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Bucky Gleason: Brotherly love leads assistant coach, sibling to St. Bonaventure

In December, on their way to campus after spending Christmas with family, Dwayne Lee showed his brother Jason a video that had been uncovered from their aunt's basement in New Jersey. The clip included 32 seconds of their mother, caught on an old handheld recorder.

Jason had vague recollections of Rhonda Lee, knowing his mother mostly from pictures stashed in scrapbooks and family stories. She died at age 40 in 2003, about three years after her husband, Brian, a Jersey City firefighter, suffered a fatal heart attack.

Dwayne was a 15-year-old high school sophomore when his father died, a college freshman when his mother passed away. The middle brother, Kyle, two years younger than Dwayne, was born with cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair.

Jason, the baby, was born 13 years after Kyle. His parents were dead before he entered kindergarten.

The video brought their mother back to life.

Jason sat in the passenger seat studying the clip on his cellphone as he and Dwayne made their way back to St. Bonaventure University. It showed her at a gathering, laughing and talking with family and friends, before walking toward the door, saying goodbye in an eerie moment that years later comforted a son who barely remembered her.

"It was pretty cool," Jason said. "It was different because it was a live video, not a picture, and you could actually see her moving and hear her talking. Even though a picture says a thousand words, with a video you actually feel like you're with the person. I had never really seen her, like, alive. I was at a loss for words."

Jason, now a 19-year-old freshman guard, played on the final team at famed St. Anthony High in New Jersey before making the Bonnies as a walk-on. Dwayne, 33, a star at St. Anthony who played college ball for the greatest team in Saint Joseph's University history, is a first-year assistant for the Bonnies. They are united again.

The death of Rhonda Lee almost sent them in a different direction. Dwayne was ready to abandon his lifelong dream, quit basketball, sacrifice his scholarship and return home to care for his brothers. Family, friends and coaches intervened, urging him to remain in school for the greater good of his brothers while vowing their support.

"It was one of the most extraordinary acts of love that I had ever witnessed," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "To be around somebody to have that kind of thought process for others spoke volumes about the way Dwayne had been raised. The grandmother and grandfather, aunts, uncles – everybody that supported him – they deserved all the credit."

You hear kids complain about life being tough because their parents nag them about household chores and homework that interfere with socializing and shopping. They should spend a few minutes with Dwayne, who asked for nothing, earned everything and passed along the same values to Jason.

Or they should walk a mile in Jason's shoes. He grew up without his mother and father from age 4, steered clear of Jersey City's crime-infested streets, maintained a 4.0 grade-point average in high school and turned himself into a Division I player. He persevered because Dwayne showed him the way.

"It wasn't easy," Dwayne said. "But we found a way to make it through and come out the other side."

'She died of a broken heart'

Eighteen years later, Bob Hurley Sr. remembered the conversation like it happened yesterday. Most know him as the best schoolboy coach in history, or the father of Duke legend, former University at Buffalo coach and current Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley and former Seton Hall star and current Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley.

Hurley Sr. coached St. Anthony High to 28 state championships and four national titles in 45 years. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010. He turned down millions of dollars upon declining numerous D-I coaching offers, unable to pull away from the private school in Jersey City that needed him.

St. Anthony sits in the shadows of Lower Manhattan, just across the Hudson River, near some of New Jersey's toughest neighborhoods. Hurley was revered for his hard-driving style that prepared players for life after St. Anthony, but people who knew him appreciated his warm heart and soft touch.

Brian Lee was one of them. He had coached Dwayne throughout his youth with hopes he would play for St. Anthony and maybe, just maybe, earn a full ride to a Division I school.

"I was around the program since I was in the sixth grade, going to games," Dwayne Lee said. "I was around all those St. Anthony greats and wanted to be one of them. The legend of Bob Hurley Sr. speaks for itself. Being able to get that type of coaching at that age, it doesn't happen. You don't see high school guys coached at that level."

On Nov. 16, 1999, Brian stepped away from the firehouse on Eighth Street and walked past the school to watch his son play pickup ball in White Eagle Hall, a bingo facility that doubled as St. Anthony's gym. Hurley, on break from his job as a probation officer, stood beside him and talked about the future of the program.

Their conversation continued outside before Hurley jumped in his car, drove around the corner and returned to work. Brian Lee walked about 100 yards back to the firehouse and resumed the afternoon shift. He was returning from an emergency call when he went into cardiac arrest. He was dead at 38.

"I remember the last words he ever said to me: 'Do you think they know where this is all going and how good it is right now?' " Hurley said. "I said, 'Brian, they're 15 years old. They don't have a clue.' He laughed. He passed away within the next hour. He was a wonderful guy."

