Legends Spotlight: Dale Ellis

May 23, 2017

The National Basketball Retired Players Association hosted the latest edition of its youth basketball and mentoring program called “Full Court Press: Prep for Success”. Several former NBA/WNBA standouts were in attendance at Providence Christian Academy near Atlanta including Dale Ellis/Reggie Johnson/Carla McGhee/Gator Rivers/Sedric Toney. The program travels all over the country to introduce kids to positive role models in both basketball and life. NBRPA writer Jon Teitel has spent time talking with many of the greatest players in NBA/WNBA history and will share his interviews at LegendsofBasketball.com. Jon visited with Dale Ellis about his role with the Full Court Press program and his past basketball successes.

What was your transition like from active player to retired player? I think it was typical. When you go from doing 1 thing your entire life to having nothing to do, it is difficult. I had 1 year left on my contract but wanted to spend the year with my daughter before she left for college. I kicked myself in the butt and wondered what I was thinking for the 1st 6 months.

Why did you decide to join the National Basketball Retired Players Association? It is nice to mix/mingle with guys you played against while networking at the same time and seeing what other people are up to. I went to the All-Star Game every single year: it was fun for me because it was like a reunion. It was hard when Moses Malone died because he was 1 of the people I got to see every winter and join for a bite to eat.

Being a part of the NBRPA with other legends of basketball, how beneficial is the organization to players who are embarking on life after basketball? I think it is important to help them through the transition with life after basketball because the majority of us do not prepare for it. It is also nice to stay around the game in some capacity as part of the group.

You currently serve as President of the Atlanta Chapter of the NBRPA: why did you take the job, and what have you been able to accomplish so far? My life has always been about giving back and I enjoy sharing. I used to run a couple of foundations during my career and when I got a call from the NBRPA to get involved I thought that it would be a nice opportunity. We have quite a few retired players in Atlanta so the 1st question I asked was “why me?” It is challenging work and can be difficult to get other players involved, but the group can help get your agenda off the ground by raising funds or putting you together with business/community leaders to host an event. I also try to find opportunities for the guys to make some money.

You were a 2-time All-American/2-time SEC POY at Tennessee: what did it mean to you to win such outstanding honors? Honors are beautiful but it is not an individual sport. You have to be on the right team at the right time with the right coaching staff. Other players need to sacrifice their own game in order for you to succeed. I just wanted to compete for a championship 1 time and test my ability.

In the 1981 NCAA tourney you scored 22 PTS/10-13 FG including a 15-footer with 1 second left in a 2-PT OT win over VCU: how weird was it to take the only shot that either team attempted in OT (since the Rams held the ball due to there being no shot clock) and where does that rank among the highlights of your career? It might have been a record to freeze the ball that much even back in the era of Dean Smith. The ball just happened to come to me at the end of OT. It was not a play that had been designed for me but it was a confidence-builder: I felt like I had finally arrived.

You were the 1st person in your family to earn a college degree: how much importance do you place on academics? All the importance in the world. When I work at camps I try to get kids to understand the balance between academics and athletics. Not everyone can make it to the NBA but you can always fall back on your education. I regret that I only did enough to just get by, but my daughter has a master’s degree and my son was also a college athlete so I am proud of them both. Getting my degree showed me that I could accomplish anything I wanted to.

After being traded from Dallas to Seattle in 1986, you were named NBA Most Improved Player in 1987 as your scoring average jumped from 7.1 PPG to 24.9 PPG: why did Sonics coach Bernie Bickerstaff decide to switch you from a post-up player to a shooting guard, and how did that decision change your career? It was huge. In high school/college I played with my back to the basket and I was drafted as a forward, but they did not know that I could shoot the ball from the perimeter. It was a no-brainer to move me out there but it was difficult to sit on the bench in Dallas for 3 years. Bernie gave me an opportunity and told me to go for it rather than just sit around doubting my ability. When I got drafted I thought that I would make an instant impact, but the NBA was totally different than college. Bernie once called a timeout after I turned the ball over and told me to shoot it, so I did. My teammates helped me get open for shots and I just had to put the ball in the basket.

In the 1987 Western Conference 1st round you beat your former team: how were you able to become the 1st #7-seed to upset a #2-seed, and was it extra-special to do it against Dallas? Dallas had a lot of talent and had blown us out 5 times during the regular season. We made some key adjustments (after losing Game 1 by a score of 151-129) and squeaked out a 2-PT win in Game 2, which gave us a lot of confidence. I really wanted to beat them and I knew all of their players’ habits because we had been teammates. I got a lot of vindication from that by showing people that I could play basketball: that team had a great group of guys.

In the only All-Star appearance of your career you scored 27 PTS in 26 minutes for the West in a 9-PT win at the 1989 All-Star Game: how were you able to play your best against the best? It was easy to get up for a game when I had to face the best. I struggled against teams like the Clippers because they were the worst team in the league, but when I would have to face a team like Chicago with Michael Jordan in a sold-out arena it was easy.

You won the All-Star 3-PT Shootout in 1989 and led the NBA with 46.4 3P% in 1998 at age 37: what is your secret for making shots from behind the arc? Practice, practice, practice! I worked on my shot and coaches expected me to knock it down. I had coaches who believed in my ability and my teammates were looking for me. When I 1st came into the league the 3-PT shot was not used very much, but Coach Dick Motta would run a play for me early on just to get me into the flow of the game.

In Game 4 of the 1989 Western Conference Semifinals the Lakers had a 2-PT win to clinch the series: how was LA able to come all the way back from a 43-14 deficit? That game was hard to swallow. We squeaked into the playoffs as a #8-seed but the Lakers had star players like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (my all-time favorite player). When I 1st stood next to Kareem I realized that I was finally in the NBA. They had been there so many times that you had to play from start to finish: we just did not have the firepower to beat them.

On November 9, 1989 you set an NBA record by playing 69 minutes (and scoring 53 PTS) in a 155-154 5-OT loss to Milwaukee: how exhausted were you by the end of that game?! I played every minute of OT while the Bucks kept bringing guys off the bench: I felt like I was running in mud. The worst part was that we had to play the Bulls on the road the very next night (which turned out to be a 109-102 Chicago victory). Growing up we played until we could not play anymore, so even though we lost it was a fun game and I enjoyed it.