Rich Gray is founder and head coach of the St. Louis Eagles, a prominent AAU program. About a decade ago, he had a conversation with Andrew Taylor, CEO of St. Louis-based rental car giant Enterprise.
The topic was a skinny kid named David Lee. Taylor was wondering if Lee, one of the Eagles' best players, had a chance to play big-time college ball.
"I told him as hard as David works, he can make it to the NBA," Gray recalled. "(Taylor) couldn't believe it. I'll never forget that conversation."
Oh, Taylor recognized the talent. He just had a hard time grasping Lee's work ethic. See, Taylor is part of St. Louis' wealthier class. And he knows what many NBA fans don't: Lee is, too.
The thought of Lee grinding harder, being hungrier and scrapping longer than others sounded odd for a person born into wealth. But rather than flaunt the silver spoon he was born with, Lee uses it to prop the chip on his shoulder. He's been working to prove himself for so long that he's now comfortable in a stare-down with doubt.
That explains why Lee seems to embrace the widespread skepticism regarding his July 9 sign-and-trade from the New York Knicks, a contract that will cost the Warriors $80 million over six seasons. While he's new to the team, the perception that has followed the 6-foot-10 power forward is an old one -- and one he's always tried to defeat with elbow grease.
"David has always been the hardest worker," said Kelvin
"Basketball means something to him. I see a lot of kids whose families are wealthy. He didn't have to do what he did because David was set for the rest of his life. He does it because he loves the game."
Now, Lee comes to the Warriors with another perception to disprove: that he's not a winner.
He won a Missouri state high school title at Chaminade, but his team never made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament while he was at the University of Florida, which won back-to-back national championships in the two seasons after he departed.
In five years with the Knicks, Lee never made the playoffs. That has caused Warriors fans to express doubt over whether Lee is the answer despite his gaudy statistics last season -- 20.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. Were those numbers the hollow product of being on a losing team?
"There have been doubters all along the way that I've proven wrong," Lee, 27, said. "This is another step. In situations like this, I know I can fall back on the fact that I outwork everybody and I continue to focus on getting better and doing things the right way.
"I haven't been given anything. It's not like I was a guy that came straight out of high school and was given a max contract and told how wonderful he was. I was the last pick of the first round. I was the 17th guy on a 15-man roster."
Lee's family fortune came by way of his grandfather, E. Desmond Lee. After a stint in the military, Desi Lee teamed up with college buddy Jim Rowan to form a business with their fathers.
According to the St. Louis Beacon newspaper, the Lee-Rowan Company started with $2,500 in feed money and began manufacturing a hanger for slacks and wire shelving. In 1992, it totaled $100 million in revenue, and the next year the company was sold to Rubbermaid for $73.5 million, according to the Rubbermaid website.
So it makes sense that Lee, who counts his grandfather among his chief influences, wants to make his own way.
"David wanted to always prove himself to be his own man," Gray said. "If anything, it gave him the drive to work harder than most. You don't normally see a guy with his background who works as hard as he does."
Then there's Gary Lee, David's father. He's an assistant coach at Chaminade High, content to be in the shadows, doing work behind the scenes.
So it makes sense why Lee is so quiet about his fortuitous background.
"He just wanted to blend in, be part of the team," said Kelvin Lee, who's been at Chaminade for 14 years. "It was tough for him, considering who he was. But if you know his parents, that's how they taught him. They didn't go around like they were better than anybody. They were just normal people. And David just wanted to be a normal guy. Fit in."
On the court, Lee has always had a problem blending in. He usually stands out.
Back in the summer of 1999, Lee stood out at the Nike Jamboree in Southern California, when his Eagles played the California Supreme, which featured prep phenom Tyson Chandler. Lee went from no-name to hot college recruit after leading the Eagles to an upset win.
In 2001, his team won the McDonald's All-Star Game dunk contest, stealing the show with off-the-bounce-take-off-jersey dunk. By the time Lee left Florida after two seasons, Gators coach Billy Donovan was calling him the greatest rebounder he's ever coached.
In New York, he was a favorite of Knicks fans because he produced consistently despite the chaos.
"You just knew what you were going to get from him," said Atlanta guard Jamal Crawford, a teammate of Lee's in New York. "You know he's going to put in the work. You know he's going to produce every night. He's reliable. Every year he got better."
It isn't just talent that endears him to teammates. Lee is known for "dominating a room," as his AAU coach said. He is a funny man, imitating coaches and joking around. He chats with strangers like he's known them for years.
Lee also gets involved in his community, and he doesn't forget the support staff around his team. He was in St. Louis when the trade to the Warriors was announced, but before he could come to the Bay Area to be introduced, he went back to New York. A security guard at Madison Square Garden had died, and Lee went to his funeral, making sure his former Knicks teammates were represented.
Lee said he plans to get involved with the Bay Area community, but he acknowledged that his primary task is lifting the Warriors to a new level.
Despite his background, the magnitude of being paid $80 million isn't lost on Lee. That's why he passed on his Olympic dreams to make sure he's healthy for the season. That's why he's vowing to work hard as ever.