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February 19, 2009 - Image 8

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The Michigan Daily, 2009-02-19

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8A - Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com I

FROM WALK-ONS TO CAPTAINS

4

Fifth-year seniors
Lee and Merritt lead
the Wolverines with
hard work and heart
By JASON KOHLER
Daily Sports Writer
Before last Tuesday's game
againstthen-No. 9 Michigan State,
fifth-year senior guard C.J. Lee
strutted across the court during
warmups, yelling to teammates,
"Let's go! Let's go!"
Nearby, fellow fifth-year
senior David Merritt sternly went
through the rhythm of the pre-
game routine: drive to the basket,
make a layup, run back in line.
As game time neared, Lee and
Merritt headed to center court for
the captains' meeting with the ref-
erees.
The scene was a little unusual,
considering the two walk-ons had
just three combined seasons on the
Michigan roster. But at the start of
the season, Merritt and Lee some-
how found themselves almost
unanimously elected as captains
of the Michigan men's basketball
team.
The only votes they didn't
receive were their own.
DREAM SCHOOL
In the spring of 2006, Lee typed
out an e-mail and pushed send.
He had gotten his release from
Manhattan College, where he com-
pleted two years as a backup point
guard. After corresponding with
then-Michigan assistant coach
Chuck Swenson, he decided to give
up his scholarship in New York and
walk on to the Wolverines.
"I just went for it," Lee said. "It
was always my dream. I coudn't
pass up on my dream."
Lee was born in Saginaw and
spent 11 years in Lansing before
moving to Pittsford, NY.
From the first time Lee's high
school coach saw the young point
guard play, he knew Lee was some-
thing special.
"I walked into the gym and sat
in the stands and watched, and
here's this kid running the point,"
said John Nally, the basketball
coach at Pittsford Sutherland
High School. "This freshman, tell-
ing everyone where to go, getting

people organized, moving the ball
around, running the point like he
was a senior."
Nally's fondest memory was
watching the guard score nine
points in less than a minute,
including a half-court shot, to win
a game. Lee's teammates carried
him off the court on their shoul-
ders.
When it came time for college,
the six-foot guard wasn't high-
ly recruited. He was offered an
opportunityto walk on at Michi-
gan but instead took a scholarship
offer from Manhattan.
"We saw something in him that
schools out there, for whatever
reason, didn't think he was good
enough," then-Manhattan coach
Bobby Gonzalez said. "C.J was
a winner. He was going to be our
point guard and captain."
Lee spent two seasons at Man-
hattan, where he averaged just 4.3
minutes per game before Gonza-
lez left to become the Seton Hall
head coach. The coaching change
prompted Lee to send an e-mail to
the Michigan coaching staff.
A few months later, he packed
his bags for Ann Arbor.
TRY, TRY, TRY AGAIN
It took Merritt three years to.
make the team.
The first time he got cut, he was
disappointed. The second time,
frustrated. The third time, when
he finally earned a spot, relief.
"It was really horrible, actu-
ally, because I thought I was good
enough to be on the team," Mer-
ritt said of his two failed tries.
"I thought I had pretty good try-
outs. I felt that I had worked hard
enough throughout the summers,
coming for open gyms, showing
that I really cared about being on
the team."
Merritt turned down his only
scholarship offer, from Division-
II Hillsdale, and decided to train
year-round to prepare himself for
the Michigan tryout. Every sum-
mer morning, he lifted weights,
then spent hours in the gym play-
ing basketball.
By his junior year, he had one
last shot. Merritt promptly had
what he described as his worst
workout.
Despite that, he never had
doubts about making the team.
"Merritt is a classic example of
sticking with it, having a fire and

