Signed, sealed, delivered

Sarah Rothschild

Gary Lee grew up in Flint, Mich., watching Chris Webber and Jalen Rose play basketball and idolizing Michigan and Michigan State.

His dad played football at Michigan, and Michigan State was the “cool school” to root for in basketball.

Growing up around those two schools, Lee always wanted to play for a Big Ten school, but he won’t be staying in-state next year. He will be playing in the Big Ten — for Northwestern. The 6-foot-6 guard signed with the Wildcats on April 19.

When he began to get recruited for college, Lee got a dose of reality. Few Big Ten schools were interested and among them only Northwestern offered him a scholarship.

“My dad has been around sports for a long time,” Lee said. “He told me you can only go where they really want you.”

His father’s advice and counseling from close family friend and former Michigan State basketball player Mateen Cleaves helped him make his decision. Lee’s father, Gary Sr., was Cleaves’ football coach in high school, and the family remained close to him even after high school. Cleaves, who spent a short career in the NBA, told Lee not to get caught up in the “Michigan, Michigan State thing.”

In addition to NU, Lee said Dayton, Duquesne, Cleveland State, George Mason and Wichita State offered him a scholarship.

“Northwestern was my No. 1 hope,” Lee said. “I had my sight set on them. If they were going to make me an offer, I was going to take it.”

The guard will join signees Sterling Williams and Brandon Lee in the Wildcats’ Class of 2008, giving NU one of its deepest recruiting classes in recent years. Next season, coach Bill Carmody will have 12 players under scholarship for the first time since he took over the program before the 2000-01 season.

Lee mailed NU a highlight film last spring, but Carmody and his staff didn’t get a chance to watch Lee in person until July. He caught their eyes at the Kentucky Hoopfest basketball tournament and then he visited NU twice — on an unofficial trip in August and an official visit in January.

Kevin Haney, who coaches Lee in the AAU league, said he was considered a “sleeper” until last summer when several teams, including Wisconsin, noticed his talent.

“He’s smooth, he’s got a nice mid-range game and he’s a slasher,” Haney said. “He’s got a real controlled game. I’ve watched him over the years and … I think Gary could be one of the best players to come out of Flint.”

As a senior at Flint Northern High School, Lee had a breakout season, averaging 17.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and four assists per game. Carmody said Lee’s sound fundamentals coupled with his ability to shoot inside and from long range made him an attractive prospect for NU.

Although Lee’s versatility should bolster the Cats’ backcourt, Carmody said the guard will need to bulk up his 190-pound frame.

“He’s still skinny,” Carmody said. “He really hasn’t grown into his body. He’s certainly been trying to gain weight and he knows there is a big jump (to college) but sometimes your body comes along, when you’re long.”

Lee, a 2003-04 first team All-City selection and all-state honorable mention, said NU is the perfect fit for him because he was impressed by the Cats coaching staff and wants to be part of building a program.

He said he developed a bond with assistant coach Craig Robinson throughout the recruiting process and found coaches at other schools showed little interest in his education or life after basketball.

“It’s always been a dream for me to play in the Big Ten,” Lee said. “It’s a feeling you really can’t explain, especially being from Flint.

“I’m not going to sit around and say, ‘I want to start and do all this.’ I grew up always having to work hard. I’m going to continue to work hard, and hopefully we can make a run at the Big Ten title.”