Greg Lee dies; UCLA basketball player under John Wooden who became a beach volleyball star

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UCLA's Greg Lee looks for a teamate to pass to as Note Dame's Dwight Clay presses
UCLA's Greg Lee looks for a teammate to pass to as Notre Dame's Dwight Clay presses on January 29, 1973, in South Bend, Ind. UCLA won, 82-63, for its 61st consecutive victory, a record the Bruins would eventually stretch to 88. (Associated Press)

Greg Lee once described the dominance of his UCLA basketball teams by saying if he had a perfect game, they would win by 50 points instead of 40.

It was no exaggeration. Those Bruins won national championships in 1972 and ’73 under coach John Wooden while amassing the bulk of a record 88-game winning streak that would end the following season.

A cerebral 6-foot-5 guard known for throwing lobs to big man Bill Walton, Lee was mostly a complementary piece while surrounded by seven future NBA players. He started his first two seasons on the varsity team before coming off the bench as a senior.

But his greatest professional success came on the sand, not the hardwood, while splitting his time between basketball and volleyball careers. Lee won a record 13 consecutive pro beach volleyball tournament titles from 1975 to 1976 alongside partner Jim Menges, another former Bruin. Lee said one of the things that drew him to volleyball was having a bigger impact on his team’s performance.

“If I played poorly in volleyball, I was out of there,” Lee once told The Times. “If you made errors, you were history.”

After years of declining health, Lee died Wednesday at a hospital in San Diego from an infection related to an immune disorder, his older brother Jon said. He was 70.

Greg Lee had battled many health issues in his later years, including neuropathy and a heart valve that required replacement.

“He had a very glorious front nine,” Jon Lee said of his brother’s life, “but the back nine was fraught with problems.”

UCLA basketball coach John Wooden listens to Greg Lee, left, during a timeout against Iowa on Jan. 17, 1974, in Chicago.
UCLA basketball coach John Wooden listens to Greg Lee, left, during a timeout against Iowa on Jan. 17, 1974, in Chicago. (Associated Press)

Walton was among 10 former UCLA athletes who signed a letter calling for Lee’s induction into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, mentioning his status as a three-time Academic All-American and his standing record of 14 assists in the NCAA championship game against Memphis in 1973.

“Greg was the embodiment of UCLA’s John Wooden dynasty,” the letter states. “A great player, teammate and student, Greg sacrificed individual statistics to ensure team success as much as any player in UCLA history.”

Greg Lee grew up in the San Fernando Valley and played at Reseda High for his father, Marvin, a former UCLA center under coach Wilbur Johns. Greg Lee was valedictorian of his high school's senior class and a two-time Los Angeles City Section player of the year, making him a natural recruit for the Bruins. Last month, he was selected for induction into the City Section Hall of Fame.

Unlike Menges, his eventual pro volleyball partner who won two national championships at UCLA, Lee did not play the sport while in college. The duo met while playing beach volleyball with friends in 1972 and they partnered occasionally before playing together full-time when their respective college careers ended.

Their 13-tournament winning streak was later matched by two other former Bruins: Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes.

Lee’s professional basketball career included brief stops with the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA and Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA, where he was reunited with Walton. Lee also played four seasons in West Germany.

Later, he taught accelerated math and coached basketball for many years at San Diego’s Clairemont High, the school that inspired the Cameron Crowe movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Lee is survived by his wife, Lisa, son Ethan and daughter Jessamyn Feves in addition to his brother. They were all by his hospital bedside this week, Lisa holding his hand while Ethan played the Neil Young song “Thrasher” on his guitar, Greg singing along in a haze of medications until he lost consciousness for the last time.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.