By Rahsaan Thomas
Journalism Guild Chairman
For Jamaal Lee, education was unimportant in his hoop dreams, and he wound up in prison. Now, at age 33, he’s redeemed himself by securing a Vanguard University basketball scholarship with his focus on getting his degree.
Lee is in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in order to become a teacher and a coach, according to an article in the Daily Pilot newspaper.
“When I realized I wanted to further my coaching experience and my resume wasn’t strong enough to do what I knew I wanted to do, school became an option,” Lee said. “And I thought basketball could be part of that too. I knew I could still play.”
As a youth growing up in Long Beach and South Central Los Angeles, he chased the allure of a spot on a NBA team. However, academics and logistics kept Lee off his high school team, and failing to remain eligible ended his attempt to play for the College of the Canyons in 2002.
Lee’s subsequent attempt to play for New Mexico Highlands University ended with his arrest and conviction.
“My mom will tell you that all I ever cared about was basketball,” said Lee. “She’d always tell me I needed a Plan B. But I never saw past Plan A, which was basketball. I wanted to play in the NBA. But, I was finally sane enough to appreciate what education could do for me. And once I saw that, I’ve been going hard after that degree.”
Potholes littered the path to getting his degree. The father of two daughters started out at Orange Coast College (OCC). At the time, he was separated from his wife when he made the decision to forsake working to play basketball. Lee said that “accelerated the divorce process.”
Additionally, Lee had to sit out the 2014-2015 season with Orange Coast College due to an eligibility stipulation that required he maintain a 4.0 grade-point average and take 19 units.
Lee’s basketball talent and hard work earned him the scholarship to start his junior year with Vanguard University. He averaged 17.1 points and led the state with 12.7 rebounds per game.
The 6-foot-3 utility player recorded a triple-double for the OOC Pirates when Coach Steve Spencer started Lee at point guard. He had 17 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. He has dropped 29 points twice and once grabbed 22 rebounds.
He’s a unique player, Spencer said. “He’s our best scorer, rebounder, passer and leader and not just because he is older, but because of how he is and how he plays. He handles himself in a classy, dignified mature way.”
His performance on the ball court and in the classroom earned him the Vanguard scholarship.
“You always have to ask questions any time you are interested in signing a guy who doesn’t take the traditional path to get here,” Vanguard Coach Rhett Soliday said. “But the more I got to know Jamaal and spend time with him, the more I believe not only is he the right fit for the special community that Vanguard is, he’s going to add a ton to it. He is going to be a refreshing and energizing presence in our community.”
Lee signed a letter of intent to play for Vanguard University in Costa Mesa on Jan. 22. His mother Mavis McKnight and OCC Coach Spencer were by his side, smiling.
“I’m just so proud of him,” McKnight said. “I’m proud of the man he has turned out to be and the fact that he pushed through and didn’t give up. He’s had this dream, and he is on this journey to make that dream come true. When we’re young, we don’t always get it. We have to grow into stuff. I’d say he is working Plan B now, and things are coming together for him.”