Before Michigan’s first-round game in the NCAA Tournament, fifth-year senior guard C.J. Lee sat alone — waiting.
He had been waiting a long time.
All of his hard work led him to this moment. He was a starting captain on an NCAA Tournament team. As his teammates waited for Lee’s name to be called as Michigan’s last starter, all eyes were fixed on their leader.
It was a strange position for Lee — three years earlier, he wasn’t even on the team.
Lee spent two seasons at Manhattan as a backup guard. But it wasn’t where he wanted to be.
Lee grew up in Michigan and later moved to New York. His dream school was always Michigan. But the Wolverines never recruited him.
“We saw something in him that schools out there, for whatever reason, didn’t think he was good enough,” former Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez said. “C.J. was a winner. He was going to be our point guard and captain.”
But after his sophomore season, Lee was offered a preferred walk-on spot for the Wolverines. He jumped on the opportunity.
He gave up a scholarship and a secure spot on a successful team to have a shot at playing for Michigan.
Lee’s stats at Manhattan were unimpressive. He averaged just .4 points and 4.3 minutes per game in his sophomore season. His limited playing time hurt Lee’s confidence, but he was determined that he could succeed at a large program.
He got his chance when Michigan fired coach Tommy Amaker. After several players transferred in coach John Beilein’s first season, Lee found that he was one of the most experienced players on the court.
In practice, Lee would spur on his teammates, constantly yelling at them, even during stretches, “All the way down, come on now!” On the bench, Lee sometimes stands up and yells commands at his teammates.
At the beginning of each year, Lee set goals for himself. By the end of this season, he had achieved most of his goals — he was named a captain and earned a starting spot in the lineup — but his biggest goal was to guide Michigan back to the NCAA Tournament.
“Each year, as I got deeper into it, I kept setting goals for myself,” Lee said. “Getting back into the tournament kind of grew into a goal. It didn’t start that way — it started with me getting my confidence back and proving I belong. Then it matured and developed.”