In a time when the media is criticized for a bias – whichever way you want to look at it – I’ll admit mine, Ira Lee is my favorite Arizona men’s basketball player.
He’s been that guy since shortly after arriving on campus more three years ago and after his unfortunate – but one he admits was his bad – DWI just months into his life as a student-athlete in Tucson.
Why Lee, a sometimes inconsistent, sometimes draw-dropping player who sees playing time some days and other times not?
He’s candid. He’s refreshing. He’s engaging. Insert your own description here. I’ll finish with affable and aware.
He’s the type of guy you pull for all the while knowing he going to be fine without the pull.
During Friday’s refreshing 25-minue Zoom conference call with local reporters during this novel pandemic, Lee sat in his room in Los Angeles and took questions, handling them like a two-foot jumper, talking everything from writing about today’s strife to basketball, to being a four-year player to getting stopped by police in his first days in Tucson.
It’s Lee Uncut. And that’s why I like him. Rarely do we get a glimpse into UA players like this. Like he did three years ago, he was candid and cautionary.
We need more Ira Lees in the world. We need more student-athletes like Ira Lee in the world. We need more people like Ira Lee in the world.
As he puts it, “I work hard, and I play hard.”
Arizona power forward Ira Lee discusses what it means to him to be one of the handful of players under Sean Miller that will have played all four years of his college career with the Wildcats pic.twitter.com/dSL5Akn784
He’s doing that this summer on a number of different levels, writing a song about today’s racial issues while preparing for his fourth year at UA and what may or may not become of a college basketball season. He, too, thinks from time to time, “how is this going to work?”
Masks, no masks – school or no school.
He’s just trying to stay “positive, but realistic.”
Sound advice from the sage of the 2020-21 team, the only four-year player returning for Sean Miller. He said it was a “great feeling” being a four-year player, one of just a few to go the distance – from start to finish – in the Miller era. He’s all but seen it all, even an FBI investigation (his words).
Arizona senior power forward Ira Lee talks about the challenges of working out with a face mask as he has done this offseason back home in California pic.twitter.com/9WbJ9zgO7O
But he’s pragmatic about it. He’s here to learn – about life and basketball … in fact for the love of basketball and life. And for the love of Black Lives Matter. He’s part of the movement and the moment, penning a song in, um, an hour.
“I see the pain. I see the tears. I see a group of people full of hate and fear. I don’t know why they gotta die for you to get the message. We just want to fly. My people die. These mommas cry. They don’t know if their babies gonna be back alive. We fight a war we don’t have to fight. So maybe you can take my hand and we unite. We are just tired of the games. Of four hundred years of shame.”
It all came from a place of anger and sadness, he said.
If you don’t like it, he’s okay with it. If you do, he’ll take that, too. He’s about living his life and bringing light to others, like George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor who have lost their lives.
“Everything that I retweet, everything I post, I stand strongly by,” he said. “I’m not a racist. If you know me, I love everyone, I’m cool with everybody. I’m the nicest person in the world. But the pinpoint issue right now is black lives do matter because there’s a lot of things going on.
“There’s young black men getting hung, there’s people getting shot. In that song, I said 400 years of shame, because this has been happening for over 400 years, and we always try to say, ‘Oh, it’s better, it’s better,’ but I’m trying to highlight the issue that it’s not as good as everyone makes it seem. If people don’t agree with me, people don’t agree, but it’s what it is.”
Again, refreshing and unfiltered. But this is the young man I thought was courageous in telling his story about the circumstances of his DWI. He didn’t shy away from it.
And yet, he’s come a long way since his first days on campus and Tucson.
“I’ve grown tremendously,” he said. “Basketball … coming in I thought I knew what I was doing (but) I had so much to learn. I’ve encountered so many players so many different schemes, different situations, winning teams, losing teams so I’ve grown tremendously on the court.
“I’ve had my ups and I’ve had my downs. I don’t think the same way as I did as an 18-year-old incoming freshman.”
It’s a metaphor for life – even for a 22-year-old who still has so much more to learn.
“If you’re 22 and still thinking like an 18-year-old then you have a lot more personal issues going on,” he said.
With that wisdom, Arizona will be in good hands with its lone senior leader – no matter his role on a team that will, once again, be searching for chemistry and clarity after a season of inconsistency.
“I don’t see that as a problem,” he said, referring to chemistry given six non-United States players will join the returners for what people hope is a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. “We’ve played with international players before. Now that I’ve been home, I’ve been working with one of our incoming freshman Tibet (Gorener). We all have the same goals. They all came here to win. The guys that are still here want to win. If we all have that understanding, there will be no problems.”
Be sure to listen to Steve and Jay Gonzales every weekday on Eye on the Ball on 1030 The Voice on KVOI.com from 6-7 p.m.