Before last Tuesday’s game against then-No. 9 Michigan State, fifth-year senior guard C.J. Lee strutted across the court during warmups, yelling to teammates, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Nearby, fellow fifth-year senior David Merritt sternly went through the rhythm of the pre-game routine: drive to the basket, make a layup, run back in line.
As game time neared, Lee and Merritt headed to center court for the captains’ meeting with the referees.
The scene was a little unusual, considering the two walk-ons had just three combined seasons on the Michigan roster. But at the start of the season, Merritt and Lee somehow found themselves almost unanimously elected as captains of the Michigan men’s basketball team.
The only votes they didn’t receive were their own.
In the spring of 2006, Lee typed out an e-mail and pushed send.
He had gotten his release from Manhattan College, where he completed two years as a backup point guard. After corresponding with then-Michigan assistant coach Chuck Swenson, he decided to give up his scholarship in New York and walk on to the Wolverines.
“I just went for it,” Lee said. “It was always my dream. I coudn’t pass up on my dream.”
Lee was born in Saginaw and spent 11 years in Lansing before moving to Pittsford, NY.
From the first time Lee’s high school coach saw the young point guard play, he knew Lee was something special.
“I walked into the gym and sat in the stands and watched, and here’s this kid running the point,” said John Nally, the basketball coach at Pittsford Sutherland High School. “This freshman, telling everyone where to go, getting people organized, moving the ball around, running the point like he was a senior.”
Nally’s fondest memory was watching the guard score nine points in less than a minute, including a half-court shot, to win a game. Lee’s teammates carried him off the court on their shoulders.
When it came time for college, the six-foot guard wasn’t highly recruited. He was offered an opportunity to walk on at Michigan but instead took a scholarship offer from Manhattan.
“We saw something in him that schools out there, for whatever reason, didn’t think he was good enough,” then-Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez said. “C.J was a winner. He was going to be our point guard and captain.”
Lee spent two seasons at Manhattan, where he averaged just 4.3 minutes per game before Gonzalez left to become the Seton Hall head coach. The coaching change prompted Lee to send an e-mail to the Michigan coaching staff.
A few months later, he packed his bags for Ann Arbor.
TRY, TRY, TRY AGAIN
It took Merrit three years to make the team.
The first time he got cut, he was disappointed. The second time, frustrated. The third time, when he finally earned a spot, relief.
“It was really horrible, actually, because I thought I was good enough to be on the team,” Merritt said of his two failed tries. “I thought I had pretty good tryouts. I felt that I had worked hard enough throughout the summers, coming for open gyms, showing that I really cared about being on the team.”
Merritt turned down his only scholarship offer, from Division-II Hillsdale, and decided to train year-round to prepare himself for the Michigan tryout. Every summer morning, he lifted weights, then spent hours in the gym playing basketball.
By his junior year, he had one last shot. Merritt promptly had what he described as his worst workout.
Despite that, he never had doubts about making the team.
“Merritt is a classic example of sticking with it, having a fire and a passion,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said in a teleconference in January. “He’s going to be a heck of a motivational speaker someday when it comes down to how to live your dreams.”
After finally making the team, Merritt got introduced to the walk-on guard from New York, who, despite being the newcomer, wouldn’t shut his mouth. From there, Lee and Merritt spent the season fighting for a spot on Tommy Amaker’s squad.
But at the end of the season, Lee once again faced the scenario of a head coach leaving the program.
FILLING THE VACUUM
When Michigan coach John Beilein was hired, Lee and Merritt had no idea what their role as walk-ons would be in the new regime. Lee had yet to play a minute for Michigan after sitting out for a year because of NCAA transfer rules and Merritt had played in just four games as a Wolverine.
As players began to drop from the program, leaving then-senior Ron Coleman and current senior Jevohn Shepherd as the only upperclassmen aside from the the walk-ons, it created a leadership vacuum.
And although they were new to the team, the outspoken Lee and the iron-willed Merritt were in natural positions to step up. No one had worked harder. And Beilein, who was a walk-on at Wheeling Jesuit in 1971, respected their intensity and work ethic.
“I think we bring an older mentality,this mentality that we’re going to come in everyday and work as hard as we can,” Merritt said. “Our only concern is winning. Me and C.J. aren’t concerned about how many points we score or how many minutes we get. We want to do everything to see this team win.”
But winning didn’t come naturally. Despite their maturity, the duo lacked on-court experience. Last season, Michigan limped its way to a school-record 22 losses.
Lee started in seven games and saw the court in every contest, while Merritt made 20 appearances in the team’s 32 games.
All season, Lee and Merritt did their best to lift the spirits of the deflated team.
“They keep us going when guys come in and guys don’t feel like going and things are going wrong,” Shepherd said. “You always hear (C.J.) speaking and we laugh about it, like ‘C, when you going to stop talking?’ He’s told us plenty of times he’s not going to stop speaking untill he leaves here.”
Although Lee is known as the loudmouth, Merritt is known for lighting a fire under his teammates. Before Michigan’s 81-73 win over then-No. 4 Duke in December, Beilein called on the West Bloomfield native to give the pep talk.
Lee’s pep talks, on the other hand, are never ending. He talks throughout practice, when he’s leaving the court, on the way out to the parking lot and on his way back into practice the next day. When Michigan had a 7 a.m. wakeup call for the Iowa game, Shepherd said Lee was the first one up and talking.
Lee will often stand up from his seat on the bench when Michigan is on defense, put his hands in the air as if he’s on the court and bark orders to his teammates.
“In the locker room, his demeanor is so intense for our guys that we don’t go into any games unprepared because we have another coach in the locker room as well,” Beilein said.
In his pregame speech before the Michigan State game, Beilein pulled out a ring commemorating one of his teams that made the NCAA Tournament.
“It means so much to me to have teams get one of these — an NCAA ring,” Beilein said. “I want one with an ‘M’ on it. I don’t want it for me. Our coaching staff doesn’t want it. We want it for you because you’ve worked so hard.”
From the front of the room, Lee unconsciously responded, “Yes, sir.”
He just couldn’t stay quiet.
DO IT FOR ‘US’
At the beginning of this season, Lee and Merritt received scholarships — an honor the two didn’t take lightly.
“You want to reassure (the coaches) that, ‘Yes, I made the right decision,’ ” Lee said of being awarded the scholarship. “That’s something Dave and I do everyday is to go out and prove that we’re here, and we’re here to stay. … People like to use the word ‘walk-on’ as if you’re not as deserving of a scholarship, and I’ve never referred to Dave or myself as a walk-on, because we are both deserving to be in this place.”
For the two fifth-year seniors, the only way to reassure their coaches is to win.
It doesn’t matter that the duo has started a combined 19 of Michigan’s 26 games, or that Lee has seen the most playing time of his career.
None of it mattered after Michigan lost 54-42 at home against the Spartans, its seventh loss in nine games. And despite everything Merritt and Lee have done throughout their careers, they still feel they haven’t done enough.
Following that game, Merritt sat near his locker, solemnly looking on as Lee took questions from the press. Lee’s voice cracked, his throat sore from yelling encouragement to his teammates and vomiting into a trash can during a timeout. Yet he still played 37 minutes. He issued a challenge to his teammates.
“Maybe I have to put more pressure on guys,” Lee said. “But we don’t have a staff that does that. I’m not the kind of leader to do that, but if that’s what it takes, that’s what I’m going to have to do. … Because we have seven (games) to answer this bell, and if we don’t do it, shame on us.”