Opinion

For more than a decade, Leigh Ellis has gone to extraordinary and unselfconscious lengths to share his passion for basketball. The former NBA TV personality and popular podcaster ate hot peppers, wore wetsuits and even shaved his chest with various aerial signs as he sought to bring a lighter tone to his talk.

But the flamboyant 46-year-old Australian has won the game thanks to an encyclopedic knowledge of the game in the late 1980s and an old-school philosophical approach to the game developed while traveling to 40 countries. Ellis unleashed his signature catchphrase — “a very tough game” — for the bounce pass, back-cuts and under-the-rim finishes that wouldn’t make it into the “SportsCenter” top 10. A lifelong pickup gamer, Ellis carefully considered every aspect. His thoughts on the sport and how participants in the three-point contest should prepare their shots once led to a private shooting session with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

Ellis shocked his colleagues and listeners in October when he announced his sudden departure from “No Dunks,” the athletics’ flagship NBA podcast, to join the Great Retirement, without taking another job in sports media. While on vacation with his wife, Roxana, and two young children, Ellis concluded that he had a taste for many aspects of the NBA grind. After filming more than 2,500 shows over the past 11 years, he felt the regular season was too long, the load management was overwhelming and many of the big stars had lost touch with the average fan.

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“Anthony Davis can only play for two weeks,” Ellis said by phone from Europe last week. “James Harden wanted credit for giving back $7 million in free agency. Kevin Durant talks about firing everyone in Brooklyn. Guys like that don’t inspire me anymore. Maybe this is an age thing. When you’re a kid, you see these people as heroes. Now look at them and say, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ The NBA season doesn’t have the same spark.

Although Ellis burned out on the NBA, basketball remained a driving force in his life. During the summer, he organized a pick-up game in Barcelona and posted it on social media, and invitations to play came in direct messages from Portugal to Pakistan. As he prepares to leave his longtime dream job, Ellis sets up a new dream.

What if he could take all Instagrammers up on their offers? Why not travel the world, organize a race, live with the locals, eat their basketball stories, eat their food and then document it all on video and social media? Ellis’ self-funded “20 Cities, 20 Countries, 20 Games” international basketball tour. In recent weeks he’s been through Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Greece, eschewing fancy indoor gyms for outdoor courts at each stop.

“I don’t know if I can turn this into a career, but I want to know,” he said. “If I don’t do this now, no. No one was going to come to me with this idea and ask me if I wanted to do it. The only way was to make a clean break and dive in first. I felt I had to try.”

When Ellis unveiled his unfinished plans to his longtime podcast partners, they were surprised and a little skeptical about how he would finance the project. “No Dunks” co-host JE Skeets has long called Ellis “a global mystery man” because of his circuitous journey from suburban Melbourne to London in his 20s, to Toronto in his early 30s, and then to Atlanta, where he currently lives. . Given that background and Ellis’ tales of playing in pickup trucks over the years in Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Peru, Skeets understands why some fans think he’s basketball’s answer to Anthony Bourdain.

“Going through a mid-life crisis? Instead of buying a Corvette, you’re traveling the world playing basketball,” Skeets said. “Most of us can’t do it. It’s a ball.”

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Ellis’ official announcement of the tour attracted hundreds of new invitations from Nepal, Sierra Leone and everywhere in between, and he immediately set to work on potential itineraries. It remains to be seen how long he can stay on the move.

In addition to juggling his responsibilities as a husband and father, he also works as his own travel agent, location scout, reservationist, event planner, PR head, content creator, video editor and of course, a shooting guard. He’s received help from a photographer and relies on connections and recommendations from his 29,000 Instagram followers, but he’s largely a one-man band. While Ellis hoped to attract sponsors or turn the ride into a streaming service, his main focus was putting Lifelong Regrets first.

“I’m not afraid of failure on this project,” he said. “I wish I had done this, I’m more afraid of being in the same job in 10 years. Travel is the best experience of life. You can’t teach travel, you can only learn. Every time you wake up, you can say that you did something for the first time. “

Already, there have been some notable successes. Ellis went to a five-hour barbecue dinner with Sasha Doncic, father of Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, and met up with Biserka Petrovic to visit the museum dedicated to her son, former NBA star Drazen Petrovic, who died tragically in 1993. Rudez, the Croatian forward who spent three seasons in the NBA from 2014 to 2017, toured his childhood home, complete with tea made from leaves grown on the family farm.

Ellis compiled a cultural catalog along the way. The shoot-joy, full-court five-on-five games accustomed to Atlanta’s Underwood Hills Park have given way to a passing and moving style where three-on-three games are the norm in the Balkans. The 5-foot-11 Ellis has had to adapt to the fast game, and his closest rival likens him to Warriors star Klay Thompson thanks to his reliable jump shot. During the intense gender games held in Barcelona during the summer, the women were often as physical as the men in the paint. Regardless of the weather conditions in Germany, it is impressed by the strong steel rims and chain link nets that have been built over the decades. He took to a sponge court that was easier on the knees than the usual concrete in Belgrade.

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After months of working from an isolated home office during the coronavirus pandemic, Ellis’ life suddenly turns into a series of coincidences involving his friends, fans, and loyal fans. Boško Šuković, the Serbian basketball coach, said Ellis was “heartbroken” when he left “I Danks” and was so excited to meet his favorite podcaster in Belgrade that he had “jitters” for days beforehand. Shukovich introduced Ellis to the court in the Kalemegdan fortress and broke out a new pair of running shoes. That night, the assembled hoppers traded stories about Serbian basketball history and Ellis’ NBA experiences.

“Leigh came up to me and gave me such a warm, welcoming, heartfelt hug,” Shukovich said in a series of text messages. He felt like one of us and we were his friends. Leigh was a righteous person.

He notes that Ellis isn’t running away from his real life in Atlanta, and that his wife gave her full blessing before he got serious about the tour. He gave himself six to 12 months to turn his travel business into a viable business before considering a regular job to pay a mortgage.

Either way, he’s enjoying his first extended break after 30 years of non-stop work. Someone else might worry about whether LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will make the playoffs or whether the Brooklyn Nets will trade Durant. Ellis, who is clutching his Allen Iverson sweatband in his hand, has yet another game to reach and another stamp to add to his passport.

“Almost everywhere I go, I don’t speak people’s language in court,” he said. But basketball unites us. You can go from being a stranger to a teammate in two seconds. There is a certain understanding and chemistry that comes very quickly. If you make the right play or the right pass or hit the winner, you bond and it makes you feel great. That’s basketball at its best.”

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