March 24, 1997
March 24, 1997

Table of Contents
March 24, 1997

Faces In The Crowd


He grew up in Manhattan, the son of a radiator factory worker
from Haiti. To fit into his older brother's hand-me-down
sneakers he had to wear five pairs of socks. As a teenager he
dreamed of owning a shoe store, which he would buy after making
millions as a Knick. But his ninth-grade coach cut him, Division
I colleges didn't recruit him, and the NBA showed no interest in
him. So he played professionally in Portugal, Argentina and
Ireland. No one who could help him realize his dream noticed. If
he wasn't so stubborn, he would have quit.

This is an article from the March 24, 1997 issue

On Feb. 25, seven years after almost giving up on his goal of
playing in the NBA, Rockets swingman Mario Elie fulfilled his
boyhood fantasy. He opened Samario's, a men's and women's shoe
store on the second floor of the Houston Galleria. This is not a
place to buy hightops or trade high fives. The inventory
consists of elegant footwear manufactured on the Balearic
Islands off the east coast of Spain. Ornate sandals, calfskin
oxfords, woven loafers--no men's pair sells for less than $160.
The i in Samario's is dotted with a basketball, but the walls
hold no posters of either Elie or his fellow owner, former
Rockets teammate Sam Cassell. "There are enough of them in the
sports bar across the mall," Elie says.

Elie handled the grand opening without Cassell, who was traded
by Houston before the season and is now with the Nets. "I met
with the shoe representatives from Spain," Elie says. "I greeted
all the customers. I had to guard [All-Stars] Eddie Jones and
Glen Rice that week, but nothing was more nerve-racking than the
opening. But I survived."

Elie, 33, is a survivor. His late father, Maurice, named him
after opera singer Mario Lanza, but his Rockets teammates call
him Junkyard Dog. "I do a lot of howling on the court, getting
on my teammates if they don't play hard, fighting with officials
to get a call," Elie explains. He brought a vital measure of
toughness to Houston in its championship seasons of 1993-94 and
'94-95. A rugged 6'5" and 210 pounds, Elie is a ferocious
defender, among the league's finest, and he regularly draws the
opponent's top scorer. "But even at home," he says with a scowl,
"I hear people yell, 'Mario, play some defense.' Hey, that's all
I do."

This would be the salesman's equivalent of a markdown. Elie's
value to the Rockets goes far beyond his D. He's one of their
big-game players, willing to take the tough shot in the closing
seconds. "I tell our guys not to let him shoot the three,
especially at the end of games," Magic coach Richie Adubato
says. "He's 40 percent [actually 41.3%] this year on threes, but
in the clutch he's about 60 percent. Some guys, even the
superstars, would rather distribute that responsibility late in
a game. Not him." It was Elie's trey with 7.1 seconds left that
beat Phoenix 115-114 in Game 7 of the '94-95 Western Conference
semifinals. "It's a mental thing," he says. "I'm not afraid to
fail. I've missed shots, but I love pressure, and I know I'm
going to make the next shot. I've failed so much, missing a shot
is nothing."

The failures began when he was axed from the freshman team at
Power Memorial High in New York City. "I cried and cried," Elie
says. He grew three inches, to 6'1", over the summer, made the
junior varsity team the next season and, with teammate Chris
Mullin, led it to a 25-0 record. But because he only played with
his back to the basket in high school, no Division I school
pursued him, so he accepted a scholarship from American
International College, a Division II school in Springfield,
Mass. "My friends would come home from school in the summer with
all sorts of [basketball] shoes; I got two pair the whole year,"
Elie said. "My friends were in big programs; I was eating bag
lunches on the bus. I thought, It has got to get better than

It didn't. The leading scorer in Yellow Jackets history with
2,124 points, Elie was taken in the seventh round of the 1985
draft by the Bucks and then released during training camp.
"That's the only time I've ever been happy to be cut," Elie
says. "I wasn't ready, physically or mentally." He went to
Portugal and was a star. He went to Argentina and played point
guard. He went to Ireland and averaged 35 points a game. He
suited up for one season with Miami of the U.S. Basketball
League and for another with Youngstown in the World Basketball
League. In the NBA's view he was still a tweener, too short to
play small forward, too slow to play off-guard. His jumper was

In 1989 he joined the Albany Patroons of the CBA. "I told my mom
[Odette], 'If I don't make it this year, I'm hanging it up,'"
Elie recalls. He figured he would use his human relations degree
and work with kids.

