Vanderbilt Basketball in the NBA: Clyde Lee
The world of professional sports involves a basic tradeoff for the athletes accomplished enough to succeed in such a realm: In exchange for a fat stack of money, one has to put his (or her) body at risk; subject oneself to a rigorous travel schedule with distorted, irregular sleep patterns; and accept the fact that trades might occur at any time, either uprooting one’s existence in an enjoyable city, depriving one’s career of a long-sought championship, or both.
Few (if any) Vanderbilt basketball players enjoyed more success in the NBA than Clyde Lee did. There’s a certain and considerable degree of satisfaction to be found in the knowledge that one was picked highly in an NBA draft and did not become a bust. Lee met that goal – making something of his career in the NBA – and then some. He played in an All-Star Game in 1968. He played in an NBA Finals series. He played alongside and against some of the legends of the game on the biggest stages imaginable. Yet, the one thing athletes crave more than anything else is a championship, and due to forces beyond his control, Lee wasn’t able to reach that mountaintop.
Lee, the centerpiece of Vanderbilt’s 1965 and 1966 teams under Roy Skinner, was the third overall pick in the 1966 NBA Draft. He didn’t land In a part of NBA purgatory – the Cincinnati Royals or Detroit Pistons were good examples at the time – and given that the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics were both very hard to deal with in the Eastern Conference, going West was probably a better outcome, even though it meant dealing with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Lee found himself in a very good situation in San Francisco with the Warriors as the 1966-1967 season began. Rick Barry – a young Rick Barry with fresh legs – was about to tear up the league and establish himself as a Hall of Fame-level player. Nate Thurmond, who – like Lee – was a No. 3 overall pick in the NBA draft (1963), had become a brilliant All-Star-level player and was also on his way to reserving a spot for himself in Springfield, Massachusetts, with Barry and other future Hall of Famers. Al Attles, part of the team’s core rotation of nine players, was an extremely smart point guard – smart enough to become a future NBA head coach… and a champion at that. (More on that in a little bit.) Bill Sharman, one of the better players in his day with the Boston Celtics, proved to be a well-above-average coach as well.
Lee had found a balanced team coming out of the draft, but the 1967 San Francisco Warriors were also a team with superstars who could carry the workload. Lee was surrounded by young stars in their primes, but also by mature veterans and a highly capable coach. The scenario exceeded a first-year player’s wildest dreams and hopes.
Here are some stats from the Warriors’ 1967 season: Barry averaged 35.6 points per game. Thurmond averaged 18.7 points and 21.3 rebounds – he was a monster. Lee was ninth in the rotation, but oh what a vantage point he had as a witness to greatness. The Warriors were not a knockout team, but they had knockout players, and so after a 44-37 regular season, Barry and Thurmond were able to get the team past the injury-plagued Los Angeles Lakers in round one of the playoffs, and then the St. Louis Hawks in the Western Division Finals. (The NBA did not formally create the Western Conference until 1970-’71.) The Warriors’ reward for winning the West? A date with one of the great single-season teams of all time in the NBA, the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers, whose greatest player – Wilt Chamberlain – had played for the Warriors in 1964, when the team previously reached the NBA Finals.
Clyde Lee played a peripheral role for the Warriors in those NBA Finals against Philadelphia, but he did play five games, averaging almost 7 points and just over 7 rebounds in 18 game minutes. Extended to a “per-36-minute” rate, Lee averaged roughly 13 points and 14 rebounds in the series, appearing in five of the six games. In Game 4, Lee scored 11 points. Not bad for an NBA rookie going up against a juggernaut Sixer team that went 68-13 during the regular season and lost a total of 17 games all season, including the playoffs.
Lee didn’t win the NBA title, but the Vanderbilt star had made good in year one, learning a lot of lessons that would pay big dividends in year two.
