WASHINGTON — Doug Lee stopped speaking, asked for his bottle of water, and took a swig.

"I don't get nervous when I speak. I get emotional," he said.

Emotions were running high Sunday for Lee. He was back in the city where he grew up, at an annual event that honors the lives lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., first responders at the attack sites and the police, fire and EMTs who serve Washington.

Lee, a former Washington Community High School basketball star who went on to play in college and the NBA and overseas, delivered the keynote address at a memorial service in Washington Park that followed a quarter-mile walk in the park led by high school cheerleaders and drum line.

Now 53 and living in Las Vegas, Nev., Lee spoke of his love for his hometown, his love for his country, and his appreciation for those who serve.

"I've always tried to be a role model. But I'm not a role model. Our military and first responders, they're role models," Lee said.

To drive home his point, he told a story about the adulation he received when he arrived in Israel in 1990 to play for the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball team.

"I went out to dinner that night, and all of a sudden, I saw people run out into the street to greet someone," he said. "I thought, it had to be an athlete. That's how I was back then.

"But it wasn't an athlete. It was a military pilot. That moment touched me and has stayed with me forever. You know, that's the way it should be. Our military, our first responders, they're the real heroes."

Lee said when he's in an airport and he sees someone in the military, he always taps the person on the shoulder, thanks the person for his or her service and says, 'You're my hero.' "

Whenever he sees a Vietnam War veteran, Lee said, he makes sure he apologizes for their treatment when they returned home and thanks them for their service.

Lee said first responders like those who responded to the terrorist attacks in 2001 and those who serve Washington run toward danger, not away from it.

"Would I do that? I hope I would. But they do it every day," he said.

Hundreds of Washington High School athletes, including the No. 1-ranked Panthers football team, participated in the walk and stood behind the crowd that was seated at the memorial service. Lee had a message for the athletes.

"Remember it's a privilege to wear your uniform and represent your city," he said. "And remember the impact you have on young people is eternal."

Weighing on the hot topic of the day — particularly hot on the first Sunday of the NFL season — Lee wasn't shy expressing his views on NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest what they feel are injustices in the country's justice system.

"I don't want to get political, and I respect everyone's right to protest," he said. "But I would honor our flag and our military over my protest. I played in seven countries. All are great. But none are better than our country."

Lee's No. 22 that he wore while playing for the Panthers has been retired. After high school, he played college basketball at Texas A&M and Purdue before being drafted by the Houston Rockets in the second round of the 1987 NBA draft.

The 6-foot-5 guard-forward played three seasons in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets (1991-1993) and Sacramento Kings (1994-95), scoring 168 points in 73 games.

The youngest of eight children, Lee is a business owner and community leader in Las Vegas, and a sought-after motivational speaker. He and his wife, Becky, who have been married for 33 years, have two children.

Other speakers Sunday at the 17th annual 9/11 event were Washington Mayor Gary Manier, Police Chief Mike McCoy and Fire Chief Roger Traver, Northern Tazewell Deputy Fire Chief Mike Vissering, the Rev. Dave Jane and the Rev. John Steffen.

Manier introduced a committee, led by Tom Berlett, that organized that walk and service.

The Washington police honor guard presented the colors and did a rifle salute. The high school chamber choir sang the national anthem, "America the Beautiful" and "Amazing Grace."

Lights flashed from police cars, fire trucks and emergency vehicles during the latter part of the service, a bell was struck 17 times for each year since the attacks, and a huge U.S. flag was unfurled from the top of a ladder fire truck.

Before the walk, an OSF HeathCare Life Flight helicopter landed in the outfield of a baseball diamond in the park. The helicopter took off as the walk started.

Steve Stein can be reached at 686-3114 or stevestein21@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.