How Kolby Lee went from retirement, to selling cars, to playing for Idaho State — and facing his former team, BYU
Lee faces BYU, where he played from 2018-2021, Monday in the 2022-23 season-opener at the Marriott Center.
As fate would have it, a little more than 18 months after transferring from BYU, then going to Dixie State, retiring from basketball, selling cars, and joining Idaho State’s program, Kolby Lee is right back where he left off.
When BYU and the Bengals tip off the 2022-23 season Monday (7 p.m., MST, BYUtv), Lee is returning to the Marriott Center to face his former team.
“There’s definitely going to be emotion to it. As much as I want to say it’s just a normal game, it really isn’t,” Lee told the Deseret News.
“There may be times when I’ll wear my emotions on my sleeve. But at the same time, I have nothing but love for BYU. I really enjoyed my time there. I still talk to a lot of guys on the team and guys that transferred. What we had there was special. BYU is a special place. It will always have a special place in my heart and I have some great memories there. But I hope we can go in there and it can be as normal as it can be. We’ll see how the fans respond to me coming back.”
At BYU, the 6-foot-9 forward was affectionately known by nicknames like “Big Idaho” and “Quickie Monster.” In perhaps his best performance for the Cougars, Lee made 8 of 8 shots from the field and poured in a career-high 21 points in BYU’s 93-70 victory over San Diego in 2020.
Lee’s wife, Kayla Belles-Lee, played for the BYU women’s team and has since graduated. The last time Lee stepped foot in the Marriott Center was for a women’s basketball game last season.
Now, the Lees are expecting a baby boy in April.
And Kolby is playing college basketball again.
But about a year ago, he thought he was done playing basketball. So how did he wind up at Idaho State?
‘I thought my basketball career was over’
Not long after entering the transfer portal in the spring of 2021, Lee committed to Dixie State in St. George. The program had never had a grad transfer before because Dixie had just transitioned to Division I.
Lee was told he would be able to get into grad school there because he had strong grades. He worked out with the Dixie team all summer long while his wife worked out with her team in Provo.
But about a week before classes started, Lee received an e-mail from the school.
“It said, ‘We regret to inform you that you didn’t get in,’” he recalled. “The school president got involved and it was a whole ordeal. Something went wrong. The reason I decided to go to Dixie was because I wanted to get a Master’s degree, justifying being a long distance from my wife.”
Facing this new dilemma, the Lees sat outside the St. George Temple, seeking inspiration.
“We got the feeling that my time playing basketball was done,” Lee said. “I’m retiring from basketball.”
When he met with the Dixie coaches, “there were some tears shed,” he said. “In that moment, I thought my basketball career was over. I wasn’t going to leave my wife just to play basketball. That doesn’t make sense. A lot of people love the game but I love my wife more. That was the decision we made together.”
Lee ended up getting a job at the Murdock Hyundai car dealership in Lindon. He worked there for almost a year. While he enjoyed that experience, people would come in and ask him, “Do you ever think about playing again?”
“That’s what brought me here. Spending time with my loved ones means everything to me.” — Kolby Lee, on transferring to Idaho State
And when college basketball season started a year ago, “I really got the itch to play,” he said. “I was watching games and I thought, ‘I should be out there.’”
So he revisited the idea of playing for one more season with his wife. She supported him.
“I didn’t want to live in regret,” Kolby said.
After talking to the Dixie coaches, he entered the transfer portal. Again.
Idaho State reached out and it quickly became a viable option. Lee hails from Meridian, Idaho. His family moved to Pocatello a few years ago and his wife’s family also moved to Idaho.
“That’s what brought me here,” Lee said. “Spending time with my loved ones means everything to me.”
Lee is pursuing a Master’s degree in athletic administration at ISU, which is a one-year program.
“Everything fell into place,” he said.
‘Those are memories that I’ll cherish’
Lee played in Provo from 2018-2021 and appeared in 72 games. He averaged 3.7 points and two rebounds per game and shot 52% from the field in his final season at BYU.
