by Michelle Silva | Staff Writer
Although he lived in a country without collegiate basketball opportunities, freshman Sam Lees always dreamed of becoming a collegiate athlete. Since the beginning of his high school career, he made it a goal to make it to the United States to be able to continue playing the game he loves. Last summer, Lees packed his bags and traveled from New Zealand to Spokane to make his dream a reality.
As a shooting guard for the men’s basketball team and a business management major, Lees has his hands full. Apart from balancing the life of being a student-athlete, adjusting to American culture has been one of the biggest challenges, Lees said.
“The tempo here is a lot quicker,” Lees said. “Everything you do has to be that much better.”
Spokane is a different world than New Zealand, but he has no regrets in attending college here, Lees said. The fast pace on the basketball court, and in a classroom setting has pushed him to be a better student-athlete as a whole.
The recruiting process began in Lees’ first year of high school when he joined the New Zealand Academy. The Academy is an organization that assists basketball players in contacting college coaches in the U.S. Because New Zealand universities do not offer collegiate-level athletics, many players have no choice but to study abroad.
In addition to live recruiting at basketball games, students pursue recruitment by emailing skills videos to recruiters. Whitworth basketball coach Damon Jablonski contacted Lees after one of those videos caught his eye.
“The first thing that obviously stood out with Sam was his basketball talent,” Jablonski said. “When we got to know him well throughout the recruiting process, it was obvious that he had the character, passion and work ethic to go along with the talent.”
When he was 17 years old, Lees received a phone call from Jablonski and then Skyped with him. Lees realized the quick connection between him and coach and the coach’s kindness impressed him, he said. From that moment forward Lees decided that Whitworth was the place for him.
When asked “Why Whitworth?” Lees mentions the family environment that is within the basketball program and the school itself.
“One of the reasons I came here is because I could tell their relationships were really good,” Lees said, about the Whitworth basketball team. He was shocked at how well the players got along with one another and the way they connected on the court, he said.
Being 6’4 and having a strong accent sets Lees apart from a majority of the student body. American dialogue is different from what he is used to and can make it difficult to communicate at times with his teammates and friends, he said. But this cultural shift does not affect Lees’s ability to create friendships.
“Whether he’s being coached on the basketball court, serving lunch at his job in the cafeteria or playing with the coaches kids he seems to get along with everyone,” Jablonski said.
Out of 25 games Lees has made 12 game appearances and 26 points. This spring, seniors Kenny Love, Derek Isaak, Christian Jurlina and Drew Sears are graduating, and Lees is aware that he has big shoes to fill.
With his freshman year nearing the end, Lees can proudly say that he has achieved his goal of being a collegiate basketball player. Lees gave credit to his club team, New Zealand’s Canterbury Rams Professional, for assisting in his athletic success. Post-graduation Lees wants to permanently live in the U.S. and use his business degree and knowledge of the game to work for the NBA.
However, he is not done yet. Lees plans on working hard in the off-season to improve his skills on the basketball court. Aiming to stay in Spokane this coming summer his goal is to lift weights five days a week, watch basketball film, and to make 40,000 shots on his own before school begins.