Courtney Lee - Houston Chronicle Feature

The phone kept ringing and ringing, a torturing reminder of the horrible news Courtney Lee did not want to believe.

Danny Rumph had gotten Lee through the tough times. They had become the sort of roommates who tell each other everything, who shared youthful dreams. Rumph was young and strong, gifted with abilities both thought would take him to the NBA. Yet every time the phone rang that terrible day, Lee was forced to accept the impossible truth.

“It was a week after we left school,” said Lee, a third-year guard for the Rockets. “He was playing on a recreational court and passed away. The first time I found out, his uncle called me. Then his mother called me. I was just like, ‘It can’t be true.’ Then my college coach called, and my phone kept ringing, teammates, people that were friends with all of us, all kinds of people.

“It was shocking. I was at home. We talked that day. To get the news that night was devastating.”

Rumph, Lee’s teammate and friend at Western Kentucky, died May 8, 2005, on a recreation center basketball court in Philadelphia of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an abnormal growth of muscle fibers on the heart. As with most of the disease’s victims, affecting one in 500, Rumph had shown no symptoms, even on the day he died.

“Neither one of us thought that could happen to us, or we could have any health problem,” Lee said. “One day you feel like you’re healthy. The next day, it hits.”

Shown the ropes
Lee did not have to say anything. Rumph could see how he felt. He had been the same way.

Like many college freshmen, Lee was just homesick. But he was ready to leave school, having lost interest in his first season in Bowling Green, Ky.

“I was only three hours away from home (Indianapolis),” Lee said. “He was 17 hours away from home. To have him there, talking me through it, showing me around campus, meeting people, doing things, it distracted me from being homesick. He definitely helped out.

“He was a junior when I was a freshman. He went through it, too. He showed me everything he did to get over it. It helped. I was thinking about transferring, just leaving, going back home. It was bad.

“I stuck it out, met people, developed my game, had fun. Look where I am. I’m living my dream. But you think, I could have gone anywhere. Maybe I would still be here, but there’s chances it wouldn’t have gone that way, too.”

They were roommates through the next summer and next school year and became close with each other’s families.

“On breaks, I’d go with him to Philly, or he would come to Indiana with me,” Lee said. “I look at his uncle Mark like he was one of my uncles. We stay in contact. He always comes out and visits and stays with me, or in Philly, we go have a meal at his house. We stayed close.”

Not just skin deep
After Lee was drafted in the first round in 2008, he wore Rumph’s No. 11 with the Magic. With the number unavailable with the Nets, he wore No. 6. When he came to the Rockets, he chose No. 5, adding his uniform numbers to reach Rumph’s No. 11. He has a tattoo of Rumph’s likeness — with angel wings and a Phillies cap – on his right arm.

But the tributes are more than skin deep.

Since Rumph’s death, Lee, 25, has worked with the foundation Rumph’s family established – the Daniel Eric Rumph II Foundation – to raise funds to equip recreation centers with defibrillators and other equipment.

When he was traded to the Rockets, Lee began working with the HEARTS program at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center that screens young athletes for the condition Rumph could never have imagined he had, and speaks to youth groups about the need for testing that could uncover the condition.

“I ask, ‘Who is sitting next to your friend?’  ” Lee said. “They raise their hands. I say, ‘Imagine when you got home from school, you get a call from your friend’s parents telling you your friend just passed away.’

“You could see the faces all change. You could see they understand how the situation is.”

Education best defense
Years after that night when the phone would not stop ringing, Rumph’s uncle, Mark Owens, called Lee to say he appreciated Lee’s efforts to keep his nephew’s memory alive.

“I reached out to him,” Owens said. “We had called to thank him for all the love. We talked about the relationship he had with Danny, and how close we were, things we missed. He said, ‘I got your back. I’m always here.’

“From that first conversation, we continued to build a relationship. We’ve been close ever since. It means a great deal to us all. My sister appreciated the love he gives the foundation. To me, it’s immeasurable. We talk about things he can do for us, keeping it in the forefront. There’s still young athletes dying from it, still work to do.

“Not just our family, but the whole community and city loves him for giving the foundation the love that he does.”

Lee said he does what he can for many reasons. He does it for Rumph’s family and for the other families. He does it for the nights he and Rumph shared their dreams. He does it for the hope that other nights won’t be shattered by phone calls that won’t stop coming.

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