Message saved: Lee must lead team from here

Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 1:55 a.m.
There are a lot of weeks when it's good to be David Lee. This past week was not one of them.
Lee became the poster boy for Florida's pedestrian start to this basketball season when he disappeared against Florida State. That can happen, but it's not supposed to happen to a senior leader. Especially when the team is still licking the 48-hour-old wound of losing its leading scorer.
What should have happened last Sunday was that the senior should have put his team on his back instead of slipping to the back of the pack as if his draft number had just been called. As a result, he found himself early in the week in a darkened room with a coach in a dark mood.
"He had every reason to call me out," Lee said. "I needed it. I deserved it."
Lee accepted the responsibility with more than an apology to his teammates. He showed up early all week to work on his game. He spent Friday night watching video of Arkansas' close loss to Illinois.
David Lee had to be at his best Saturday not only because he has been through the ringer, but because the ringer squeezes so much tighter when SEC play begins. And because as ridiculous as it may seem, this game vs. Arkansas was a must-win.
That may seem to be stretching it, but after a non-conference season that severely crippled Florida's RPI, the last thing the Gators could afford was a loss at home to open the conference season.
And basically, it was up to Lee. With Matt Walsh out, this is more Lee's team than it is Anthony Roberson's because the 6-foot-9 forward can affect a game in so many different ways. Against Arkansas, he did just that.
"He was the dominant player in the game," said Razorbacks coach Stan Heath.
He should have been. Coming off Sunday's disaster, you would expect Lee to be passionate. Against Arkansas' inexperienced frontcourt, the window was open for a big game.
But after a week when everything from his manhood to his fortitude was questioned, it was still up to Lee to respond.
"He responded off the charts," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after Florida's 82-74 win over Arkansas. "But what David did had nothing to do with Billy Donovan. He had a choice to make."
The choice was simple - play hard or watch like you did in the final 12 minutes against FSU. Play with the intensity of a white-hot star or sit as someone else with a lot less experience does.
Affect the game, David. It's your team. You're the senior. You've been through the SEC three times. You know what it takes. What happened Sunday in Tallahassee cannot happen again.
He heard it, even when he wasn't listening. If there was a buzz about this basketball team around Gainesville, it wasn't a good one and most of it centered on Lee.
But it didn't take a frustrated fan or a freshman co-ed or a radio talk show host to drive the point home.
Lee heard plenty from his coach. "I was in him pretty good," Donovan said.
Lee got the message and Donovan knew it had been received during practices.
"I was pretty upset for a day," Lee said. "He didn't hold anything back. In film sessions, he got on me pretty good. When I was a freshman or sophomore, I'd have probably blamed someone else or said Billy was picking on me. But I'm a senior, I'm the captain of this team. I took the responsibility. I showed them in practice."
Then, he showed Arkansas. His game wasn't one of those blow-you-away box score beauties. He scored 17 points. He had seven rebounds and five assists. He blocked two shots and changed the direction of several others.
What the box score doesn't say was that he was the best -and most important - player on the floor Saturday when he had to be exactly that.
"It's the way I'm supposed to be playing," Lee said.
Nobody would disagree with that. And if Florida is going to have a successful season with Walsh out and Adrian Moss battling a back injury and freshmen playing 88 minutes the way they did against the Razorbacks, Lee has to do it every time he pulls on the uniform.
No more nights off. Donovan hammered that point home this week, laying a dose of deep reality on Lee. This is it, Donovan told Lee. You're in the homestretch of your college career.
Why would you not play with passion? And so he did. Now we watch to see if it is sustained, if it is consistent.
"That's the trick," Donovan said. "Does he revert back? He could. That's on him. That's his responsibility. I hope he realizes he's got to play with an edge."
Every game. Every second he's on the floor. He says he wants to stay at the front of the line. He welcomes the accountability.
OK, David, you got it. Run with it. You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at or by calling 374-5053. You can hear The Pat Dooley Hour each weekday from 11 a.m. to noon on The Star 99.5-FM.

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