LEXINGTON, Ky. — Shortly after Kentucky's Marcus Lee threw down a dunk and swished a free throw in last month's win at South Carolina, a 10-year-old boy sat up in his hospital bed 420 miles away and posed for a picture.
Kelly Melton, who has leukemia, became Lee's biggest fan after the Wildcats junior first visited him in the hospital nearly two years ago. Now, whenever Lee has a memorable moment in a game, Melton is quick to express his excitement on social media.
Lee's three-point play against South Carolina led to this tweet and picture of Melton and Max Strong, a former Kentucky football player, who watched the game with him that afternoon at Kentucky Children's Hospital.
Max Strong @max_strong44
When @JustMarcusLee gets a big dunk AND makes his foul shot #BBN #hyped @Kickinit4Kelly https://t.co/cQ7OurocA92/13/2016, 6:38:32 PM
Melton's father, Harrison, says his son never misses a game.
"He doesn't want any distractions when the Wildcats are playing," Harrison says. "He just wants to sit there and cheer for Marcus."
Kelly's fondness for Kentucky's star forward is easy to understand.
After all, for the past two years, Lee has been cheering for him, too.
Whether it's accompanying Kelly and his family to King's Island amusement park near Cincinnati, buying him custom-designed Star Wars tennis shoes or simply playing Legos with him during his monthly hospital stays, Lee—along with former Kentucky football players Strong and Landon Foster—set aside hours upon hours of their free time for Kelly.
The level of commitment would be impressive for any college student who is juggling academics with a social life. But it's especially remarkable for someone who is dealing with the pressure and stress of competing for the nation's most high-profile basketball program.
"Marcus takes such joy in it," Kentucky coach John Calipari says, "and that makes him want to do even more."
Indeed, as much as the high-flying Lee is known for his alley-oop dunks and ability to block shots, he's developed an even greater reputation for his actions away from the court, where his outreach and community service efforts extend well beyond his relationship with Kelly.
At Christmas time, it's not uncommon to see the 6'9" Lee outside a local grocery store, wearing a Santa hat and ringing a bell as a volunteer for the Salvation Army. He helps pack lunches for needy children and then delivers them to elementary schools. Last spring, when Kentucky gymnast Shelby Hilton was diagnosed with cancer, Lee encouraged Wildcats athletes from all sports to send her get-well cards and emails during her chemotherapy.
And that's just the stuff people know about.
Last season, Calipari stood before his team and read a note from Kim Bennett, a Lexington nurse who had treated Lee for a minor injury. While conversing with Lee, Bennett mentioned that her stepson, Noah, was a college soccer player whose freshman season had ended prematurely because of mononucleosis—a situation that resulted in homesickness and depression.
Unsolicited, Lee wrote Noah a two-page letter that immediately lifted his spirits and gave him the energy to get out of bed and return to the sidelines to cheer on his teammates.
"I cried as I read it," Bennett wrote to Calipari. "It's amazing what a few kind words can do."
Calipari finished reading the letter to the Wildcats and then looked at Lee as he sat among his teammates. "Why didn't you tell anyone you did this?" the coach asked.
Lee shrugged his shoulders.
"I just did it and moved on," he said. "I didn't realize it was something I was supposed to talk about."
Shortly after exiting the drive-thru lane at In-N-Out, Sherri Lee's car came to a halt. A homeless man with a cardboard sign stood in a nearby median, holding a sign that read "Hungry: Please Help."
Without saying a word, Sherri rolled down her window and handed the stranger the double cheeseburgers and french fries she'd just purchased for herself and Marcus after one of his youth basketball games.
"That stuck with me," says Marcus, adding that Sherri went back through the line to order more food for the two of them. "Seeing her do those things laid a good foundation and helped send me down the path I'm on today."
Even before that pivotal moment outside the fast food restaurant, Lee had demonstrated numerous signs of selflessness and a genuine interest in helping others.
