It is not often that an athlete has a special day dedicated to his accomplishments during their college career. But one special athlete that played basketball for Vanderbilt had such a day. On March 5, 1966, Vanderbilt University and the city of Nashville showed their appreciation by supporting "Clyde Lee Day."
The youngster from Nashville's David Lipscomb High School graduated from Vanderbilt as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder and remains the top rebounder today. Record crowds poured into Memorial Gym to witness Lee's exploits and Commodore basketball popularity took off. The sell-out crowds forced the university to add balconies to the gymnasium dubbed, "The Balconies that Clyde Built."
The basketball coach at David Lipscomb College tried to convince Lee to stay on campus and play for the Bisons. The Lipscomb coach told Lee, "If you go to Vanderbilt you'll just be a little fish in a big pond. If you stay with us, you will be a big fish in our little pond." Lee became a big fish in a big pond.
Vanderbilt Coach Roy Skinner said in a 2007 interview, "It was not difficult as far as the grades to recruit Clyde. He was an excellent student and qualified. It was a little difficult because so many schools were interested in him. But I had the inside track being close. Of course, I worked as hard as I could at it and ended up winning. At that time it wasn't that big because he wasn't that good. He had the potential to be and certainly developed into an outstanding player."
John Bibb of the Tennessean wrote on the day of "Clyde Lee Day."
"Southeastern Conference foes Vanderbilt and Mississippi State tangle at Memorial Gymnasium at 1:15 p.m., today in a game which marks the end of an era in Commodore basketball. Four Vanderbilt seniors, who have played on teams compiling a cumulative record of 65-13, are winding up their careers, standing tallest among them is a man who has triggered more basketball excitement in this state than any other Commodore in history.
"He is 6-9 Clyde Lee, a consensus All-American, three-time member of the All-SEC team and the fellow who, last season, led Vanderbilt to national recognition and is the man most responsible for the decision to expand Memorial Gymnasium's seating capacity to 9,213. All these seats will be occupied this afternoon for the regionally telecast game (Channel 4). They were sold in season tickets before the Commodores ever started playing last December."
In the previous season (1964-65) the Commodores, as SEC champions, advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, narrowly missing the Final Four and losing to Michigan and Cazzie Russell, 87-85. Despite having four fouls, Lee scored 28 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. Vanderbilt alumnus and legendary sports writer Fred Russell for the Nashville Banner wrote on game day:
"Clyde Lee munched lunch and talked about the end of his Vanderbilt basketball career: `When my mind goes back to that day when I signed to enter Vanderbilt, it's hard for me to believe what has happened--the luck of being on three real good teams, All-American and now getting to play in Europe (with the Milan team in the Italian Basketball Federation, succeeding Princeton's Bill Bradley as the American member permitted).
"My most unforgettable basketball experience was the Michigan game of the NCAA tournament last March. I hadn't done well against DePaul the night before.'
Russell continued, "Remarkable is Lee's record of fouling out only four times in his 78 varsity games, considering all that's demanded of him. One reason is his ability, under the boards, to jump straight up. He rarely falls over an opponent. Clyde isn't a rugged boy, yet he has endured all kinds of rough physical contact without being seriously hurt and without missing a single game to injuries.
"Also, an even temperament has enabled him to withstand jabs and never become upset by the threat of gaining a reputation for never retaliating when imposed on. He might appear passive, but he felt within himself that he was never intimidated and that he always gave his best."
Though the Commodores were heavy favorites over Mississippi State, the Bulldogs upset Vanderbilt 92-90. Joining Lee in their final game in a Vanderbilt basketball uniform were Keith Thomas, Wayne Calvert and Ron Green. Lee scored 18 points and collected 21 rebounds as Vanderbilt ended the season 22-4 (SEC, 13-3). They were ranked the No. 8 team in the country at season end.
In a ceremony presided by Vanderbilt Chancellor Alexander Heard before the game, Lee's jersey No. 43 was retired. Nashville mayor Beverly Briley proclaimed Lee as Ambassador of Good Will for Metropolitan Nashville. Earlier in the week the Tennessee State Legislature proclaimed March 5, 1966 as "Clyde Lee Day."
Lee did complete his career as Vanderbilt's all-time leading scorer with 1,691 points. He currently ranks seventh (played in three seasons). Lee tops the all-time rebounding records with 1,223 career rebounds and average per game (15.5).
In Lee's three years of eligibly on varsity, he achieved these honors: Sophomore--AP, UPI All-SEC, SEC Leading rebounder, nation's No. 15 rebounder; Junior--UPI eighth in national MVP voting, AP and UPI All-SEC, SEC Player of the Year, SEC leading scorer and SEC leading rebounder; Senior--AP, NEA, Coaches, BWA, UPI All-American, UPI SEC Player of the Year, SEC leading rebounder, AP and UPI All-SEC.
The San Francisco Warriors selected Lee as the third overall player in the 1966 NBA draft. In 10 NBA seasons (1966-76), Lee played for San Francisco (1966-71), Golden State (1971-74), Atlanta/Philadelphia (1974-75) and the 76ers (1975-76). Lee played in 742 games, scored 5,733 points (7.7 ppg) and grabbed 7,626 rebounds (10.3 rpg). He was selected for the 1968 NBA All-Star game and played in 51 playoff games (7.1 ppg).
F. M. Williams of the Tennessean wrote after the Mississippi State game:
"Clyde Lee, disappointed in defeat and grateful for the opportunity to play basketball for Vanderbilt, nevertheless admitted yesterday afternoon that he is glad his college career come to an end. `I wouldn't take anything for it,' said Clyde. `It is something I will remember forever but right now I have to say that I am happy that it is over. Once you do something it keeps building as you go and you are expected to match it or improve.'
"It would be difficult for Clyde to equal or improve on his feats at Vanderbilt--All-American, All-Southeastern three years, the motivating force behind the school's first conference championship and entry into the first NCAA tournament for a Commodore team."
Lee was enshrined in the inaugural class of the Vanderbilt Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame (1995).
In two weeks read an exclusive (and lengthy) interview with "Mr. Memorial Magic" Barry Goheen. Barry talks of his time playing basketball at Vanderbilt and reminisces about each of his documented seven heroic shots.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email at WLTraughber@aol.com. Traughber's new book "Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History" is available online Amazon.com and Nashville area bookstores.