Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Matt Lee Fitting In Fine At UCLA

By Vytas Mazeika, Staff Writer
Palo Alto Daily News

[reprinted with permission]

After he made the UCLA men's basketball team as a walk-on, Matt Lee had to choose a number for his "True Blue" and gold uniform.

His No. 3, the one the Aragon High and Canada College product has worn his whole life, was not an option because that number belongs to the Bruins' second-leading scorer, wing Josh Shipp.

"So I said 33, and he just laughed at me," Lee said.

The one laughing was UCLA assistant coach Donny Daniels, who thought Lee was joking. When Daniels found out Lee was for real, he enlightened the junior college transfer: "No, that's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's number. You can't take that."

"I was like, 'Wow, that's right. I'm here at UCLA, I can't take Kareem's number," Lee said.

Lately, Lee's life has been a bit surreal. The 21-year-old was accepted to UCLA as a transfer after spending two years at Canada College, where he helped resurrect the basketball program.

The Bruins did not recruit him. In fact, they didn't know about him until Lee introduced himself to Daniels, who asked for his stats at Canada (15 points, five assists, four rebounds per game in 2005-06) and his school transcripts.

After impressing the coaches at an open tryout, Lee was told he made the UCLA men's basketball team, currently ranked No. 3 in the nation with a 17-1 record.

"Matt has been a fine addition to our program," said UCLA head coach Ben Howland, who Lee characterizes as meticulous and organized. "He has played an integral role in helping us improve every day in our practices. He's a perfect fit for our system and our team. His performances in practice and in the classroom fit in well with the goals of our program."

With the Bruins in search of their 12th national championship, playing time is scarce for the only unrecruited walk-on. The one time the 6-foot, 170-pound Lee has seen time on the court was during garbage time against Humboldt State - an exhibition game.
Instead, Lee makes his mark in practice, during one-on-one drills where he's matched up against the likes of Darren Collison, dubbed "the quickest man on campus" by Lee.

"It's actually more than what I could've ever hoped for," Lee said. "It doesn't hit me until after the game, when I see the missed calls on my phone, the text messages from my mom and my brothers telling what a good job I did making the team."

UCLA travels to the Bay Area this week, as the Pac-10 schedule has the Bruins playing Cal on Thursday and Stanford on Sunday. Though Lee gets to sit on the bench during home games, only once has he traveled with the team, and even then he didn't get out of Los Angeles as he got to sit courtside against cross-town rival USC.

He won't find out until the night before the team flies out if he's cracked the top 13 for a second time, allowing him to make the trip home to the Bay Area.

"It's crazy," former Canada College teammate Johnny Moore said. "You see him on TV. For him, it's a dream come true. I'm really proud of him."

"I'm still a fan myself, and that's the funny thing," Lee said. "Instead of watching them on TV, I'm sitting with the team. I win with them, I lose with them and I work hard with them. I believe it's a blessing that no one can ever take away from me."

Canada head coach Lamont Quattlebaum was in southern California over the weekend and got to catch up with his former pupil. Lee gave him a tour of the campus, starting with the state-of-the-art Athletic Hall of Fame inside the J.D. Morgan Center. Also included in the tour were Royce Hall and Powell Library.

"It's like its own little city," Lee said of the campus in Westwood.

Quattlebaum also got a chance to see UCLA beat Arizona 73-69 this past Saturday, with Lee wearing his No. 55 - the biggest number on the team.

"No other kid deserves it more than Matt," Quattlebaum said. "How he had to go through that first season in Canada, to still stay positive and keep playing hard, it says a lot."

The two still talk over the phone on a weekly basis.

"We talk about school first," said Lee, who as a student-athlete is provided with free tutoring. "He made me see that I could become something. ... He definitely helped me get here."

A sociology major who one day may teach, Lee never drew much interest out of high school, especially with Aragon being more of a football school.

"I always thought I was a good enough player to go somewhere out of high school, but unfortunately my circumstances at Aragon, which is not really known for basketball in the Bay Area, set me back a little," said Lee, who played under Kari Huxford.

So Lee went the J.C. route, improving his game to a level worthy of a spot in one of the elite Division I programs of all time.

"If you don't get a scholarship out of high school, there's a lot of great coaches in J.C.s," Moore said. "You can move on easily if you practice, practice, practice."

On the UCLA roster, only Alfred Aboya and leading scorer Aaron Afflalo are older than Lee.

There is not a single senior listed, and next year center Kevin Love, arguably the top high schooler in the country, will join the roster.

For the next couple of seasons, come March Madness, there will be only one number on the mind of Lee, and it's not 33: "Obviously I'm going to tell everyone to fill out UCLA as No. 1 on their brackets now."

E-mail Vytas Mazeika at

(photo credit: UCLA Athletics)



At Jan 25, 2007, 12:33:00 AM, Anonymous Jay Smith said...

Matt Lee sounds like a terrific kid - just like all the other players on the team. Enjoyed reading about his road to UCLA.
"So I said 33." You gotta love it.

At Jan 25, 2007, 2:14:00 AM, Anonymous BruinFan said...

Wish I heard this at the start of the season...I'd chant his name when "the door is shut, the lights are out, the eggs are jigglin and the butter is gettin hard" Gr8 story!!

At Jan 25, 2007, 3:12:00 AM, Anonymous CJW said...

Nice story. Why can't we get writers and stories like this from the LA beat?

At Jan 25, 2007, 6:38:00 AM, Anonymous Todd A. Fong said...

When we heard our cousin Matt was going to UCLA and playing basketball for one of the most successful programs in history, we were all so excited and very proud of him! We hope to see him up back home in NorCal playin' Cal and Stanford!

At Dec 8, 2007, 2:42:00 AM, Anonymous One of the Lee's said...

When I went to UCLA years ago, I was excited that John Wooden was the coach and Bill Walton was playing at that time. I also learned that Kareem played there not too long before that. Now we're even more excited and proud that Matt is going to UCLA and plays basketball for the All-Time No. 1 team.


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