But Patroons coach George Karl, who now guides the SuperSonics,
rendered that plan moot. Karl loved Elie's tenacious style, and
worked with him on his shooting and his ball handling. Elie
earned a 10-day contract with the Lakers, but he was released
before getting a chance to show his skills. The same thing
happened in Philadelphia. He went back to Albany and dominated,
and in February 1991 he signed a 10-day deal with Golden State.
Elie scored 14 points in his debut and hasn't looked back.

With the Warriors he was reunited with Mullin; Elie now wears
number 17 as a tribute to him. "We were gym rats," says Elie of
his years with his old pal in Golden State. "Me, Chris, Tim
Hardaway and Mitch Richmond, we'd play two-on-two in the middle
of the night all summer. I kept thinking, This is Chris Mullin,
and I'm holding my own." That threesome helped teach Elie a most
valuable lesson: To play in the NBA you have to be able to bury
the open jumper. "They would play off me and say, 'We're going
to let you shoot the J,'" Elie says. "So I learned to shoot."

The Trail Blazers signed Elie for the 1992-93 season, then
traded him to the Rockets the following year for a second-round
draft choice. With Houston he has become one of the game's most
reliable marksmen. Last season three players hit 50% of their
field goals and 85% of their free throws while averaging double
figures: Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek, Suns guard Kevin Johnson and
Elie. This year, at week's end, Elie was averaging 11.4 points
per game and firing 49.4% from the field and 90.2% from the
line. "If I went to Minnesota or Vancouver, I could be a
scorer," he says. "But I'm about winning. On this team I make a
couple of layups a game, go 4 for 4 from the line, make a couple
of threes, play defense, do little things."

"Every great team has a player like Mario," says veteran forward
Eddie Johnson, who joined the Rockets this month. "He'll give
himself up in every facet of the game to win. Defense? There's
no glamour to that. I've always admired him from afar. I always
hated it when he guarded me."

Elie is proof that NBA success today is not so much about size,
strength or athleticism as it is about defending hard, improving
with experience, shooting accurately and never showing fear. "I
hear it all the time from guys on other teams saying, 'We missed
out on you, man,'" Elie said. "I don't want to hear that now. I
was out there, I was available, for a long time."

He has found a home in Houston. The kid from West 97th Street
owns a house on a lake, an Akita named Buddha and 60 pairs of
shoes. And now he's even peddling footwear. Orders are pouring
in, some from his New York buddies like Heat forward Ed Pinckney
and Bullets guard Rod Strickland. Elie hopes to open more
franchises. And maybe one day he'll own one in L.A. and another
in Philly, where it wasn't so long ago that NBA teams didn't
want him.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE The clutch-shooting Elie came to the NBA by way of six leagues and three countries. [Mario Elie in game]




In one of the season's one-on-one highlights, 76ers rookie guard
Allen Iverson flashed a hesitation double-crossover move that
had Michael Jordan lunging the wrong way, then buried an 18-foot
jumper. Iverson finished the March 12 game with 37 points, but
Jordan (23 points) and the Bulls earned a 108-104 victory.


The Nets held Chicago to 38.9% shooting from the floor in a
99-98 victory last Friday, then limited the Knicks to 34.7% in
an 89-74 win on Sunday. With the consecutive triumphs, New
Jersey doubled its season victory total against teams with
winning records.


Will Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal make his long-awaited return
to Orlando Arena? After hyperextending his left knee on Feb. 12,
O'Neal hasn't traveled with the team, but he says he wants to
attend Sunday's Lakers-Magic game. That would mark Shaq's first
visit to the O-rena since he signed with L.A. last summer.

"Toward the end of games, when you're really tired, instead of
taking smelling salts, you just look at Richie's ties and they
revive you." --Magic center Danny Schayes, on coach Richie
Adubato's neckwear.