in a comfortable place, you’re going to have more success.”
Kerr said in that radio interview that he saw the improvement in Lee and that the 2021 offseason was key:
“(It was) a great summer for him, he got healthy, was able to work on his body. I think he came into camp in the best shape of his life, but also with the most knowledge that he’s ever had and the most confidence."
The Warriors proceeded to win 53 regular-season games, earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. They rolled through the playoffs, going 16-6, culminating with a 4-2 series win against Boston.
“My favorite part of winning it all is actually having the family there,” he said. “Having our son on stage during the entire celebration. … He’s only 8 months so he doesn’t know much of what’s going on, but he’ll be able to look back on this … when he gets older.”
The Suns chapter begins
As the summer moved along, Lee – a free agent – began to consider his options. When the calendar flipped to August and free agency began, the Suns moved strongly into contention.
“The first day and half, I didn’t really hear much,” he said, comparing the process with courtship. “Rumblings, some interest. It’s like liking someone but not loving someone.”
Then the heat increased.
“I went to work out, and then leaving the facility, I’m on the phone with one of my friends. …. My agent calls me. ‘This team is interested. They’d like to talk to you; the coach would like to call you.’”
The coach was Monty Williams, making a pitch for Lee to join the Suns.
“It’s Monty Williams,” the talented guard said. “I took a step back, ‘Oh wow.’”
And then he was hit with part two of Phoenix’s one-two punch.
“Had a conversation with (Suns general manager) James Jones. I was sold. Similar morals, similar beliefs. Play my game, have fun along the way.”
Lee is capable of filling a stat sheet with his well-rounded game. In March, he scored 22 points and added six rebounds and three assists. In 30 minutes that night at Miami, he was charged with only one turnover.
He's a career 86.8 percent free throw shooter who hits 35.7 percent from 3-point range over his five NBA seasons. He averaged 7.4 points and 3.2 rebounds across 63 games during the 2021-22 NBA season.
Lee cited the opportunity in Phoenix “to learn” from some highly qualified sources: “Obviously Coach (Williams), CP (Chris Paul), Book (Devin Booker) and Jae (Crowder).”
Suns fans are going to see that this soon-to-be 30-year-old has plenty more to give.
Given the playing time, Lee has produced. His per-36-minutes points-per-game average is 15.
“That per 36 number sounds pretty decent,” Lee said, laughing in reference to his belief in what he can do if given the opportunity. “I shoot the ball at a high clip, get into the lane. Pride myself on having a high IQ, cutting without the ball, setting screens for the guys.
“Just going out there knowing my game, staying aggressive. Playing hard on defense knowing where to be. ...
“If it’s as the sixth man, the seventh man, I’m gonna give it my all. … I’m all about winning. Continue to put my imprint on the league.”
There figure to be moments this season, as the Suns try to build on their recent success, during which Lee will be asked to contribute in a big way – and he plans to be ready.
“I don’t like talking about myself,” he said. “It’s not that I’m not … confident. I’m extremely confident. Gaining that trust from the coaching staff continue to learn and expand my game. Whenever I’m out there on the court I’m playing hard as hell.”