How Detroit Pistons rookie Saben Lee got basketball passion from his NFL dad

Detroit Free Press

Saben Lee, the Detroit Pistons’ second-round pick last fall, has a physicality to his game that has defined the first half of his season.

He’s a quick, strong and athletic point guard who prefers getting to the rim. When he makes contact with defenders, they often bounce off him.

As a rookie, Lee has found steady minutes the past month and proven himself a worthy building block. He already has a handful of standout performances, scoring 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting against the Orlando Magic on Feb. 23, and 20 points and seven assists against the Toronto Raptors on March 3.

Talk to enough people about Lee, and eventually you’ll hear about his dad. Amp Lee, a former standout running back at Florida State, played nine seasons in the NFL from 1992-2000. He won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams in 2000, and caught Joe Montana’s final touchdown pass with the San Francisco 49ers in 1992 against the Detroit Lions. Amp was also inducted into the Florida State Hall of Fame in 2014, after running for 2,092 yards and logging 30 rushing touchdowns at the school from 1989-91.

When you squint, you can see shades of Amp’s football background in Saben’s game — the way he slips past defenders, navigates through traffic and doesn’t shy away from contact.

“He has an element of toughness to him with his dad playing in the NFL,” Bryce Drew, who recruited Saben to Vanderbilt and coached him during his first two college seasons from 2017-19, said. “His dad passed that on to him that toughness. So he’s not afraid of contact, he’s not afraid of confrontation at the rim.”

Even though Amp found great success as a football player, his biggest passion was, and still is, basketball. At Chipley High School in Florida, he was a two-time runner-up for the state’s Mr. Basketball award as a junior and senior in the late 1980s. Florida State recruited him as a two-sport athlete, though he eventually decided to stick with football. Today, he’s a basketball coach and trainer in Arizona.

His love for the game was passed down to Saben, who is now living their shared dream of playing in the NBA. 

“The crazy thing about it is my dad, he was always telling me he actually liked basketball more,” Saben said. “Football just took off more at a faster pace early on. I just love the game of basketball, and so did my dad. A lot of people don’t know that, though, because obviously he was a great football player. I feel like that’s how I started getting into the game, through his passion also.”

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‘A pair of black Jordans and a basketball’

While growing up in the small town of Chipley, Amp was known as the kid who always had a basketball in his hands. He would go in the backyard and try to emulate the NBA’s stars at the time: Julius Erving’s around-the-basket layup, Magic Johnson’s no-look passes and Michael Jordan’s leaning dunks.

While he played football at the highest level, the sport never scratched that creative itch he got from being a point guard.

“When I show up in those heavenly gates, I’m going to have a pair of black Jordans and a basketball on my arm, man,” Amp said. “I love it. I just think it’s a beautiful sport. Football was just a little bit, we have a hole and there’s going to be a break in the action every time. There’s only excitement every now and then. Basketball is the sport to me where each trip up the court, you just don’t know what might happen. Someone might lob that thing from 60 feet or anything. I love the creativity of it and it’s a great game.”

Florida State recruited Amp to play both sports. Once on campus, he was eventually given a choice. He recalled former Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden sitting down with him toward the end of his freshman season and telling him he wasn’t comfortable with him playing basketball. Amp had a significant role on the team as a running back, and he would miss spring practice if he played both sports.

Amp, who is 5 feet 11, decided to drop basketball. But in 1991, he told the Florida Sun-Sentinel that if a major basketball school such as Duke had offered him a basketball scholarship, he would’ve taken it and left football behind.

Although Amp tries to avoid saying he has regrets today — he ended up playing in the NFL for nearly a decade — he does wish he stuck with basketball longer.

When the 49ers selected him in the second round of the 1992 NFL draft, he entered with big dreams — making the Hall of Fame, rushing for 2,000 yards, and so on. While he said playing in the league was a great experience, he also learned being a professional player in sports can be a bumpy ride.

In 1994, he was at a hotel preparing to go to the 49ers practice facility. While watching SportsCenter, he learned he had been released. He played 10 games total in 1999 and 2000 with the Rams and Philadelphia Eagles due to broken hands and knee surgery. His final stop in the NFL was with the Detroit Lions’ practice squad in 2001, after which he retired due to a torn hamstring. If it weren’t for the injury, he said he would’ve made the team.

By then, Amp had become a father. He and his wife, Natalie, had Saben in 1999. They lived in Birmingham while Amp was with the Lions, and they would walk across the street to the Boys & Girls Club to play basketball. Saben was too young to remember it now. For Amp, it’s a fond memory.

Amp didn’t push Saben to play either sport, but was delighted when he naturally took to basketball. Saben played both sports growing up as a point guard and running back, but liked basketball more, similar to his father, and dropped football in middle school.

“I played it at a young age, and my dad told me if you don’t love football, that’s not a sport you play for fun,” Saben said.

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Equipped for success

Saben was a four-star recruit, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, coming out of Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona in 2017. While he always dreamed of playing in the NBA, he was a late-bloomer in some ways, his dad said.

Growing up, Amp would teach Saben about what it takes to go pro. It goes beyond the physical. Much of it is mental. At the highest level, everyone is a pro, and everyone is working every day to get better. It’s a grind, he would say, and many people aren’t up for it.

Even LeBron James and Stephen Curry improve their games every year, he told his son.

“Mentally you have to be able to go there,” Amp said. “You have to be in the mood for that. Some guys just can’t mentally or physically raise up to that level daily. That’s something I think he got at an early age, he understood at an early age and not be distracted by the noise. Just keep working. Just keep working.”

Saben said his dad molded his mindset from an early age.

“As a young kid I might not understand it at that age, but I definitely see various things he tried to instill in me that helped me later on in life and later on in my development for basketball,” he said. “That definitely is a blessing, being able to have a dad who has gone through this at the pro level and him being able to help me on, especially at an early age.”

Saben had a standout career at Vanderbilt, ranking 23rd on its all-time scoring list. He averaged 18.6 points and 4.2 assists per game as a junior before declaring for the NBA draft. Both Drew and former Pistons star Jerry Stackhouse, who coached him during his final season, praised his work ethic and daily approach to the game.

It paid off in November, when the Pistons traded for Saben in the second round of the draft. Pistons general manager Troy Weaver was a fan, and Stackhouse has a longstanding relationship with head coach Dwane Casey dating to their time with the Raptors.

Saben is equipped for success in the NBA, and his dad’s love for basketball, and success in football, helped him forge his path.

“A guy that has lived the life, so to speak, can definitely help him from that standpoint of managing the money and the pitfalls that come with being a professional athlete,” Stackhouse said. “To have someone that’s lived it is definitely an asset for Saben to draw from. At the same time, he understands that he has to drill his own path and he’s going to give him room to do that. He’s with a good organization and a coach that’s committed to that process of seeing young guys get better, not only on the court but helping them as young men as well.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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