Seattle's Dale Ellis stood 15 feet and two free throws away from sweet and utter requital last Saturday night at Reunion Arena in Dallas. Two seconds left and the game tied 110-110. The team that for three years had treated him like a museum piece—something to be admired from time to time, though usually left to gather dust—was now at Ellis's mercy.
Ellis stared into a wild-eyed Dallas Maverick crowd that, not long ago, had cheered for him—when they happened to notice he was around. Tonight, he found it easy to shut them out.
"I'd been waiting all year for this opportunity," said Ellis, whom the Mavs traded to the Sonics last July. "There was no way I was going to blow it." Swish went the first free throw. The crowd then went quiet, as if conceding the second shot. It, too, swished through, giving Seattle a 112-110 upset victory over the Midwest Division champion Mavericks and knotting their best-of-five NBA Western Conference playoff series at 1-1.
"It's the happiest day of my life," said Ellis. "It's a moment I had dreamed about."
Ellis would have settled for any kind of a victory over the Mavs, because until Saturday night that was the only thing missing from his Lazarus-like season. Upon joining the Sonics, Ellis had gone out and raised his scoring average by an astonishing 17.8 points per game over the previous year, believed to be an NBA record for a one-year jump. That 24.9 average was good enough to be eighth in the NBA, second only to Michael Jordan among guards. And he helped a team that had appeared pathetic in preseason to gain an unexpected playoff berth.
"I feel I was treated wrongly by [Dallas coach Dick] Motta," said Ellis. "This was my opportunity to slap him and slap him hard. That's what I did with my free throws." Overall, he rudely tweaked Motta's nose with a game-high 32 points.
To say that Ellis rather resents Motta is to say that Iran rather resents Iraq. He spent three long years in Big D as a Big Nothing before the Mavs finally exchanged him for guard Al Wood, a deal that brought Ellis a sigh of relief without exactly massaging his ego. "Motta told me I couldn't play two-guard in this league," said Ellis. "Well, I'm playing two-guard, aren't I, so how much does he know?"
Motta knows enough to have coached the Mavs (55-27) to the fourth-best record in the NBA. Enough to have traded Ellis, who this year scored 30 or more points in 23 games, and Jay Vincent, who averaged 13.3 points for Washington, yet still to have improved over last year's record by 11 wins. Enough, in short, that Motta can shrug his shoulders at Ellis's success.
"It wasn't something I spent a lot of time thinking about," said Motta before Saturday's game. "I said when Dale left that he would come back and play in the NBA. I had no doubt about that. But there was not a negative remark on our team about the trade. We had a logjam at his spot. We got rid of Dale and Jay, and now the logs are floating better."
Until Saturday, they had floated particularly well against the woodsmen from the Northwest. Dallas won all five regular-season games with Seattle by an average margin of 18.6 points, then took the playoff opener by the cruel score of 151-129. Like the Laker-Nugget series, this one seemed capable of being played by Mailgram.
But that was before the Mavs came out for Game 2 flatter than Sam Perkins's flattop; before Sonic coach Bernie Bickerstaff coaxed a maximum effort out of his overmatched Sonics, who were missing first-string center Alton Lister (broken bone in his foot); and before journeyman Clemon Johnson, subbing for Lister, had 20 points on 9-for-13 shooting from the field.
When it was over, though, this night belonged to Ellis. His baseline jumper with 1:30 left tied the score at 110. He then missed a jumper with five seconds left, but got another chance when Dallas's Derek Harper turned the ball over on an inbounds play. To no one's surprise, the Sonics got the ball to Ellis, who was checked tightly by Rolando Blackman, a duel that had been waged so many times during Maverick practices—Blackman always the starter, Ellis always the second-teamer. Ellis dribbled toward the right corner as time ran down. Boxed in by three Mavs, he jumped in the air and unloaded a—a what? A pass to a teammate under the basket? Or an off-balance jumper?
As Ellis released the ball, Perkins sent him sprawling. Referee Jack Madden blew his whistle and held up two fingers. Ellis jumped for joy: Reunion Arena would now have to focus its spotlight on him.
After the game, Ellis first said he had been trying to pass. In that case, he was informed, he should not have been awarded free throws, because the Mavs had a foul to give; the proper call would have been Seattle ball, out of bounds. Ellis broke into a big grin. He had waited a long time to get the last laugh on Dallas. "Like I said, I was shooting."
Motta, meanwhile, was offering his own analysis. "I'd bet my kingdom Dale Ellis was passing," he said. "But if I was Dale Ellis. I'd say I was shooting." It's one of the few times they've ever agreed.
When Ellis was a Maverick, Motta saw a player who could supplant neither Mark Aguirre at small forward, the position for which the 6'7" Ellis had been drafted, nor Blackman at big guard, the position Ellis occasionally played because of his strong outside shooting. In case Ellis was still unsure on that subject, Motta restated it before the series began. "Dale Ellis couldn't have beat out Rolando Blackman if he'd been here 10 years." he said. For good measure, Motta also questioned Ellis's ball-handling skills, his defense and his attitude. "You could tell even in his first year that he had the personality of a starter," said Motta. "He was never really happy here, never satisfied with his role." Another point of agreement.
The difficulties between Ellis and the Mavericks raise basic questions about the relationship between an individual and a team. Such as, Should a team draft a highly regarded player when there appears to be no place for him to play? "We thought Ellis was the best senior in the draft that season," said Rick Sund, the Mavs' director of player personnel. "He was the player to take at that spot. Once a player gets here, Dick makes the decisions that affect what happens to him."
Once a talented player is effectively buried, as Ellis was behind Aguirre and Blackman, does an organization owe him the professional courtesy of a quick trade, say, in his first or second year? Yes, says Ellis. No, says Motta, who considers a three-year timetable eminently fair. "He's always had that philosophy," says Bickerstaff, who was Motta's assistant with the Bullets for four seasons. "I understand how a player like Dale feels, but, yes, I think it's fair."
It also seemed fair that Ellis got a chance to administer a dose of his own justice on Saturday night. The defeat cast some unexpected doubt on a Maverick team that had figured to challenge the Lakers in the West. The best-of-five series moved on to Seattle this week for two games in. of all places, the 8,000-capacity Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the University of Washington campus. An agricultural convention is tying up the Coliseum, the Sonics' home court, while a home show in the Tacoma Dome and Mariners baseball in the Kingdome are boxing out the two other most logical sites. But for these Sonics, it figures.
Bickerstaff deserved a few coach of the year votes just for learning everyone's name. On his playoff roster are two rookies, seven players who arrived just this season either by trade or free agency and two grizzled veterans. Xavier McDaniel (second season) and Danny Young (third season). Only forward Tom Chambers, four years a Sonic, has been in Seattle long enough to have bought a complete set of rain gear.
By far the happiest of this disparate bunch last week was Ellis, who knew what to do when the hammer was placed in his hands in Game 2. "It's like a giant weight off my shoulders," he said. "Now I have nothing else to prove to the Mavericks."
And if he had blown the free throws? Ellis pondered that for a moment. "Then I would've retired," he said.