As a sixth-grader he volunteered to be a peer mediator for some of the younger children at his school. He was an usher at First Baptist Church in Pittsburg, California, and a member of the choir. During Sunday school, Lee not only listened to the weekly lesson but was active in the discussion.
Lee never complained when his mother donated some of his toys and clothes to the Salvation Army. When Sherri attempted to take her son to a nice restaurant after games, Lee suggested they dine somewhere cheaper so his mom could save her money "for something more important."
During his elementary school years, Sherri says she usually spent about $500 on Christmas presents for each of her first two sons, who are both more than a decade older than Marcus. But years later, when she took Marcus to Toys R Us to let him pick out his gifts, he selected only two items.
"A basketball and a bowling set," Sherri chuckled. "I wanted to spoil him, but he wouldn't let me."
Multiple times during his childhood, Lee and his mother spent Thanksgiving Day serving food to homeless people—some of them children—at their church. When he wasn't handing out sandwiches, Lee interacted with the kids on the playground.
"He didn't understand why these people were the way they were—why their clothes were dirty or why they smelled different," Sherri says. "It provided a good chance for us to have a conversation about people who are less fortunate than we are and how we need to help those people.
"I think he learned a lot at an early age."
A McDonald's All-American, Lee's acts of kindness continued throughout high school. But it wasn't until he enrolled at Kentucky that he fully grasped the pedestal he was on as a basketball player in Lexington, where the Wildcats are the most recognizable figures in the city.
From the day they step on campus, Calipari encourages his players to become "servant leaders."
"These kids get here," Calipari says, "and they realize how much power they have—how they can change someone's day with a signature, a picture, a handshake, a hug.
"I tell them, 'You have the bully pulpit. What are you going to do with it? Fame is fleeting. Money has wings. How are you going to use your position to make a lasting impact?"
Calipari has clearly had success reaching his players. Whether it's Patrick Patterson befriending a girl with cystic fibrosis, Nerlens Noel taking Melton to the Kentucky Derby or John Wall breaking down on national television over the death of a cancer patient, new stories about current and former Wildcats surface each year.
Lee's commitment to outreach, though, is on a different level.
He showed up unannounced in the intensive care unit to visit a fan who was injured in a fall while attending a game at Rupp Arena. He plays kickball at local elementary schools and has made numerous trips back to California to give speeches at his alma mater.
During the 2015 Catspys, a gala honoring Kentucky athletes, Lee took the stage and called Hilton on FaceTime so the gymnast could see the entire auditorium standing and cheering for her.
A common practice at the Final Four is for players from each team to visit a local children's hospital. Oftentimes walk-ons and seldom-used reserves make the trip, so rotation players can remain focused on the upcoming games. But each of the past two seasons, Lee has demanded to be included.
"Sometimes it feels like we're taking advantage of him," Kentucky assistant media relations director Deb Moore says. "But if we don't ask him, he gets mad."
Lee represents the men's basketball team on Kentucky's Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). When the group needed a new treasurer, Lee was quick to raise his hand.
"We've never had a men's basketball player want to be an officer, mainly because they already have such high demands on their time," says Dustin Lewis, Kentucky's Life Skills Coordinator. "But this is Marcus' passion. It's as big of a part of his life as basketball."
Lewis says he constantly has to hound Lee to document all of his community service hours so he can nominate him for awards and honors.
"He does so much that it's almost impossible to track," Lewis says. "Marcus obviously had a kind heart when he arrived here. When you put someone like that with a coach who pushes these types of things, this is the end result."
Even during routine activities such as walking to class or eating at his dorm, Lee tries to fulfill the basic request that Calipari makes of every Kentucky player.
"I want them to make one person feel good every day," Calipari says. "It could be a student on campus, a maintenance worker, a grocery store clerk or a guy in food services. They need to get in the habit of making one person smile every day.
