Anytime someone asks David Lee about his grandfather, his eyes light up like the lights that adorn the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco and Oakland.
E. Desmond “Desi” Lee was a popular self-made millionaire, philanthropist and civic leader from St. Louis who, by the time he died on Jan. 12, 2010, at the age of 92, had given away more than $70 million to charities. Most of that money went to children’s causes, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and various universities.
Desi Lee set a stern and solid example that his grandson would follow. “You look up to your grandparents and your parents and you see how they’re living,” David Lee said. “It’s well documented that that’s how people kind of learn a lot of the ways of their life is by looking up to their family, and that’s what I did.”
Desi Lee’s company made and sold a pants creaser and hanger. He sold the company in 1993. Since Desi Lee’s generosity knew no boundaries and touched many lives, he was named the Man of the Year by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996. In 1999, Worth magazine named him as one of the 100 most generous Americans.
In 2004, Lee also received the NAACP Humanitarian Award. In essence, Lee had a heart of gold.“Before he passed away, he sold the family business back when I was young and donated a bunch of money to the city,” Lee said. “He was a very giving person, and I think set an example for me and an example I try to set for others.”
Desi Lee was an officer in World War II and did his best to improve the way black servicemen were treated. He always wanted the playing field to be leveled, regardless of race, creed or color.
“He was always someone for racial equality and always somebody that did a lot with the public school system in St. Louis and did a lot with causes in downtown St. Louis,” David Lee said. “That was very important to him.
“In a time growing up where not everybody saw things that way, especially in the Midwest, I think he was somewhat of a pioneer in helping all people. And that’s another thing that I respect him a lot for.”
Desi Lee died before he could see his grandson play a role in the Golden State Warriors’ winning last year’s NBA title.
David Lee will receive his championship ring before Friday’s 9:30 p.m. tip-off at Oracle Arena between the Mavericks (35-36) and Warriors (64-7).
“That’s going to be really special,” Lee said. “I’ve got a lot of friends and family coming out there. It should be a really cool night. I’ve waited a while for it. It should be a great experience.”
The Mavericks have been having their own great experience with Lee since signing him to a $2.1 million free-agent contract on Feb. 22. In 14 games with Dallas, the 11-year veteran has averaged 10.6 points and 8.1 rebounds in only 19.4 minutes (through Thursday).
“We need to open the court up, and David Lee does that because he rolls so hard to the basket and finishes so well,” owner Mark Cuban said. “David’s done a poor job of getting flagrant (fouls) called when he gets hit _ he can improve at that.“But other than that, he’s had a big impact.”
And just like his grandfather, David Lee is trying to have a big impact on the less fortunate. David Lee is part of the Hoops for St. Jude charity program, which benefits the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He also made an appearance on the charity-driven Celebrity Apprentice TV show.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Lee hung around his grandfather a lot. And his roots are embedded in that Midwest city. “I bought a house back there, so I spend quite a bit of time there,” Lee said. “That’s where all my friends and family are — my friends that I grew up with.
“It’s a great city and I feel like that’s where I kind of get my blue collar mentality from — being from the Midwest, being from kind of a quiet place. I have a lot of pride for the city that I’m from and I still go back there quite a bit.”
As Lee marches toward the twilight of his career, his memories are plentiful for the times he enjoyed with his grandfather. He uses them as a template to lead his own life.
“I’ve taken how fortunate (I am), and I’m passing that on to other people, and being unselfish and being a giving person. And (Desi Lee) always made that — in the last 15-20 years of his life — that was his deal.
“He gave money away and helped the city of St. Louis and he played a lot of golf. So he was a very unselfish man, a very giving person and somebody who really set the tone for how I want to live.”
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