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Former Bruin Still Showing a Deft Touch : Lee Takes Positive Approach as San Diego Teacher, Coach

March 21, 1993|DANA HADDAD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He wore UCLA uniform No. 43 for the last time nearly 19 years ago, and now Greg Lee--one of the top schoolboy basketball players in Valley history at Reseda High--is carving his niche as a San Diego teacher and coach.

Twenty years have zipped by since Lee was the catalyst of what Coach John Wooden called his greatest Bruin team, but two decades have hardly affected this free spirit who still loves his alma mater but sometimes conceals his passion.

"(The Bruins are) going to upset Michigan and they're going to get at least to the finals of the regional," said Lee, 41. "If you believe that . . . I've got a bridge to sell you.

"And if anybody reads that statement, they won't believe anything else I say. But that's from the heart."

Fading memories and new hopes come alive for Lee each time UCLA earns a berth in the NCAA tournament. But today he's only another UCLA fan rooting for a Bruin uprising in March, keenly aware of the achievements of the John Wooden era--seven NCAA titles in a row, 10 total--might never be duplicated.

"I root for them every time I watch them," he said. "For every alum and every ex-UCLA basketball player, it would be great if most of the best talent in America went to UCLA and we went undefeated and continued to win national championships. But it's unrealistic in this day and age."

UCLA is a subject Lee rarely ponders these days, as he coaches a varsity boys' team at San Diego Clairemont High and is more concerned with recruiting future scholars for his college preparatory math classes.

"But when I start reading these things in the paper," said Lee, "I'm aghast that they haven't been to the Final Four since 1980. It's staggering."

He wears a different uniform now, but it's the same ol' Greg Lee: shorts, T-shirt, tennis shoes and a slightly longer Beatles haircut than Wooden would permit. Bouncy and upbeat, Lee is a pied piper leading inner-city teens to the river of ideals he discovered as a UCLA honors student.

Coaching and teaching at the San Diego city school is frustrating at times for Lee, however, and he sometimes wonders if he could have parlayed his education into something different.

But his parents are retired teachers and he plans on retiring as a teacher as well. His father, Lonnie Lee, coached Reseda for 25 seasons before retiring in 1980.

"It's distressing to realize most of the students you teach can tell you the entire CBS-TV lineup and they've never read Sherlock Holmes--or just about anything," Lee said. "My best calculus students don't embrace the written word."

At UCLA, Lee was a slow 6-foot-5 point guard who helped lead the fast-breaking Bruins to an NCAA-record 88 consecutive victories from 1971 to 1974 and national championships in '72 and '73.

"Greg was not quick, but he had great hands and he could deliver the ball," said Swen Nater, a backup center with UCLA who, like Lee, teaches and coaches in San Diego. "Greg was one of the smartest players ever to play the game."

Lee was a brilliant long-range shooter, but with seven future NBA players surrounding him, Lee was limited to passing, penetrating, playing pressure defense and throwing lob passes to Bill Walton.

"Greg Lee was the man that made it all happen for people like Keith Wilkes and myself," Walton said. "Greg was the eyes, ears, mouth and brain of John Wooden on the basketball court."

Off the court, he was much different. A student who would graduate magna cum laude in 1974, Lee felt the pulse of a generation that wanted to change the world. Outspoken about the Vietnam War and civil rights, a glib Lee often was quoted by the press.

"If we don't overcome the feeling that the government knows more than the people, we're going to continue to be isolated," Lee told The Times his junior year. "Only collectively do the people have power. . . .

"You have 30,000 people walking around this campus and they all have their heads down. Nobody talks to anybody. . . . There are things wrong with the world--things I want to see if I can't help do something to change."

A special relationship blossomed between Lee and Walton, at the time college basketball's most celebrated and perhaps most controversial player. They dined and vacationed together, they took part in campus demonstrations, and they made Wooden earn his paycheck.

"I didn't want to cut my hair," Lee said. "I grew it long when I could. I didn't agree with the policies of Richard Nixon. But I didn't call myself a hippy."

Lee would report for basketball with his locks cut, but Wooden once sent the curly-haired Walton to the barber three times before a team photo.

"Bill tested Wooden more than any other player," Nater said. "I don't ever remember Greg testing Wooden. But he was the only guy who got away with teasing Bill."

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