"It gets them out of thinking solely about themselves and using what they've been given to bless others. You try to explain to these guys that true joy isn't in what you take—it's in what you give. They end up feeling great joy themselves, and that makes them want to do it more.
"Marcus is a prime example of that."
Minutes after arriving at Kentucky Children's Hospital in the summer of 2014, Lee was soaked.
Marcus Lee @JustMarcusLee
Hey BBN, my man Kelly needs endless retweets!! We need him to get on the Ellen show!! #getkellytoellenshow http://t.co/J6HkhWW39h9/22/2014, 1:51:26 AM
Using syringes filled with water as squirt guns, nine-year-old Kelly Melton, Max Strong and a host of others ambushed the Wildcats star as he rounded a first-floor hallway and startling him so much that he ducked into a stranger's room for cover.
"That," Lee says, "was the first time I ever met Kelly."
The water fight eventually moved into Kelly's hospital room, prompting nurses to bring in extra towels to clean up the mess. Silly as they may have seemed, the shenanigans sparked a relationship that has grown stronger ever since.
"We talk almost every day," Kelly says. "He's one of my best friends."
Lee learned about Kelly through Strong, a former Wildcats kicker who has long been active with fundraising efforts and community service projects on campus. Based partly on his own experience, Strong had seen how Kelly had been buoyed by friendships with Kentucky students (both athletes and non-athletes) and wanted to continue to introduce him to new people.
"Still," Strong says, "we're very protective of Kelly. We don't just invite anyone to the hospital to come see him. It has to be someone who's going to visit more than once, someone who will stick with him and play a part in his life.
"Marcus seemed like that type of person."
Over the past year-and-a-half, Lee has become a huge presence in Kelly's world.
They exchange text messages nearly every day, and Lee says Kelly has sent him countless selfies taken while watching him play on television. Glance at Lee and Kelly's Instagram and Twitter accounts and you'll see numerous pictures of them (along with Strong and others) at fundraising events and at King's Island.
Lee was too tall to fit on the amusement park's roller coasters, and because of the port in his chest used to deliver chemotherapy, Kelly was unable to go on them, too. But the two (along with Strong) braved the log ride together and took refuge in the amusement park arcade when it began to rain.
"He acts like he has no idea that anything is wrong with him," Lee says. "He runs around and acts goofy and has fun just like anyone else. Being around him makes you turn into a little kid, which is awesome."
Much of Lee's interaction with Kelly occurs during the child's monthly visit to the hospital. Kelly, who lives 70 miles away in Science Hill, Kentucky, loves to build structures with Legos and watch movies and tell jokes.
Numerous times Lee has crawled into bed next to Kelly and fallen asleep.
"Marcus has Christian values," says Lisa Melton, Kelly's mom. "That's the kind of person we want influencing our son. If I called him and said, 'Marcus, we need you right now. Can you please come over?' he'd do everything in his power to be there.
"His love for Kelly is genuine."
Rarely, Lee says, do he and Kelly talk about Kelly's cancer, although Harrison Melton did recall one key piece of advice.
"Don't let cancer dictate your life," Harrison Melton says Lee told his son. "You're alive, you're blessed. Keep moving forward."
Melton's most recent visit to Lexington occurred during the last weekend of February, when the school hosted a 24-hour dance marathon called "DanceBlue."
The event—which raised more than $1.6 million for pediatric cancer research—began Saturday, Feb. 27. But with Kentucky playing at Vanderbilt that day, Lee was unable to attend until Sunday morning.
Still, Lee made his presence felt by having an artist etch the letters "FTK"—DanceBlue's logo, which stands for "For the Kids"—on the black Jordans he wore during the game. Lee and Strong also had the man custom-design a pair of Star Wars shoes. Strong presented them to Kelly as the marathon kicked off. When Lee arrived shortly after 10 a.m. the next morning, Kelly sprinted toward him and thanked him with a hug.
