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Catching Up With... Dale Ellis

Catching Up With... Dale Ellis Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

By Alex Squadron, SI.com

Before there was Reggie Miller or Ray Allen, there was Dale Ellis.

He was the first player in the NBA to hit 1,000 threes.

He was the first undisputed king of the long ball.

But the former Seattle Supersonic may best be remembered for the attitude, confidence, and swagger he carried on the court. “I always believed I was the best player to ever shoot a basketball.” Ellis said.  His approach to the game was very clear: “You step on the court with a Michael Jordan and you believe that this guy is better than you, he’s going to embarrass you. So you got to play with that confidence.” Ellis had a plaque hanging on his wall at the University of Tennessee that read: Your attitude determines your altitude. “That always stuck with me,” he said.

Since his retirement from the NBA in 2000, Ellis has done his best to stay busy. In fact, he claims that he played more golf when he was an active player than he does now. “I just can’t find the time,” Ellis lamented.

Ellis has been engaged in training young athletes, most notably, Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris a couple years back.  Since then, he has been following Harris’ career, and watching more NBA basketball.  The game has evolved since his playing days, Ellis observed, noting that it was “definitely a lot more physical when we played the game.”

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Though the game is different in a lot of ways, Ellis grew up -- just like today’s stars -- dreaming about one day gracing the NBA stage. “That’s all I ever wanted to do,” he recalled, “and I felt that at a very young age.” He worked tirelessly at his game, striving to improve and turn his vision into a reality.  An incredible high school career led Ellis to receive offers from Division One colleges across the nation.  He decided on the University of Tennessee, and as he made his transition to the next level, his passion for the game and intense work ethic did not change.

“Basketball consumed my life. During high school and college, practice was over and we’d go shoot somewhere…You know, I just loved to play,” Ellis said.  With his hard work, came very tangible results.  He was a second-team All America selection in 1982 and a first team member in 1983.  He won SEC player of the year in both of those seasons. His No. 14 is one of only four basketball jerseys retired at UT.

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In 1983, Ellis’ lifelong dream was fulfilled.  He was selected No. 9 in the NBA draft by the Dallas Mavericks. For the first time, however, Ellis had to wait for success to come. He played a limited role for the Mavs, only averaging 15.8 minutes per game his rookie season. “I had to be patient and wait on my opportunity to play,” Ellis said.  Three years later, that opportunity came when Ellis was traded to the Seattle Supersonics.

There, his game took off.  Coach Bernie Bickerstaff moved Ellis from more of a post-up player to a true shooting guard. “He gave me the green light to shoot the ball. My career just blossomed from there.” Ellis was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 1987. He shot with confidence from the perimeter, despite the fact that he played without a three-point line in high school and college. His impressive long ball led him to average over 20 points per game for four straight seasons, including a career-high 27.5 in the 1988-89 season.

He won the Three-Point Shootout in 1989.  He was an All-Star and All-NBA Third Team selection that same year.  He played for six different teams, and averaged double digits for fourteen straight seasons.  He chose to depart from the game in 2000, feeling it was the right time to move on with his life, be with family, and experience new things. “I had another year on my contract,” Ellis explained, “but my daughter was [going into] her last year of high school, and I wanted to spend that year with her.”

In the time he has been away from basketball, Ellis has taken the most pride in being able to help others. When he returned home, he immediately found ways to get involved. “I saw a lot of folks, a lot of family and friends, that were in need” he described, “and I got absorbed in their lives.” He continues to do work for the Boys and Girls Club. “What I like to do,” Ellis said, “is get retired players engaged in giving back to kids that can’t afford basketball camp, or kids that need mentorship.”

And it hasn’t been just young kids who have needed Ellis’ help. When his mother’s health began to decline a few years ago, Dale made it his mission to be there for her every step of the way. “I took care of her for a number of years, and that was a 24-hour job,” he said. His mother passed away due to diabetes in April 2013.

On a sports blog he created, Ellis wrote a letter to his mom this past Mother’s Day.  In it, he thanked her for everything she had done and expressed how much he missed her.  He wrote that he would never forget the inspirational letters that she used to send him when he was at UT.  Yet, the notes that he would send back to his mother weren’t always received with open arms. “I never cared much about writing,” Ellis told me, “I’d write letters to my mother and she’d send them back to me with corrections, so I stopped writing.”

With his mother gone, he has started to enjoy the thing he once cared so little for, which led him to create his sports blog. “You would be proud of me,” Ellis wrote in the recent letter to his mom, “I’m writing now.” 

Dale has always tried to inspire others, whether it be through his writing, his charity work, or his ability to play basketball. He was the first person in his family to earn a college degree. “It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life,” Ellis said, “but it gave me the understanding that I can accomplish anything that I set my mind to.” That’s the message that Ellis has tried to instill in others: that no matter what, you can reach your goals if you work hard and persevere.

Dale Ellis has always had an attitude, a confidence, a swagger about him. Every time he stepped onto the court, he believed that he was the best player out there. Even with his basketball career long gone, he continues to maintain that sense of self-assurance.  He approaches everything he does, now usually for the benefit of others, with exactly the same thought process: I’m going to be the best at this. That’s how he approached taking care of his mother. That’s how he continues to approach his charity efforts.

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Through it all, the assertive Dale Ellis – who battled with the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird – is still there. When asked who would win in a three-point shootout, him or Stephen Curry, the confident, competitive Ellis re-emerged.  

At first, he praised the young star from the Warriors, stating: “I like Curry. I like watching him play. He’s unconscious. He shoots the ball with such confidence it’s unbelievable, and he’s made some incredible shots.”

But of course, his attitude never wavered. “I can’t get up and down the court like Stephen Curry, but I can stand there and out shoot him all day long,” Ellis said, chuckling.

Your attitude determines your altitude.

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