Traded by Knicks, Lee Was Still a Team Player
When Marni Jaffer was about to deliver her husband’s eulogy to a crowd of 300-plus mourners, she noticed a familiar face rising above the others in the back of the funeral chapel. She had never met the man, but she recognized him from her television screen.
It was David Lee, formerly of theKnicks.
“I thought it was wonderful that he came,” Jaffer said. “And it also struck me how he stayed in the back, paying his respects quietly, not wanting to have people say, ‘Oh, it’s David Lee,’ and intrude on my husband’s moment.”
The funeral for Scott Jaffer, a longtime N.B.A. security official whose primary post was Madison Square Garden,was held July 11. Lee had been in St. Louis, his hometown, after being dealt by the Knicks to the Golden State Warriors in a sign-and-trade transaction that was announced soon after LeBron James’s all-about-me ESPN extravaganza.
Expected back in New York the next week for a basketball camp, Lee was stunned to hear that Jaffer, 63, had died.
“The guy took care of our security stuff, drug testing, things like that,” Lee said in a telephone interview. “He couldn’t do enough for us, joked with us every night, and it turned out he had cancer for three years and not one of us knew about it.”
After five years in New York, Lee had one final act of hustle on behalf of the Knicks, flying into town on Saturday night and getting in his car Sunday morning for a one hour drive to Airmont, N.Y., from his apartment on Manhattan’s West Side.
He knew much of the Knicks’ basketball staff would be working at the summer league in Las Vegas and he wanted to make sure that the team — given its extreme state of transition — would be represented.
The same team, of course, that could not wait to replace him with its latest high-end acquisition, Amar’e Stoudemire.
When word circulated through the Knicks’ organization that Lee had attended Scott Jaffer’s funeral, few people could have been surprised. In February, after the death of Dick McGuire, a beloved Knicks organizational lifer, Lee was the only player to attend the funeral.
Weeks later, when the franchise celebrated the 40th anniversary of its 1970 championship team with a halftime ceremony, Lee was the lone Knick to come out of the locker room to watch from courtside.
Despite playing what he called “my worst game of the season” that night against Milwaukee, Lee chose to savor long conversations with Willis Reed and Bill Bradley, who told him that he had many of the qualities that they associated with their teams of four decades past.
“That was pretty amazing to me,” said Lee, who at that point clung to the hope of remaining in New York. By July, it was more wishful thinking.
“People talk about how much they want good citizens, guys who are committed to an organization and a city,” said Mark Bartelstein, Lee’s agent.
“At the end of the day, it is what it is, the hypocrisy of the whole world of sports.”
The case of Lee, the Knicks’ best and most popular player, should also put into context the allegations of disloyalty against James when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers. Organizations do what they think is best for them, too, without having to say they’re sorry.
The departure of Lee became a footnote to the free-agent fallout generated by the decisions of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to make Miami their collaborative playground. “He averaged 20 points and almost 12 rebounds, and it got swept under the rug,” Bartelstein said.
Timing is everything, and Lee’s was not good from the day he arrived in New York as the 30th and final first-round draft pick in 2005.
“The biggest regret was not having a chance to be part of a stable, winning team,” he said. “Forty-nine players and three coaches have come and gone. That’s not to blame anyone, but those were the facts.”
The overwhelming N.B.A. consensus is that Stoudemire is a stronger, more dynamic player than Lee, who improved every year — especially his jump shot — but has made one All-Star team and has never appeared in a playoff game. Even Lee noted that the Knicks, who gave Stoudemire a five-year deal worth nearly $100 million, had to make a statement after two years of readying themselves for a bid on James.
“People might say, why did they pay Amar’e $100 million?” Lee said. “Well, if LeBron had come, then you’d have to say that he would have been worth $500 million.”
But James did not come, which raises a fair question: if the Knicks do not land Carmelo Anthony or another star within the next two seasons, will Stoudemire — for a lot more money — be as much of a committed company man as Lee?
Not Lee’s problem anymore. Out West, he will play his natural position, power forward, alongside a defensive-minded center, Andris Biedrins, for the first time. He will run a million pick-and-rolls with the Warriors’ talented young guards Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis.
With the Warriors changing ownership, from Chris Cohan to the Boston Celtics minority partner Joe Lacob and Mandalay Entertainment chief executive Peter Guber, Lee is convinced it is a team on the rise.
“I don’t look at us at rebuilding,” he said. “We have a young nucleus in place.”
This week, Lee is trying to play his way onto the United States team — against Stoudemire, who is also in the mix — that will compete in the world championships beginning Aug. 28 in Turkey. If he makes it, Lee will be back in the Garden next month for an exhibition game against France.
Walking the streets of Manhattan last week was a gratifying experience, he said. “I’ve heard this a lot — ‘we’re sorry to see you go,’ ” Lee said.
Marni Jaffer said that if her husband could have chosen one Knicks player to attend his funeral, he would have picked David Lee.
“Scott played basketball when he was younger,” she said. “He knew the game and he loved David Lee, talked about him all the time. He was a big fan.”
He was not alone, but now Lee, a Warrior, has moved on, all in the name of progress.