Dwayne was a wonderful point guard who helped St. Anthony to back-to-back state titles and a No. 2 ranking in the country after his father died. Jason was a toddler bouncing around the gym when his big brother was in high school. Rhonda Lee rarely missed a game while grabbing Jason and pushing Kyle in his wheelchair.

It was a shame Brian wasn't around to see Dwayne's success, to stand behind him when he signed his letter of intent at Saint Joseph's. He would have loved watching his son play college ball. Life would have been considerably different and much easier for his sons if he were around for the years that followed.

Rhonda never recovered from her husband's death. She became depressed in the years after Brian passed, and her health deteriorated. On March 30, 2003, four days after Dwayne celebrated his 19th birthday, nine days after Saint Joseph's was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, Rhonda succumbed to organ failure.

"She died of a broken heart," Dwayne said. "Without him, she didn't know what to do."

Dwayne knew what to do: Raise his siblings.

St Bonaventure assistant basketball coach Dwayne Lee, left, and his brother Jason Lee, right, at the Reilly Center. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Preparing to walk away

Dwayne's teammates and coaches at Saint Joseph's took a bus from Philadelphia to Jersey City to attend Rhonda's wake. They had come together that season, won an Atlantic 10 title and finished in the top 25. It was a team on the rise with star point guard Jameer Nelson leading the way and Dwayne coming off the bench.

At 19, with three years of eligibility remaining and no parenting skills, Dwayne prepared to go home. His brothers needed him in Jersey City more than his brothers at Saint Joseph's needed him on the court. He knew he would have assistance with Kyle. But who would raise 4-year-old Jason?

Dwayne decided he would. He would walk away from the scholarship and the degree, return to home and get a job – any job. If he needed to flip burgers to support his brothers, he would flip burgers.

"To me, it wasn't a hard decision," Dwayne said. "He's my brother, and I felt like I was responsible for him. I'm the oldest."

Hurley had been involved with Lee's family before and after Brian died and remained in the picture after Rhonda passed away. He sat down with Dwayne in the living room of the Lees' home. Yes, it would be noble of him to care for his brothers, Hurley told him, but he could help more if he graduated.

Martelli agreed with Hurley. The decision had nothing to do with basketball. It was about taking advantage of an opportunity to get a free education. He would have more earning power with a degree in the likelihood he never played in the NBA. It was a backup plan for a family that desperately needed one.

"It was never an argument," Martelli said. "It was never like I was arguing against family love. It would make me a bad person. The situation of basketball, which was mundane, was that he was backing up Jameer Nelson. If Jameer left early, Dwayne would move in. At that point, Jameer wasn't leaving."

Dwayne gathered his extended family. They insisted he stay in school. Rhonda's mother would look after Dwayne's younger brothers, which she did for a short time before she fell ill. Brian's parents took over and looked after the younger boys with help from family and neighbors who rallied around them.

"I can't even tell you how difficult the situation was for this family," Hurley said. "It's the definition of family banding together when things repeatedly don't go well."

"You just don’t know what to do or how you're going to make it through," Dwayne said. "Luckily, I had a lot of support. Family and friends and coaches helped me through that process. Coach Martelli was one of them, and Coach Hurley was another. My entire family was there to support and help out."

Dwayne played sparingly as a freshman but contributed more as a sophomore while backing up Nelson, the national player of the year. The Hawks finished the regular season with a 27-0 record. Less than a year after his mother died, he was playing for the No. 1-ranked team in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Years later, Martelli remained convinced his players came together while supporting Dwayne through a difficult time.

"I've said many times that it started on a street corner in Jersey City," Martelli said.

Dwayne took Nelson's spot in the starting lineup for his final two years, averaged 9.9 points and 4.7 points per game, and earned his degree in marketing. He sent money home while playing a few seasons of pro ball in Europe. In 2012, he returned to Jersey City, took a job in a paper mill and became Jason's legal guardian.

"Dwayne is a hero. I call him my hero," said his grandmother, Yvette Lee. "After his parents died, I thought he was going to collapse. He was so strong, so strong-willed, and he took this path and was so great about everything that he did and the decisions to be made, to keep going and do right and be a good person."

Big brother becomes role model

Jason Lee is what you get by throwing his big brother in the dryer, a shrunken version of Dwayne with their strikingly similar physical features, speech patterns and fortitude. Others in the same situation would have buckled and made excuses that were readily available. They refused. Instead, they honored their parents.

"For him, it was even harder than it was for me," Jason said. "I was unaware of it growing up. I couldn’t really process it or understand it. If you're not strong enough, it could cause you to fold. He was strong enough to get through it. It's why he's a true role model for me."

