Ivy Hoops Online announces the next entry in Ivy 60 for 60, our series running through 60 of the greatest players in Ivy League men’s basketball history after a hiatus to continue celebrating six decades of modern Ivy League basketball. An Ivy 60 for 60 for Ivy women’s basketball will follow.
There was a time when Yale basketball games were played at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
The Yale men’s and women’s basketball teams now play at John J. Lee Amphitheater.
There is a good reason. Lee, a former star player at Yale, was a huge fundraiser and donor to the Yale basketball program after his graduation in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He donated and collected the funds sufficient to have the gym renamed in his honor.
He was drafted by the New York Knicks and as such was only the second Yale basketball player ever drafted by the NBA. Tony Lavelli was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1949.
Lee gave up his basketball dream to become a corporate executive and had a highly successful career in industry before his much too early death at the age of 64 in 2001.
Lee is the only Yale basketball player to have ever graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. That cover is proudly displayed by Yale in the lobby of Payne Whitney Gymnasium and is a collector’s item today.
Lee was a star forward at New York’s Erasmus Hall High School and he had 65 scholarship offers from some of the best basketball colleges in the country. His mother wanted him to get the best academic education possible and in her mind, Yale was that school. She convinced her son and the rest was history for John Lee and Yale. She also made longtime coach Joe Vancisin a very happy man.
In a game against Oregon State, he went 21-for-21 from the free throw line. Twice against Harvard, he scored over 40 points.
He scored 1,493 total varsity points, was an All-American selection and averaged 20.3 points per game, third-best in Yale career history. Butch Graves holds the career record at Yale with 2,050 points, something he accomplished over four seasons as opposed to three seasons played by Lee given that freshman were not eligible to play varsity basketball.
Lee’s 1957 team made it to the NCAA Tournament and lost to eventual national champion North Carolina.
Lee was a first-team All-Ivy selection in 1956, 1957 and 1958, unheard of at the time and especially notable since he was double-teamed in most games. His quick hands and vision helped him to find open teammates under the basket.
Veteran Yale coach James Jones noted, “John Lee may have had the best career in Yale basketball history. John was a unique talent for his time.”
He will never be forgotten in the long annals of Yale basketball.