ein, who was a walk-on at Wheel-
ing Jesuit in 1971, respected their
intensity and work ethic.
"I think we bring an older men-
tality, this mentality that we're
going to come in everyday and
work as hard as we can," Merritt
said. "Our only concern is win-
ning. Me and C.J. aren't concerned
about how many points we score
or how many minutes.we get. We
want to do everything to see this
team win."
But winning didn't come natu-
rally. Despite their maturity, the
duo lacked on-court experience.
Last season, Michigan limped its
way to a school-record-22 losses.
Lee started in seven games and
saw the court in every contest,
while Merritt made 20 appearanc-
es in the team's 32 games.
All season, Lee and Merritt did
their best to lift the spirits of the
deflated team.
"They keep us going when guys
come in and guys don't feel like
going and things are going wrong,"
Shepherd said. "You always hear
(C.J.) speaking and we laugh about
it, like 'C, when you going to stop
talking?' He's told us plenty of
times he's not going to stop speak-
ing until he leaves here."
Although Lee is known as the
loudmouth, Merritt is known for
lightinga fire under his teammates.
Before Michigan's 81-73 win over
then-No. 4 Duke in December, Bei-
lein called on the West Bloomfield
native to give the pep talk.
Lee's pep talks, on the other
hand, are never ending. He talks
throughout practice, when he's
leaving the court, on the way out
to the parking lot and on his way
back into practice the next day.
When Michigan had a 7 a.m. wake-
up call for the Iowa game, Shep-
herd said Lee was the first one up
and talking.
Lee will often stand up from his
seat on the bench when Michigan
is on defense, put his hands in the
air as if he's on the court and bark
orders to his teammates.
"In the locker room,'his demean-
or is so intense for our guys that
we don't go into any games unpre-
pared because we have another
coach in the locker room as well,"
Beilein said.
In his pregame speech before
the Michigan State game, Beilein
pulled out a ring commemorating
one of his teams that made the

NCAA Tournament.
"It means so much to me to have
teams get one of these - an NCAA
ring," Beilein said. "I want one
with an 'M' on it. I don't want it
for me. Our coaching staff doesn't
want it. We want it for you because
you've worked so hard."
From the front of the room, Lee
unconsciously responded, "Yes,
sir."
He just couldn't stay quiet.
DO IT FOR 'US'
At the beginning of this season,
Lee and Merritt received scholar-
ships - an honor the two didn't
take lightly.
"You want to reassure (the
coaches) that, 'Yes, I made the
right decision,' " Lee said of being
awarded the scholarship. "That's
something Dave and I do everyday
is to go out and prove that we're
here, and we're here to stay. ...
People like to use the word 'walk-
on' as if you're not as deserving
of a scholarship, and I've never
referred to Dave or myself as a
walk-on, because we are both
deserving to be in this place."
For the two fifth-year seniors,
the only way to reassure their
coaches is to win.
It doesn't matter that the duo
has started a combined 19 of Mich-
igan's 26 games, or that Lee has
seen the most playing time of his
career.
None of it mattered after Michi-
gan lost 54-42 at home against
the Spartans, its seventh loss in
nine games. And despite every-
thing Merritt and Lee have done
throughout their careers, they still
feel they haven't done enough.
Following that game, Merritt
sat near his locker, solemnly look-
ing on as Lee took questions from
the press.
Lee's voice cracked, his throat
sore from yelling encouragement
to his teammates and vomiting
into a trash can during a timeout.
Yet he still played 37 minutes. He
issued a challenge to his team-
mates.
"Maybe I have to put more pres-
sure on guys," Lee said. "But we
don't have a staff that does that.
I'm not the kind of leader to do
that, but if that's what it takes,
that's what I'm going to have to
do it. ... because we have seven
(games) to answer this bell, and if
we don't do it, shame on us."

4

CHANEL VON HABSBURG-LOTHRINGEN/Daly
Fifth-year senior C.J. Lee has become a vocal leader for Michigan asa former walk-on.

a passion," Indiana coach Tom
Crean said in a teleconference in
January. "He's going to be a heck
of a motivational speaker someday
when it comes down to how to live
your dreams."
After finally making the team,
Merritt got introduced to the
walk-on guard from. New York,
who, despite being the newcomer,
wouldn't shut his mouth. From
there, Lee and Merritt spent
the season fighting for a spot on
Tommy Amaker's squad.
But at the end of the season, Lee
once again faced the scenario of a
head coach leaving the program.
FILLING THE VACUUM
When Michigan coach John

Beilein was hired, Lee and Mer-
ritt had no idea what their role
as walk-ons would be in the new
regime. Lee had yet to play a min-
ute for Michigan after sitting out
for a year because of NCAA trans-
fer rules and Merritt had played in
just four games as a Wolverine.
As players began to drop from
the program, leaving then-senior
Ron Coleman and current senior
Jevohn Shepherd as the only
upperclassmen aside from the
walk-ons, it created a leadership
vacuum.
And although they were new to
the team, the outspoken Lee and
the iron-willed Merritt were in
natural positions to step up. No
one had worked harder. And Beil-

DAILY SPORTS.
If journalism was like the movie "Top Gun,"
we'd totally be Iceman. You know, the
really badass one. WRITE FOR US.
E-mail andyreid@umich.edu.

1

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