Plymouth’s Lee signs with Bethel hoops

PLYMOUTH — It always feels pretty rewarding when a coach can send one of his players on to the next level. When it’s to that coach’s own alma mater, it can be pretty special.
Plymouth basketball coach Ryan Bales got to pass the torch to one of his Pilgrims last Friday as David Lee signed on to play basketball at Bethel College.
“College was definitely a goal. I wanted to play, and I think the program that I get to play at is successful, and I’m really appreciative to be able to play at Bethel,” said Lee. “I know my coach played there under Coach (Mike) Lightfoot, and it’s an honor to play for the same guy that he played for.”
“It’s special because Bethel was a great place for me personally on and off the court,” said Bales. “I made a lot of lifelong friends there, I met my wife there, I just developed a lot of great relationships with so many people and had a great experience there. I would push for Bethel in a lot of ways, but I think it’s special in David’s case because of where he’s come from.”
It hasn’t always been the smoothest road for Lee.
As young men sometimes do, Lee — who lives with teammate Mack Mercer and his family — struggled with some off the court issues during his time at Plymouth. After serving a suspension as a junior during the 2012 season, Lee bounced back with an outstanding senior season this past winter, starting in all 25 games while helping lead the Pilgrims to a stellar 21-4 finish and the program’s first sectional championship in Bales’ two-year stewardship.
And it is Lee’s growth off the court as much as anything he did on the floor that makes his signing with Bethel seem special to Bales.
“We all make mistakes and we all deal with things in our life, but I’m extremely proud of the way David Lee has dealt with things this season,” said Bales. “He’s grown up a lot and has put himself in position to go to college and be able to experience playing at a college level.
“He’s made a huge commitment to improving his life not just as a player but as a person.”
Both Lee and Lightfoot echoed those sentiments.
“What I’d like to be remembered for is a kid that kind of overcame obstacles,” said Lee. “I’ve had some things that I’ve had to overcome to have success. We won a sectional, and I don’t know if people are going to remember that, but people who know me know that it wasn’t easy and I worked hard and became a winner with the team.”
“I would like to thank all the people that supported me,” he added. “It’s just an honor to get to go to college and get to play for a great program, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without people’s support.”
“David has been coached by one of the best coaches in Indiana in Ryan Bales. He comes from a winning program and has learned a great deal both on and off the court,” stated Lightfoot. “David’s accomplishments can be attributed to a lot of special people in the Plymouth community. Many people have invested in David to get to this point in his life, and we are happy he will continue his education at Bethel College.”
As far as college coaches go, Lee could do a lot worse than Lightfoot.
With a career record of 658-243, Lightfoot is the fastest collegiate coach at any level to 600 career wins, reaching the milestone in 22 seasons. His program has produced some of the state’s top coaches in Bales, Triton head coach Jason Groves, LaVille coach Jack Edison, CMA coach Mark Galloway, and current Glenn and former OD head coach Travis Hannah, four of whom have helped coach area teams to state championships at one level or another of the IHSAA’s annual tournament.
But more important than that, says Bales — a 2007 Bethel Athletic Hall of Fame inductee who was part of two national championships and one national runner-up finish with the Pilots — is the genuine regard Lightfoot and his assistants have for their players.
“You look at him having the opportunity to go to college and not just be a normal student but be a part of a team with coaches that care,” Bales said. “From my experience, those guys care. The want you to do well in the classroom; they just do a great job of really developing the total person, not just a player. David has worked for this and definitely is deserving of this opportunity, and he’s going into a great situation.”
During his senior year, Lee was given All-Northern Lakes Conference Honorable Mention while averaging 8.1 points per game and leading the Pilgrims both in assists and in steals with per game averages of 3 assists and 3.4 steals through the regular season.
With much of last year’s roster expected to return to Bethel after a successful 25-10 Crossroads League Tournament championship campaign that included a trip to the NAIA Sweet 16, Lee will have his work cut out for him as he looks to elevate his game to the next level. But with plenty of athletic upside and the hustle to match, Bales is confident he’ll find his niche.
“They have some great players. They return a lot of key pieces from last year, and they had an awfully good year last year. Whatever he gets in the next couple years he’s really going to have to work for,” said the Plymouth skipper. “He’s going to need to get a lot stronger and continue to develop the fundamental skills — the shooting, his ball handling, passing and everything has got to step up — but I think that they see that he’s got an upside. He’s got a lot of athletic ability, he’s quick. I think defensively he can do some great things at that level. He definitely has the ability to do certain things there very well.”
“I’m not an amazing shooter, but I think they’re expecting more of a slasher. And hustle and defense especially. I think they’re looking for me to be kind of a tougher player by pure hustle. That’s what I’m pretty strong at,” said Lee.
“I don’t think you should take a play off. Just always do my best and make sure that I’m not lacking in effort. Coach Bales really stressed that, and he always said if you’re working hard then it should be easy to win. I expect to win, and I think that carries over to any level of basketball. That’s the point of the game, to win.”