Leigh Ellis quit his job to play pick-up rings around the world

Suspension

For more than a decade, Leigh Ellis has gone to extraordinary and self-deprecating lengths to share his passion for basketball. The former NBA TV personality and popular podcaster guzzled chili, donned a wetsuit and even shaved his chest in various on-air stunts as he sought to bring a lighter tone to the speech.

But the quirky 46-year-old Australian had serious chops too, thanks to an encyclopedic knowledge of players dating back to the late 1980s and an old-school philosophical approach to the game, forged during his travels to 40 countries. Ellis cracked down on his signature mantra — “play too hard” — to reward passing rebounds, cutting backdoors and under-rim finishes that might not make it into the Top 10 in “SportsCenter.” From sports, his ideas about how three-pointers should set up their ball racks once led to a private shooting session with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

Ellis stunned colleagues and listeners in October, when he joined Great Resignation, abruptly announcing his departure from “No Dunks,” the NBA’s flagship audio program, without ever taking another job in sports media. Traveling with his wife, Roxana, and two young sons over the offseason, Ellis concluded that he had soured on many aspects of the NBA grind. After logging over 2,500 shows over the past 11 years, he felt the regular season was too long, the load management was unstable and a number of the stars had lost touch with the average fan.

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“Anthony Davis can only play for two weeks at a time,” Ellis said on the phone from Europe last week. “James Harden wanted respect to return $7 million in free agency. He said Kevin Durant to fire everyone in Brooklyn. These types of guys don’t inspire me anymore. Maybe that’s an age thing. When you’re a kid, you look up to these guys as heroes. Now you look to them and you say, “What’s wrong with this guy? The NBA season doesn’t have the same spark.”

Although Ellis was exhausted in the NBA, basketball remained a driving force in his life. He had staged a pick-up game at Barcelona over the summer and posted it on social media, and invitations to play poured in in his direct messages from Portugal to Pakistan. As he prepared to leave the job he had long dreamed of, Ellis planted a new dream.

What if he could accept all Instagrammers into their offers? Why not travel the world, organize runs, hang out with locals, absorb their basketball anecdotes, eat their food and then document it all on video and social media? Thus began Ellis’ self-financed “20 Cities, 20 Countries, 20 Games” Basketball World Tour. In recent weeks, he’s bounced through Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Greece, eschewing fancy indoor gyms for outdoor stadiums at every stop.

“I don’t know if I can turn this into a career,” he said, “but I want to find out.” “If I hadn’t done this now, it wouldn’t have happened. Nobody would have come to me with this idea and asked if I wanted to do it. The only way was to get a clean break and take a dip first. I felt I had to give it a try.”

When Ellis pitched his unfinished plans to his longtime podcast partners, they were supportive but surprised and a little skeptical about how he would support the project financially. JE Skeets, co-host of “No Dunks,” has long referred to Ellis as his “world man of mystery” because of his life’s circuitous journey from Sunbury, a suburb of Melbourne, to London in his twenties, to Toronto in his thirties, and then on to Atlanta. , where he currently resides. Given that background, and Ellis’ tales of playing pick-up in Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Peru over the years, Skates understood why some fans envisioned him becoming basketball’s answer to Anthony Bourdain.

“Having a midlife crisis? Instead of buying a Corvette, you’re traveling the world playing basketball,” Skates said. “But after a minute of thinking about it, I realized this was Leigh Ellis. He takes chances in life. I love to travel around the world and play pick-up. This is why it resonates with people. Not many of us can do that. It stinks.”

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Ellis’ public announcement of his tour attracted hundreds of new invitations from Nepal, Sierra Leone, and everywhere in between, and he soon began working on potential itineraries. How long he can stay in motion remains to be seen.

In addition to juggling his responsibilities as a husband and father, he works as his own travel agent, location finder, booking manager, event planner, head of public relations, content creator, video editor, and of course, a shooting ranger. He’s had help from a photographer and relied on connections and advice from his 29,000 Instagram followers, but for the most part, he’s a one-man band. While Ellis hopes to attract sponsors, turn the trip into a series for the streaming service, or attract sponsors, his main focus has been pre-empting a lifetime of regrets.

He said, “I’m not afraid of failing in this project.” “I’m more afraid of sitting at the same job in 10 years I wish I had done this. Traveling is the best experience in life. You can’t teach travel, you can only learn. Every time you wake up, you can say you’ve done something for the first time.” “

Already, there have been some notable successes. Ellis went to a rowdy five-hour barbecue dinner with Sasha Doncic, father of Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic, and met Pesirka Petrović to visit the museum dedicated to her son, former NBA star Drašin Petrović, who tragically passed away in 1993. Damjan introduced Rhodes, the Croatian forward who spent three seasons in the NBA from 2014 to 2017, toured his childhood home, complete with tea brewed from leaves grown on the family farm.

Ellis has compiled a cultural catalog along the way. He gave way to the Balkans’ style of passing and movement, where three-on-three matches are the norm. The 5-foot-11 Ellis has had to adapt to the faster game, and an opponent recently likened him to Warriors star Klay Thompson thanks to his reliable jump. During the intense matches between the sexes in Barcelona over the summer, he noted that the women were often just as physical in the paint as the men. In Germany, marvel at the sturdy metal rims and chain grilles built to last decades, no matter the weather. In Belgrade, he took on a spongy court floor that was easier on the knees than regular concrete.

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After months of working from a secluded home office during the coronavirus pandemic, Ellis’ life suddenly becomes a series of encounters with fellow pick-up enthusiasts and encounters with his loyal fans. Serbian basketball coach Bosko Dukovic said he was “saddened” when Ellis left “No Dunks” and was so excited to meet his favorite podcaster in Belgrade that he had been “anxious” for days in advance. Chukovic introduced Ellis to a court inside Kalemegdan Fortress, and prepared new running sneakers. That night, the gathered hoops exchange stories about the history of basketball in Serbia and Ellis’ experiences in the NBA.

“She approached me and gave me a warm, welcoming, sincere hug,” Chukovic said in a series of text messages. “He always felt so honest on the show, and I was ashamed because I thought he might be different in real life. Within a few possessions, he felt like one of us and we were his friends. He was just a good guy to me.”

Ellis is keen to note that he’s not running away from his real life in Atlanta, and that his wife gave her full blessing before he got serious about his tour. He gave himself six to 12 months to turn his travel into a viable venture before considering a more traditional mortgage-paying job.

Either way, he’s enjoying his first extended break after nearly 30 years on the job. Everyone else can worry about whether LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers make the playoffs, or whether the Brooklyn Nets should trade Durant. Ellis, who keeps his classic Allen Iverson sports bands on hand, has one more game to reach for and another stamp to add to his passport.

“Almost everywhere I go,” he said, “I don’t speak the language of the people in court.” “But basketball brings us together. You can go from being an outsider to a teammate in two seconds. There’s a certain understanding and chemistry that comes very quickly. If you make the right pass or pass, or hit a game winner, you bond and leave you feeling great. That’s basketball in its purest form.”

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