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Former BYU basketball player recalls one of worst experiences of his life, and why it still haunts him

Toward the end of the 2019-20 regular season, Kolby Lee, a starter, contracted bacterial pneumonia and lost 20 pounds

Kolby Lee recalls missing the 2020 WCC Tournament for BYU just before the pandemic began.
Brigham Young Cougars forward Kolby Lee (40) grabs a defensive rebound as BYU and Weber State play an NCAA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. Toward the end of the 2019-2020 regular season, Lee, a Cougar starter, contracted bacterial pneumonia and lost 20 pounds
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Kolby Lee describes it as “one of the worst experiences” of his life.

The former BYU forward, who transferred to Dixie State last spring, suffered an illness that befell him not long before COVID-19 gripped the world.

Toward the end of the 2019-20 regular season, Lee, a Cougar starter, contracted bacterial pneumonia and lost 20 pounds. The West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas was coming up and his status was uncertain.

“I practiced a couple days when I was sick and I felt super weak,” Lee recalled.

When the Cougars left for Las Vegas, Lee remained behind in Provo to rest until he felt well enough to travel.

“I thought I was getting better and I flew to Vegas. I practiced that night and did some stuff on the side to see how my lungs were. I felt OK. That night, it hit me hard again,” Lee said. “This was round two. The whole time in Vegas I was struggling. I was sweating. I had West Nile (virus) when I was 12. This bacterial pneumonia, I was throwing up, had diarrhea, I was camped in the bathroom. I woke up and my bed was drenched in sweat. It was terrible.”

BYU, the No. 2 seed in the tournament and ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll at the time, was scheduled to play No. 3 seed Saint Mary’s in the Monday night semifinal at Orleans Arena.

Just before tipoff, media and fans became aware that Lee would not be available for the game “due to symptoms of nausea, vomiting and mild dehydration.”

At the time, COVID-19 was spreading around the world and in the United States. Some wondered if Lee’s absence had been due to the coronavirus.

Gavin Baxter replaced Lee in the starting lineup, marking his first start of the season after missing most of the year due to a shoulder injury and burning his redshirt.

“I watched the game in Vegas in the hotel room,” Lee said. “There was no way I could play.”

It was an intense battle between BYU and Saint Mary’s. The Cougars suffered a woeful 12-minute stretch in the second half, which included a nine-minute drought without a field goal.

In the end, Saint Mary’s star Jordan Ford drilled a jumper with 1.4 seconds remaining to lift the Gaels to a 51-50 victory. That ended the Cougars’ nine-game winning streak and sent Saint Mary’s to the West Coast Conference title game against Gonzaga. BYU had upset the No. 2 Zags a couple of weeks earlier in Provo.

Little did anyone know at the time, but that setback to Saint Mary’s would be BYU’s final game of the 2020-21 campaign.

The following week, COVID-19 shut down various other conference tournaments and, ultimately, the NCAA Tournament.

Lee still thinks about that experience.

“I’ve thought that if I hadn’t gotten sick, we could have won the WCC championship that year,” he said. “That kind of haunts me a little bit. We lost by two and I averaged eight points a game. In my mind, we win by six. I know I could get a couple of stops and get a couple of buckets. That’s where my mind was at. We for sure could have beaten those dudes if I had played. But I guess we’ll never know.”

It wasn’t reported until months after that loss to Saint Mary’s that BYU guard Alex Barcello had broken his wrist at the end of the regular-season finale at Pepperdine. Barcello played against the Gaels, but he was nowhere close to full strength.

Despite that setback to Saint Mary’s, the Cougars were projected to be a single-digit seed in the 2020 tournament before it was canceled.

“I don’t know if I would have played if there would have been an NCAA Tournament because I was still sick and throwing up and having every symptom for weeks, even after the season ended after COVID,” Lee said. “I was really, really sick. My mom, who’s a nurse, took time off work to take care of me.

“It was real bad. I was super skinny. I normally weigh 240 pounds. I got down to 215. It took me all summer to get that weight back. It was brutal. I was struggling. I would rather have coronavirus 10 times before I have bacterial pneumonia. I had coronavirus last summer but it was only a cold — a runny nose for a week and that was it.”

Before March Madness was canceled, BYU was seen by some national pundits as a Final Four dark horse.

“We had such good shooters and an inside presence,” Lee said. “We had all the pieces. But at that point, we weren’t at full strength. We could have gone to the Sweet 16 if we hit shots … With Alex’s wrist and without me, we were only eight deep. We were already shorthanded. If we would have been at full strength, we could have gone to the Final Four.”

For Lee and BYU, it was another case of what might have been.