In conjunction with the Boost Mobile Elite 24 Aug. 28, ESPNHS is profiling California's 24 greatest streetball players ever. Some went on to become NBA stars, some were high school stars and pro flameouts, while others were beset by unlucky breaks or tragedy. The countdown continues with No. 9 on our list, Kennedy (Sacramento, Calif.) graduate Ernest Lee.
Every California streetball icon has serious game. Each has a story behind his legend.
The story of Ernest Lee is tragic, but the lessons learned are more valuable than any contract Lee might have dreamed of signing.
When the Sacramento Bee named its Top 100 boys' players ever in the late '90s, former NBA center Bill Cartwright topped the list. No. 2 on that list was Lee, ahead of current Sacramento Mayor and former Phoenix Suns' standout Kevin Johnson, who checked in third.
In 1982, Lee was one of the hottest college prospects on the West Coast. UCLA, USC and Washington wanted him, amongst others. His senior year, he was the Bee's Player of the Year and a Cal-Hi Sports First Team All-State choice after leading Kennedy to a 28-1 record. The lone loss was to eventual NorCal Division I champ Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.).
In the Top 100 players story, Johnson maintained that Lee was a better high school player. Today, the former five-time All-NBA selection drives home the point.
"Ernest Lee was a legend before his time in Sacramento," Johnson said. "Everyone who followed the high school game in Northern California knew Ernest as the best around. He was an all-around player whose skill set far exceeded anyone else's."
When his GPA precluded him from playing for a Division I college, Lee drifted for a year before moving to Atlanta to join his mother.
While there, Robert Pritchett, then the basketball coach at Div. II Clark College in Atlanta, spotted him playing in a summer league. It took only a few minutes for Pritchett to offer Lee a scholarship.
At Clark from 1985-87, Lee led the nation in scoring with averages of 34.1, 29.3, and 29.7 points per game, respectively.
"Ernest was like a beast, plus he was deceptive, could get inside and was an uncanny scorer -- the type of dude who was tough to guard," Sacramento basketball guru Gus Armstead said. "He'd overpower a guard and run circles on a big guy.
"Once he got inside no one could stop him."
Lee, with those accomplishments in hand, was convinced his obsession of an NBA career would become reality. But the name "Ernest Lee" was never called in the 1987 NBA Draft, leading to a downward spiral.
Despite not making the NBA, he still had people in his life that cared for him. He didn't always see it that way and lost his self-esteem.
"Ernest was definitely one of my best friends. We shared a lot of time together off the court," said Pastor Bob Balian, a Sacramento-area non-denominational preacher and a teammate of Lee at Kennedy. "Later in life, when he was really struggling, I gave him a job at my construction company. My wife and I had him over at our house often, for weekends at a time, hoping to keep him off the streets."
Without the structure of pro ball, the streets took a hold of Lee. The player who rocked the shaved head and the baggy shorts before Michael Jordan, and one Johnson likened to Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, turned to drugs, according to Balian.
Despite the presence of a girlfriend and daughter, Lee didn't see a future. Despair, combined with drugs, led to a tragic ending. In 1994, Lee took his own life when he jumped from a Sacramento-area bridge. He was 30.
"Unfortunately, he was primarily focused on basketball throughout his high school and college years and when a career in basketball didn't materialize, he was ill-equipped to succeed in another profession," Johnson said.
The suicide stunned those who knew him well.
"The lesson to learn from Ernest is you can't put all your eggs in one basket," said Armstead, now an AAU coach in Sacramento. "Being around these types of kids all the time, I know you can't put that type of pressure on kids. It should be balanced, with academics, athletics and relationships. You never know how that pressure can affect them."
Added Balian: "He was one-of-a-kind, incomparable, unique. I think the main thing that people can learn from Ernest's story is that athletes have so much more value than just what they do in athletics."