KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As C.J. Lee walked off the court for the last time in his career as a member of the Michigan men’s basketball team, not only did the Michigan fans stand up and acknowledge the fifth-year senior guard, but so did his teammates and coaches.
If there was anyone who had a right to hold a grudge against Lee, it was Kelvin Grady, who Lee edged out of the starting lineup. But the sophomore guard embraced Lee in a long hug before the captain took a seat.
In the waning minutes of a loss to Oklahoma Saturday, Lee had just fouled out for the first time in his career. Occupying the bottom position in the 1-3-1 zone, he stood face to face with the best player in the country, the Sooners’ Blake Griffin, and refused to back down.
And as Lee took a seat with Michigan down by nine points, he quickly jumped up, yelling commands at his teammates on the floor. Next to him, Grady followed suit, yelling out, “Keep fighting!”
He was just following the lead of his captain — something the Wolverines did all season.
Replacing Lee on the court was fellow fifth-year senior captain David Merritt. And in the final minute, senior Jevohn Shepherd subbed in.
On Selection Sunday last year, Lee, Merritt and Shepherd sat down and talked about how they were going to lead the Wolverines back to the NCAA Tournament.
The weight was on their shoulders. They didn’t have a choice.
Without the seniors, this team would have been lost and would have lacked the guidance to take the Wolverines back to the Big Dance.
Coming into this season, sophomore Manny Harris was an unquestionably talented scorer, but he was still young and very quiet in the locker room. Junior DeShawn Sims was more experienced but was still adapting to his new role under the guidance of Michigan coach John Beilein.
The duo’s star power wasn’t enough — the Wolverines needed leaders.
This season, Lee averaged just 2.8 points and 1.5 assists and Merritt just 1.9 points and 1.0 assists. But their impact on their teammates was unmeasurable.
They did the little things. They talked when the team needed a voice. They set the pace in practice.
They were the identity of the team.
Beilein selected Merritt to give the pregame speeches and gave Lee the starting point guard position — and their teammates were watching.
Freshman guard Stu Douglass said his whole motivation in the NCAA Tournament came from wanting to win for the seniors.
“You don’t want to see these guys go,” Douglass said. “That was all the motivation in the world.”
When Lee went to the bench, he knew it was the end, but he also knew his team wouldn’t go down without a fight.
And in the waning minutes of the game, the Wolverines put together one of their scrappiest performances of the year. In the last possession of the game, Michigan grabbed four offensive rebounds before Sims threw in a layup.
After the game, Lee said he would like to be remembered as a player that came every day and fought hard, representing Michigan to the fullest. Every time he put on that jersey, people knew he was going to bring it.
Lee then mused, “That’s definitely what they can say about us (as a team).”
Lee, Merritt and Shepherd won’t be back next year. But they won’t be forgotten. They can’t be forgotten because they are the epitome of Michigan basketball.
A few years ago, Michigan basketball had a different image.
It was an image of the NIT. It was the image of failing to win down the stretch. It was the image of teams with weak leadership.
These seniors changed that. They didn’t have a choice.