Wofford senior Lee Skinner has been told he’s too small to play power forward his entire career. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, his detractors may have had a point.
But instead of listening to all the negative static that surrounded him, Skinner let it fuel his play on the court.
“I just use it as motivation. I’ve never really been in the discussion of ‘Oh he’s a really good player, you have to watch out for him.’ I’ve always been on the other end like, ‘Oh, Skinner is gonna have a tough time matching up with so-and-so, he’s got two or three inches and 20 pounds on him,’” Skinner says. “But I love that challenge, it makes me better. I hate playing guys that are smaller than me, not that I can’t or don’t want to, but I love playing the goliaths and the giants so I can really show that it’s heart over height. Heart over height; I love that challenge.”
That chip on his shoulder helped him lead the Terriers to their second straight Southern Conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth. Skinner was named MVP of the SoCon tournament after dropping a team-high 17 points in a 67-64 win over Furman.
“It goes back to his basketball IQ—he’s got a great understanding of angles, he’s physical, he’s strong,” Wofford coach Mike Young says. “He masks [being undersized] with those characteristics. He’s got the heart of a mountain lion, and it’s because of that he finds himself in the right place more often than not.”
Skinner had been battling against circumstances larger than him long before he arrived at Wofford. He grew up in Lombard, Illinois as an only child raised by a single-mother.
“I grew up with a single parent, my mother, and struggled for a while—struggling with maintaining and having a guidance other than my mom, like a father figure,” he says. “I looked at sports as a gateway, a way to stay out of trouble.”
Skinner played basketball since he was in the eighth grade and says he stopped playing baseball after his sophomore year of high school. But his first love was football, which he played since he was four years old. As a wide receiver for Glenbard East High School, Skinner earned all-conference and all-area honors.
“Absolutely, I loved football,” Skinner says when asked if he misses football. “I really, really did. It was tied with basketball in my love for it, just the physicality and all of that. A lot of my friends played football growing up, and then when I get to Wofford I got a lot of friends here that play on the football team and with the school so small I run into them all the time. I go and check out the games and it’s hard not to miss it, for sure… I throw a football around every now and then, and sometimes I joke around with the guys on the football team here, just telling them they couldn’t guard me.”
After graduating, Skinner chose the squeaks of sneakers on the hardwood and the sounds of swishes through the basket over the clanks of helmets colliding on the field.
“I picked basketball to pursue after high school because I just felt like I loved it more,” he says.
He spent a prep year at Fork Union Military Academy, an experience unlike anything he’s ever gone through and something he says shaped the man he is today.
“It’s still a part of me that I didn’t have beforehand. They take away our phones, having no social media—when we got there they check your computer and they could tell if you’re on a blocked site,” he says. “So there was no communication really with the outside world other than a few minutes a day here and there. They totally strip you of who you are and what you were before you come in, and you come out a better person.
“It made me a better person—how I looked at things, how I treated people, how I treated myself, really put things into perspective and showed me what was important. Fork Union was amazing for me, I didn’t like it at the time but I love it now for what it did for me.”
Skinner was named to the all-SoCon second team after helping lead the Terriers to a 28-6 record. His impact on the team goes beyond the numbers he puts up on the court.
“He’s as fine a leader as we’ve ever had here,” Young says. “He’s the straw that stirs the drink for us; (Karl) Cochran gets a lot of attention, deservedly so, he’s a great player, but Skinner makes the train run.”
Wofford came out of nowhere to win the SoCon title last year, so winning it a second time gave Skinner and his teammates the validation they felt they deserved.
“Nobody expected us to win last year, so everybody said ‘Oh wow, they stole one,’ or ‘They came up lucky,’” Skinner says. “This year it was sweet because we started the conference number-one, we ended the conference number-one and we pretty much proved to everybody how hard we work and how we earned it and deserve it.”
Wofford was given a No. 12 seed in the West Region and will face fifth-seeded Arkansas on Thursday. Skinner looks back at his performance in the SoCon tournament and knows he will have to duplicate it if the Terriers hope to be successful.
“I think I was just a little more aggressive offensively; I know I’m gonna play defense every possession, every night every game,” he says. “If I’m out there screaming on defense and playing really tough and making plays for the team on the defensive end, then coming down and scoring every few possessions, I know that’s gonna have a huge impact on my team.”
This being Wofford’s second straight year in the Big Dance, Skinner says the Terriers aren’t just looking to take part, they’re going into the tournament to bust some brackets.
“We’re going to win as many games as we can,” he says. “Last year we got the chance to enjoy the experience, but this year we’ve been there before and we’re an even better team than we were, so I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”