Having heard that University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Coach Murray Arnold lays a mean ambush, the 10th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers were wary opponents in the game at which the Roundhouse, UTC's new 11,200-seat arena, was dedicated last week. The ranked are always likely to become the filed at UTC. The Moccasins had won all their home games last season while ringing up 27 victories overall. They were 15-1 in the Southern Conference and beat North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Tennessee and UTC had met 27 times, but not in 22 years, which put some emotional steam in the place. The big question for Arnold was, "How do you corner a Dale Ellis in a Roundhouse?"
With anyone as versatile as Ellis, Tennessee's All-America senior forward, one probes for the chink, even the hint of a chink. Ellis led Tennessee in nearly every offensive category last year, shooting 65.4%, best by a forward in the nation, while averaging 21.2 points and never missing double figures. He also topped the Volunteers in rebounding (6.3) and slammed from such heights that he often looked down on his work. He missed only 2.2 minutes per game. After the Vols' opening 84-59 win this season over outmatched Biscayne College, in which Ellis sank 12 of 14 shots and scored 27 points in 30 minutes, he was shooting 59.5% for his career.
The supposed flaw in Ellis concerned that amorphous quality, intensity. What else could be in doubt? Defense? Never a question at Tennessee.
So Arnold guarded Ellis with two men, two intense men, and held him to 17 shots and 17 points. The Mocs lost anyway, 55-49, in part because the 6'1" Ellis bellied up with the Mocs' leading scorer, 6'3" Swingman Willie White, and held him to a single field goal in the first half. "[Tennessee Coach] Don DeVoe is so committed to playing quality defense that he'll put his best player on your team's best, no matter where," said Arnold. "Ellis guarded Ralph Sampson in their game against Virginia in the NCAAs last year, and he still shows the mobility to guard Willie. Coming in, I thought Ellis was the best forward in America, and I saw nothing tonight to make me change my mind."
"Dale Ellis is the best forward, of any classification, at the collegiate level," concurs noted NBA scout Marty Blake. "He has become even smoother, if that's possible."
Ellis went to Tennessee from Marietta (Ga.) High with a fine shooting touch, stiff-kneed defense ("I never knew that defense existed") and more than a little kindling on his ample shoulders. "I've never seen what you might call fire in his eyes," says DeVoe. "And some people might mistake this for nonchalance. He's so smooth that he's misread. But that's what separates Dale. He's poised. When he came here, he didn't know how to play hard. I still don't think he's an aggressive person. But he was attentive, and we worked, and he learned."
Ellis, 22, and his fraternal twin Darryl are the youngest of Lucille Ellis' six children. Ellis' father was shot to death in an argument with another man when the twins were nine. "I took it hard. It affected my personality," Dale says. "I was bitter and took it out on my peers. I couldn't wait to play basketball after school. Mom didn't care for ballplaying. She even threw some of my trophies out. I just took them out of the garbage and put 'em in my room."
DeVoe threw Ellis' trophies away, too, figuratively, at least. "Those honors from high school mean nothing," DeVoe says. "And I yell and swear in practice sometimes." Ellis resented that. "I didn't enjoy him saying things to me my own mother wouldn't say," Dale says. "So one day I walked off the court right in the middle of practice. I went to my room, locked the door and took the phone off the hook. I was ready to transfer."
Later that first year, Ellis went home one weekend and missed Tennessee's spring athletic banquet. He stayed home for a week. "Coach and I talked," says Ellis. "He explained what he expected I could become. I thought we could have had that conversation earlier. I decided to come back, but if things stayed the same I'd have been gone."
Evidently things didn't stay the same. In time DeVoe got the complete player he wanted, one he calls "the best I've ever coached," and Mrs. Ellis got a few more trophies. "She didn't throw these away," Ellis says with a laugh. "She keeps them in her room now."
The Ellis twins of Marietta nearly took scholarships to Georgia Tech together. "I didn't want it," says Ellis. "Darryl understood." Darryl was cut while trying to make the Savannah (Ga.) State team in 1979. He's now a Marine recruit at Parris Island, S.C. and is said to be more demonstrative than Dale. "A lot of people say that if Dale had Darryl's temperament, we'd really have a player," Mrs. Ellis once said. Says Dale, "After playing for DeVoe, I figure I can give Darryl advice about boot camp."
Georgia had been Dale's first choice, "but they didn't seem too interested in me, not until they had already gotten Dominique," he says. Dominique Wilkins cast a shadow over Ellis until last season, when in "my most satisfying game of the year" Ellis had 28 points, 10 rebounds and five steals (compared to Wilkins' 21, eight and none) in a 66-64 Tennessee victory at Athens.
Ellis' teammates, notably the triumvirate of guards, Tyrone Beaman, Ed Littleton and Michael Brooks, have learned to expect such performances. "If we're going to do anything," says Beaman, the point guard, "it'll be behind Dale." Georgia Coach Hugh Durham says, "Dale Ellis is exceptional. He's got strength and grit. Emotionally, Dale is an inward person. How do you judge intensity? Look at the key games. I think he shows he's there." When Ellis was named SEC Player of the Year last season, Durham was among those who voted for him.
The first half of last week's game against UTC was a tight defensive struggle. Tennessee led by only 21-19 at the intermission, and Ellis had nine points and several hard knocks. After falling behind by 14 in the second half, UTC pressed harder behind Gerald Wilkins, the younger brother of Dominique, a 6'6" sophomore who was to finish with 20 points.
Two dunks by Wilkins and two jumpers by White pulled the Mocs to within five, 43-38, with six minutes left. Then DeVoe's defense ignited three straight breakaway slams—by Littleton, Ellis and Forward Willie Burton—and the Vols held on to win.
Though Ellis said, "I give myself a failing grade for that game," Wilkins was awed. "Ellis is the best by far I've ever played against," he said. "Oh, except for Dominique." UTC's Stanford Strickland said, "I did what I could, but I've never been up against a player like that."
"I feel good when I have the ball," Ellis says, a smile playing on his comely, high-boned face. "I prefer the wing because I want to prove I can play there. But when I have the ball low, I'm supposed to make that shot. It's my duty to make that shot. I can shoot from 15 to 18 feet. I can shoot from farther out than that, but here at Tennessee if I took that shot and didn't make it, I'd be sitting." Even DeVoe has to smile at that.