MHERST - As they sit out their NCAA-mandated year, Proposition 48 players have a way of taking on a mythic status among a team's hopeful fans.
Rumored reports surface from practice or pickup games of how whoever is sitting out is dominating play against the regulars. It's been particularly true at the University of Massachusetts where Prop. 48 players have been part of the fabric of the program.
"Hey I heard Lari Ketner's been dominating Marcus Camby in pickup games," the whisper will report.
Tyrone Weeks dominated against Lou Roe on the blacktop courts at Southwest. Monty Mack was so good Carmelo Travieso couldn't guard him. Or so said the stories.
The Gabriel Lee tales are scattered at the moment. An injury kept him out of most summer pickup games and as an academic non-qualifier he isn't allowed to practice with his teammates.
Even his teammates aren't sure just how good he is.
"I played with him once in a pickup game," sophomore guard Anthony Anderson said. "He was a monster on the boards, but I haven't really seen him other than that."
All of which makes UMass fans more curious. They know that Lee received recruiting interest from several college hoops heavyweights before the unlikelihood of his qualifying academically scared them off.
Their anticipation is warranted. Since Donta Bright enrolled at UMass in 1992, every Prop. 48 player who has joined the school's men's basketball program - Weeks, Ketner, Mack and Kitwana Rhymer - have become all-conference players by the time they were seniors.
Current Minutemen Anderson and Raheim Lamb also had to sit out their freshman years as Prop. 48 players and have shown great promise.
So what about Lee?
The 6-foot-9 freshman big man was a highly sought-after recruit at Mitchell-Baker High School in Georgia. He was the best player on a team that won three straight state titles before going to Northfield Mount Hermon to get his academics in order.
Despite separating his shoulder, Lee still dominated for the NMH basketball team.
"He was playing at about 75 percent and still scoring 28 points per game," NMH coach Bill Batty said shortly after Lee committed to UMass. "But his shoulder popped out a couple times and we had to shut him down. He may be the best player I've ever had here. If not, he's pretty close."
Lee had received recruiting interest from North Carolina, UConn and Cincinnati before his academics and a separated shoulder scared off the suitors.
He was considering junior colleges, but former Minuteman coach Bruiser Flint recruited him to come to UMass as a Prop. 48. When Flint was dismissed, new coach Steve Lappas and his staff continued the pursuit of Lee.
Lee signed to be a Minuteman, but the NCAA strictly limits non-qualifiers' access to the team. In addition to no games and no practice, Lee can't take part in team meals or other official team activities. He watches the games from the stands.
"He can go into the office anytime he wants and say hello," UMass coach Steve Lappas said. "We can make sure he's getting his academic support. But we can't really supervise anything that he does athletically."
Lee can regain his lost season of eligibility if he completes his degree requirements in four years, but he admits sitting out hasn't been easy.
"Watching the team struggle sometimes, I wish I could be out there helping," Lee said.
Anderson, who was in Lee's shoes last year, said the team has been conscious of trying to make him feel involved.
"I go by his room once in a while to see how he's doing," Anderson said. "The year's almost over. It goes by quick. When everybody goes out, he goes out too. It's not like we're leaving him out."
When the rest of the team is traveling, Lee often hangs out with senior forward Jackie Rogers, who is redshirting this season and also can't travel.
"Jackie comes around all the time when the team's gone," Lee said. "He knows how it feels not to be playing so we spend time together."
While Rogers can practice, Lee's basketball activity is limited to solo workouts and intramurals, while he concentrates on his academics to be eligible for next year.
"I need to work on my dribbling. I'm pretty good shooting the ball with my height," said Lee, whose shoulder has healed enough to allow him to work in the weight room as he tried to add to his slender frame. "I've started lifting weights. I'm trying to get back in shape. I'm at 215. I want to be like 230 by the season."
Lee said while he doesn't know whether he will be a center or power forward next year, he expects to be comfortable in Lappas' motion offense.
"My high school coach ran the same kind of motion. I feel I fit in whatever position he puts me in," Lee said.
The end of the season is less than two months away and with it Lee's exile from organized basketball. He'll join the team for summer pickup games and the rumors will start.
"Hey did you hear that Gabe Lee was schooling Micah Brand on the horseshoe?"