Dwayne was hardly alone. His grandparents, Yvette and William Lee, looked after Jason the way they raised Brian three decades earlier. They made sure he stayed out of trouble and made good grades, that he was kind to others. Extended family members pitched in with rides and weekend sleepovers and meals and guidance.

It took a village to raise Jason.

Basketball was an afterthought.

Jason remembered his brother playing for Saint Joseph's, but he wasn't involved with hoops after his mother died. Seven years ago, between seasons in Europe, Dwayne grabbed a ball and reintroduced his brother to the game. He didn't process the sport like the other kids and was well behind when Dwayne started teaching him.

"In sixth grade, I couldn't make a layup," Jason said. "He worked me out all summer, every day, and you could see my game change."

Jason's improvement was the primary goal, but the side effect was Dwayne gaining interest in coaching. He had certain qualities required to develop young players – high basketball acumen, teaching skills, patience – in spades. As his father did with him, he led Jason into St. Anthony and out of Jersey City.

Dwayne began working with the freshmen at St. Anthony. He became a graduate manager at Wagner College in Staten Island. A year later, he was a full-time assistant at Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey after Hurley recommended him. His ascension in coaching coincided with Jason playing for St. Anthony under Hurley.

Last year, Jason was headed for Fairleigh Dickinson to join his brother when assistant coach Jerome Robinson left St. Bonaventure for New Mexico. Dwayne's name was on Bona coach Mark Schmidt's short list of prospective replacements. Schmidt was sold on Dwayne after calling Martelli and Hurley and hearing his story.

"Imagine," Schmidt said, "giving up a scholarship … at St. Joe's … around the time when they were No. 1 in the country … on a team that is winning the Atlantic 10 and is a national team. And he was going to give it up for his family. It's really impressive. It shows you the character of Dwayne."

Dwayne will be a head coach someday. That much is virtually certain. If he left school, he never would have had an opportunity.

"He's as good a person as you're going to come across," Hurley said. "When he told me he wanted to get into coaching, and I started making phone calls, it was one of the easiest calls I ever had to make. Sometimes, you're uncomfortable calling somebody about a young man because you risk your reputation.

"In this case, I wasn't risking anything. I'm enhancing someone's position by introducing them to Dwayne. He's a phenomenal young man. I'm sure Mark is very happy that he's there. He's mature beyond his years. He's grounded. He has solid values. He loves the sport. There are no negatives."

Parents would be proud

Jason joined his brother at St. Bonaventure, thanks to his perfect grade-point average in the last graduating class at St. Anthony. Kyle, now 31, lives with his grandparents, who are in their 80s. He's a story all by himself. Doctors didn't expect him to live long after he was born. "He loves music, he smiles, he loves being around people, he loves to party and has a good appetite," Yvette Lee said of Kyle.

Dwayne is married and has two daughters. Because he's Jason's legal guardian, Jason received free tuition at St. Bonaventure. Room and board are covered by money that was left in a trust fund after their parents died. Jason didn't even visit Bona before showing up for orientation in August. Dwayne would be there.

It was all Jason needed to know.

"When we first got here, it was maybe 8:30 or 9 o'clock at night," Jason said. "It was complete silence. There was nothing happening. Where I'm from, the night is just getting started. But like Coach Hurley would tell us, 'Nothing good happens after dark in Jersey City. Go home. Get in the gym. Stay off the street.' "

Jason earned his spot on the team at Bona, thanks largely to a high basketball IQ nurtured by his brother and Hurley. The 5-foot-11 guard has played only 11 minutes of mop-up duty across five games this season, finding peace as a practice player while preparing senior stars Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley for games.

Eighteen years and four days after his father died, seven years after barely being able to make a layup, Jason made his debut while the Bonnies were cruising to a 48-point victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore. He checked into the game and took his position on the court when it hit him: He was a D-I basketball player.

Fans cheered for him to score, as they often do with walk-ons. Sure enough, with 49 seconds remaining, Tshiefu Ngalakulondi found Jason open in the corner for a 3-pointer that had been years in the making.

"I let it go, and it went in," Jason said. "The crowd started cheering and going crazy, and chills were going through my body. It was a fun experience. It was like, 'I'm playing college basketball. People don't get this opportunity.' It was surreal."

If the 3,281 people in attendance in the Reilly Center on that November day knew the full story, they would have had chills, too. Dwayne proudly watched from the bench, knowing the highlight was made possible by selfless others back home. Rest assured his parents watched from above, knowing Jason was in good hands.

"Nothing but good should happen to them in their adult lives," Hurley said. "You know how people blow smoke, but you can't find two nicer young men than these two guys. Their parents, and this is getting me (choked up), I know they're looking down at two polished gentlemen, with the image they project, and they're so proud."

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