Lee, sharp-shooting trailblazer, dies at 63

Almer Lee, the first African-American to letter in basketball at Arkansas, died Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. He was 63.

Darrell Walker was an Arkansas basketball player in the early 1980s when he sat in on a film session with Almer Lee during a summer visit to Little Rock.

"Almer said, 'Come over to my apartment, I've got something to show you,' " Walker said. "He pulled out this reel-to-reel film and put it on a projector."

Walker, an All-American guard for the Razorbacks who played and coached in the NBA, sat in awe as he watched Lee putting on a show from his days as an Arkansas player.

"Almer was doing some 'Pistol' Pete Maravich moves," Walker said, comparing Lee to the former LSU and NBA star. "Almer was throwing behind-the-back passes, between-the-leg passes, no-look passes, dribbling behind his back, spinning.

"Back then, some people called that hot-dogging. But to me, it was just great basketball. Almer Lee was a really, really gifted player who was way ahead of his time."

Lee died Sunday night in Little Rock after a long illness that included suffering a stroke. He was 63.

"We've lost a pioneer and one of the greatest Razorbacks of them all," Walker said. "People need to understand how much Almer did for Arkansas and the basketball program. You're talking about a guy who probably could have played for any school in America, but he wanted to play for Arkansas.

"He took a leap of faith to go to Arkansas and he made it easier for other African-American players to follow him. He opened the doors for all of us."

Lee, a 6-1 guard who starred at Fort Smith Northside High School, became the first black basketball player to letter for the Razorbacks when he transferred to Arkansas after one season at Phillips Junior College in Helena to play for Coach Duddy Waller.

"I didn't really know how good I was until letters started coming in from all over the country," Lee said in a 1999 interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "I was afraid because I didn't think I was good enough to play at places like UCLA, Michigan, Florida State, Oklahoma and others.

"But all the time, I was getting scholarship offers from those caliber of schools. After I started getting these letters and realized I was good enough, I decided to stick around home. Hopefully I could help basketball in Arkansas come alive.

"From that point, I wanted to be a Razorback."

Lee praised Frank Broyles, the Razorbacks' head football coach at the time who became athletic director in 1974, for making it possible for him to attend Arkansas.

"I was handled real special; I was protected," Lee said. "A lot of the credit goes to Coach Broyles. He knew the times were changing.

"He did an excellent job at handling that. Nobody was ready for it, but the time was there."

Lee averaged a team-high 17.0 points per game and was named Southwest Conference Sophomore of the Year during his first season at Arkansas during the 1969-1970 season.

Under new Coach Lanny Van Eman in the 1970-1971 season, Lee averaged 19.2 points, including 20.6 in SWC play. Lee, who sufferd knee injuries in high school, saw his senior season at Arkansas come to an end after six games because of a knee injury.

"If Almer hadn't had those knee injuries, there's no doubt he would have played in the NBA, because he was that talented," Walker said. "But he wasn't bitter about it.

"He always said, 'I just played at the wrong time when the technology to treat knee injuries wasn't what it is now,' but he never complained."

Lee played professionally in Holland, where he averaged 28.0 points and made the All-European Team before sustaining another knee injury that ended his career.

"He enjoyed his time over in Europe," Walker said. "He had a lot of fun playing and seeing the world. He was fine about how it all turned out."

Lee is survived by his wife, Evelyn.

"Evelyn has been a pillar of strength for Almer," Walker said. "I just tip my hat to her for how well she took care of him."

Walker was a sophomore at Arkansas when he first met Lee after a game in Little Rock's Barton Coliseum.

"I had taken a shower and was out on the court just kind of mingling with people, and I saw this guy all dapper --wearing a hat and fancy suit and shoes -- staring at me," Walker said, laughing. "He came over to me and said, Walker, Almer Lee. I really like your game, I like your passion. You remind me of myself a little bit.

"He said he was going to be watching me and to keep up the good work. I said, 'Thank you, sir.' But I was wondering, who is this guy?"

Walker did some checking and found out Lee had been a great player for the Razorbacks. The two became close friends for more than 30 years.

"I'd like to think that I was a pioneer, a trailblazer and not just a token because they had to have blacks, that I was a contributor," Lee told the Democrat-Gazette in 1999.

Ron Brewer, an All-American guard for the Razorbacks who played in the NBA after following Lee at Fort Smith Northside and Arkansas, idolized Lee growing up.

"He gave me my work ethic," Brewer told the Democrat-Gazette several years ago. "Almer Lee would show kids like myself how it was done. I always went to him for advice."

Lee was inducted into the UA Sports Hall of Honor in 2011.

"When he called after he got the news he was being inducted, he was overwhelmed and so thrilled," Walker said. "I was thrilled for him, too. It was something he really deserved."

Lee said during his induction speech it was significant to be remembered for his contributions 40 years after he played for the Razorbacks.

"Once you're a Razorback, you're a Razorback for life," he said. "They don't forget you. I'm very humbled about this."

Lee, who lived in Pine Bluff, retired from the Arkansas Department of Human Services in 2013 after 25 years with the organization.

A moment of silence will be held before Wednesday night's Arkansas-Wake Forest game in Lee's honor.

"I want to extend our condolence to his family on the passing of a true, true Razorback," Razorbacks Coach Mike Anderson said.

Lee attended many Arkansas games over the years and stood out with his hat and suit.

"I hope the people of the state of Arkansas enjoyed watching me play as much as I enjoyed playing for them," Lee told the Democrat-Gazette. "I think [coaches] Nolan Richardson and Eddie Sutton brought a winning tradition to basketball at Arkansas, but the style of play that is out there now is exactly what we were trying to do back in the 60s."

Sports on 11/18/2014