“We know what a special player Kolby is. He’s one of my favorite players that I’ve ever coached,” Cougar coach Mark Pope said last week. “It will be really fun to have him back in this gym. He did so much for BYU while he was here. He’s taken on a major, major role in that team.”
Told what Pope had said about him, Lee appreciated the kind words. He’s been able to come to terms with the unexpected detours in his career.
“It means a lot. Now that I’m a senior, I understand now what college basketball is. It’s a business. When you’re a freshman, you have wide eyes and you think you’re going to play and you have a vision that everything’s going to go perfectly. Then when you’re in the fight, you realize that things don’t always go the way you think they will,” Lee said.
“I’ve got nothing but love for everyone at BYU. I think Pope’s a great coach and I know as long as he’s there, I know they’re going to have success. He really knows the game and he’s really smart. I’m looking forward to seeing how they guard me, what he throws at me. I know he has some tricks up his sleeve. It means a lot coming from him. I love coach Pope.”
Lee keeps in touch with his former teammates. At BYU, Lee and Trevin Knell were roommates on road trips and they grew close. Lee and Spencer Johnson were married at similar times. Lee and Gideon George were locker buddies.
“I love those dudes,” Lee said. “I miss those guys. BYU has great people.”
He added that he stays in contact with academic advisors and many others at BYU.
One of Lee’s best memories of his time in Provo was when he helped the Cougars upset No. 2 Gonzaga in the 2020 home finale at the Marriott Center.
“There are memories that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life,” he said.
A second, second chance
Lee is grateful to Idaho State for giving him another opportunity to pursue his dreams and chase his passion.
“I love these coaches. They’re genuine people. They take pride in treating us like family,” he said. “A lot of coaches can be used-car salesmen. But at the same time, when you have someone that actually cares, that’s noticeable.”
The Bengals finished 7-23 last season but coach Ryan Looney has brought in a bunch of transfers, like Lee.
“Last year’s team wasn’t very good,” Lee said. “But this team, we’re going to make some noise. We’ll be better than a lot of people think.”
ISU was picked to finish last in the Big Sky Conference in the preseason poll.
“We can only go up,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, Lee can’t help but notice the differences between playing at a school like BYU and Idaho State in terms of facilities, support and perks.
“BYU has funds. We don’t get a lot here. For gear day, we might get a couple of shirts. Some sweats and a travel polo and a pair of shoes, which I’m very grateful for,” Lee said. “At BYU’s gear day, you walk away with more stuff than you need … It’s crazy to see how I’ve been at different schools and I’ve seen the ins and outs of all walks of life in college basketball.”
Now, his circuitous journey is running through BYU again.
“That is crazy. My first college game back is at BYU. There will be emotions. I’m definitely excited for the game,” Lee said. “I’m excited to see where our team is at. I know BYU will have a great year and so we’ll see how we stack up against them. It will tell us how our season will go.”
On Monday night at the Marriott Center, Lee will have friends and family attending the game supporting him. That includes some that he worked with at the car dealership in Lindon.
“I love that dealership. It was a fun time,” Lee said. “There are times when I miss it because of the people that I worked with. I enjoyed the money. It was also a realization of what my life is going to look like for the next 30-something years of working before I can retire, working a 9-to-5. I’m excited to get back to playing college basketball because it is a little bit more fun. It was definitely good for our family, and me, to come back to school.”
Lee actually has two years of college eligibility remaining but right now, he’s planning on this season being his final campaign.
“I feel old for college basketball. I’m 24, I’m married, I’ve got a baby on the way,” he said. “It makes more sense to me to play this one year, get my Master’s, and move on. Then I’ll work or make money overseas to provide for my family. A part of me is leaning towards getting a job instead of going overseas with a newborn baby. Who knows how this season will end up going? That’s the plan right now.”
Certainly, Lee has learned that the best-laid plans can change in unexpected ways. Nobody could have predicted the improbable path he’s been on the past 18 months.
“I’m not taking this season for granted. It could be my last ride playing basketball at a high level,” he said. “I’m going to soak it all in and build lasting relationships, leave everything I have on the floor and have no regrets.”