"I'm not even going to wear them," Kelly says of the shoes. "I'm just going to put them in a glass case so I can look at them every day."
Less than one hour before the end of the event, Lisa Melton took the microphone, thanked all the participants and then revealed that, after more than three years of chemo, hair loss, hospital trips and stress, Kelly's cancer will be in remission following one last spinal tap on March 26.
It was a powerful, tear-inducing moment, and as Lisa spoke, Strong, Foster and a host of others who have offered support during the journey stood by her side on stage.
Lee, however, had departed 30 minutes earlier for a team meeting.
"We wanted Marcus to be up there because he's been a huge part of this fight," Lisa said later that day. "But just because he wasn't on that stage doesn't mean he wasn't thinking about us."
Indeed he was.
As beneficial as he's been in Kelly's life, Lee says the relationship has also had an impact on him.
Kickin it 4 Kelly @Kickinit4Kelly
Want to wish @JustMarcusLee a very Happy Birthday!!!!! Love ya Marcus!!!!! http://t.co/i8TBuVlyoh9/14/2015, 10:54:03 PM
Lee's Kentucky basketball career didn't begin like he'd hoped. He averaged 2.4 points as a freshman and 2.6 points as a sophomore, when he was primarily used as a role player off the bench. As promising as he looked at times, Lee wasn't able to earn consistent minutes behind first-round NBA draft picks Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Opportunities have increased for Lee this season. He's started 20 of Kentucky's 31 games and leads the team in rebounding (6.5) and blocks (1.7) per game. Still, unlike his highly touted predecessors, Lee is limited offensively and isn't viewed as a future first-round draft pick. Considered a potential second-round pick in 2017, he will likely return for his senior season, a rarity for players recruited by Calipari.
"He's made huge strides this year," Calipari says, "but there is still so much more he can do."
The situation would be difficult for any athlete, especially a McDonald's All-American who entered college with hopes of developing into an NBA player.
Thanks to Kelly—and so many of the other people he's encountered during his service work—Lee has managed to keep a level head.
"Kentucky is the best place in the world to play basketball," Lee says. "But you have such huge expectations. If you have a bad game, it's on you. You're always thinking, 'How can I fix it?' You're always worrying about how you can do better and how you can help your team out more.
"Hanging out with Kelly gives me a fresh start. You forget about everything for a while, because you realize there are people out there with bigger issues than your own. When I get back on the court after being with him, I'm overly energetic. I'm happy. I'm ready to keep going."
"Kelly," he says, "has done a lot more for me than I've done for him."
The second weekend in April—just days after the national championship in Houston—Lee will board a plane and fly to Phoenix, where he'll be the SEC's male representative in the NCAA Leadership Forum.
Kentucky initially wanted to avoid nominating a spring-sport athlete for the conference because of their busy schedules. But Lee insisted that he wanted the opportunity.
Even if it meant potentially hopping on a plane less than 48 hours after returning from the Final Four.
"I keep hearing about all of these things he's doing," Lee's mother says. "Most of this stuff I'd have never known about if I didn't read the paper or get on the Internet. He just doesn't talk about it."
As reluctant as he's been to discuss his good deeds, Lee now realizes how his story could impact others.
"I'm hoping it'll have a domino effect, so that other people will start doing things, too," he says. "It's really not that hard. Just by smiling or saying 'hi' you can change someone's day."
Or even someone's life.
That's certainly been the case with Kelly Melton, whose father scoffed at a recent Internet column that suggested Kentucky's one-and-done culture was "ruining college basketball."
"I look at Marcus," Harrison says, "and I think, 'How is this ruining college basketball?' These kids do so much in the community that people know nothing about. For someone to make that statement…"
Harrison shakes his head as his wife interjects. "They're not ruining college basketball," Lisa says. "They're creating a new generation of kids who are committed to bettering our communities and using their influence to help people. When times are tough, they encourage you and cheer for you during your fight.
"Just like we cheer for them."
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.
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