Educated in the art of professional basketball, Lee produced his best season in 1968, scoring a career-high 975 points. He made the All-Star team and earned a trip to Madison Square Garden for the 1968 NBA All-Star Game, where led the West All-Stars in rebounds with 11. The Lakers, beset by problems in their 1967 season, rebounded to win each of the next three Western Division titles, barring the Warriors from the NBA Finals. In the early 1970s, Barry went to the ABA for a few seasons, and so while Lee’s career hummed along – he scored over 900 points again in the 1970 season – a title was still elusive.
Then, however, as the team’s name changed to Golden State and Barry returned in 1972-’73, the plot thickened, and Lee appeared to be on the verge of doing something special. The Warriors upset Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and the rest of the 60-22 Milwaukee Bucks in the 1973 Western Conference Semifinals. Lee was not a prolific scorer, but he was the team’s second-best rebounder (9.1 per game) behind Thurmond, who was still pulling down 17.1 boards per contest. Lee was sixth in the rotation, averaging just over 22 minutes per game. The 1973 Los Angeles Lakers – coached by Sharman, Lee’s former coach with the ’67 Warriors – denied Golden State again after the Warriors had toppled Kareem and the Bucks.
The outlook might have seemed dark for Golden State, but a window of opportunity was coming. The Lakers would not again be a factor in the NBA until Magic Johnson came along in 1979. The Bucks watched Oscar Robertson retire at the end of the 1974 season, while Kareem left a year later. Golden State, entering the 1974-1975 season, faced a new and more barren landscape in the Western Conference, one it could exploit.
Then came the moment that delivered heartbreak for Lee and one of his mentors, Nate Thurmond.
Thurmond was traded to the Chicago Bulls, after more than a decade of loyal service with the Warriors. That might have been the only reality which made Lee feel a little less sad: knowing that another teammate had been with the Warriors for a longer period of time, only to be traded anyway. Lee, you see, was traded himself. The website NBA Trades documented Lee’s journey:
On November 8th, 1974, the Philadelphia 76ers traded guard-forward Tom Van Arsdale to the Atlanta Hawks for center-forward Clyde Lee and a 1975 3rd round draft pick (Jim Baker was later selected).
Tom Van Arsdale had established himself as a solid scoring guard who played on bad teams. After being traded to Philadelphia in 1973 from Kansas City-Omaha, Van Arsdale continued to be a solid offensive option on some historically bad Philadelphia teams.
The year he was traded, Van Arsdale finished out that season on the 9-73 Sixers. In his lone full season with the Sixers, the team finished 25-57. Van Arsdale averaged 18.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 2.4 APG while shooting 42% from the field and 84% from the free-throw line in 117 games with Philadelphia.
Clyde Lee was originally acquired by the Atlanta Hawks in a tricky deal with the Golden State Warriors. In short, Golden State acquired the rights to Zelmo Beaty for a future first rounder (Pete Maravich). The agreement between both teams contained a provision that would allow the Hawks to acquire Lee if the Warriors ever signed Beaty which the Warriors ended up doing.
You know the rest of the story: In the 1975 NBA season, guess who won the NBA title, the first in the history of the franchise? Yep – the Golden State Warriors. They beat Thurmond and Chicago in a seven-game Western Conference Finals series. Lee watched from home on an Eastern Conference team that was a few years removed from contending for a title in Philadelphia. In 1976, Lee played his last NBA season with the Sixers.
In 1977, the Sixers reached the NBA Finals. Lee could have been there, 10 years after he played against the Sixers for the 1967 championship. Winning a title just wasn’t meant to be for Clyde Lee.
Yet, all things considered, it was one of the very few things the Vanderbilt standout didn’t achieve in an NBA career 98 percent of all players would absolutely love to have There was certainly a tinge of sadness at the end of Clyde Lee’s NBA odyssey, but the bigger picture reveals a career of successes, spotlight moments, and rich achievements on both a personal and team-based level.
Clyde Lee is as fine an ambassador for Vanderbilt basketball as the world has ever known.
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