DNVR got a chance to catch up with former Nuggets star and current ESPN College Game Day host LaPhonso Ellis for a chat about his time in Denver, how he handled the shifts in his career, today’s Denver Nuggets, and even how he might have fared with in today’s game.
Nikola Jokic keeps making this harder and harder for me to say, but for now… (Ellis laughs) you are still my official Favorite Denver Nuggets Player of All Time. I know I’m not alone, from routinely hearing from others who say the same. What was it about your time in Denver that left such a lasting impression with so many?
Geez. I’m simply honored and flattered by that idea. I can’t really tell you why that might be, but I am humbled.
I think many of us who would be given a level of celebrity end up wanting to kind of hide from people, and I understand that. I’m very lucky that I enjoy people. On draft night, I’d heard some rumblings about mixed feelings amongst Denver fans about my being drafted amongst a stacked class, those who might have preferred the Nuggets had taken someone else at the fifth spot. I felt this tremendous gratitude that the Nuggets saw something in me. I wanted to do everything I could both on and off the floor to become a mighty contributor for my team and to help us win. My wife and I wanted to be very active participants in the community. Denver responded by treating us like family.
As to my interactions with the fans, I just tried to bring you in to my experience of the game. If it was a blocked shot, a dunk, a meaningful rebound, a score, I wanted to share the enjoyment of what was happening to me. I wanted to show how much I appreciated you showing up for the game and creating a really cool environment to play in at McNichols Arena.
I know South Bend was an impactful place to you, so much so that it’s still your home. It’s impossible to have seen your future in playing professionally, but knowing what you know now, do you regret staying at Notre Dame all four years?
It’s impossible to say, obviously. You look back, and I really developed over all four years. Guys of that era were physically SO much more mature than me. Shawn Kemp, Alonzo Mourning, Billy Owens, guys like that. When I first started in college, I was built like a 25-year old man from the waist down, but from the waist up I was still built like a kid.
Knowing my pro career would be shorter than I’d want? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to know. In my time, even Shaq didn’t come out until after his junior year, right? The league was such a different place, with a different size and age of guys at the bottom end of the spectrum. Really hard to say.
Everyone wants to talk about 93-94, which is truly one of the great seasons in team history. The end of that glorious moment was the beginning of a rocky up and down health battle for you in the NBA. How did you make lemonade out of lemons there, and what carried you into the successful career you have today?
I think part of it was not expecting to become an NBA ballplayer when I was growing up, and even being very unsure of that going into college. I grew up in pretty serious poverty, and didn’t want to have to deal with that when I became an adult.
I chose to be an accounting grad at Notre Dame because at that point, those grads had 100% placement rate. I wanted to ensure myself a good and meaningful job making good and meaningful money to take care of my family. I definitely dreamt of being good enough to be drafted, but didn’t want to put all of my eggs in that basket. That all almost backfired, as after two academic ineligibilities pursuing accounting, that basketball dream suddenly became very blurry.
I think when we experience a level of struggle, and by hard work and God’s grace you overcome it, we develop a resiliency to the things this life can throw at you. He helped me get through that back then, He can help me get through this now. Just because I couldn’t continue a professional basketball career didn’t mean I couldn’t try and succeed at other things, if I was willing to fail and struggle along the way as well.
You touched on your faith, as you often comfortably do in interviews. I think that can often be a complex matter for an athlete or celebrity to negotiate in their career, as you’ve seen it be for teammates and others. Is it a complex matter for you?
It’s not… At least not for me. I grew up in an all-black community where there was a strong reverence for such things. So even though we didn’t often go to church when I was a kid, I grew up amongst a lot of believers, and considered myself one. When I was drafted, I learned each team had a team chaplain who would meet with rookies during the summer. I started going to chapel before 82 games every year, and over time it changed my relationship with God. That all culminated in the Fall of 1994, literally right before my first big injury that took me out of the game for a year and a half.
Seems like highly impactful timing for that to have touched your life so meaningfully.
Like I cannot begin to say. Everybody wonders why I smile all the time. I think it’s probably because I know that I am owed nothing. For me, all I get in this world is because of His grace and mercy. Everything else pales in comparison, even a basketball career.
Could I be bitter? Sure. Before the injury, I’m well on my way to making an All-Star Game, according to people in the know. Then my knees go out, and I’m out for a year and half. I come back strong, and am tenth in the league in scoring for the season, coming into what you’d call “money time”, and positioning myself to receive my big contract… and then I blow out my achilles with seven games left in the season. And so on…
There’s frustration and disappointment that comes with that. At the same time, I have great faith and trust that He knows what’s best for me. While it was challenging and difficult and brought great sadness at the time, it eventually brought about great joy because I now see what was being changed in my heart. It brought me a lot of humility, shaving away a lot of pride and things I needed to work out in my life.
It seems like you have worked so very hard at this college analyst role… just as you did at your game, as you do at your faith, as you did at an accounting degree, even one you almost flunked out of a couple times. With all of that, you now find yourself at the head desk of the mighty ESPN College GameDay for a few years now. Was it that work ethic what got you there?
That’s a good question, and I’d never really looked at it that way. I’m not sure what the combination of it was. I feel so blessed, because for anyone to succeed in a field like this any more, you have to so much more than just effort. You have to have the wave, the social media following, the plethora of attention-getters that bring a built-in audience. Here I am, some tiny 2000-follower Twitter guy climbing the ladder at ESPN up to my current role as a member of College Game Day with a great guy like Rece, the great Jay Bilas, and the great Seth Greenberg. That is miraculous even in and of itself.
Has the game evolved for you? Analyst, player, coach…
It’s more watching the game itself evolve. College tries to mimic styles, just like the pros. In the NBA, when one team finds success, everybody tries to emulate it. San Antonio did it this way, and they won championships, so let’s all do it that way. Then, Golden State. Positionless basketball worked well for them, so let’s try it. Then you find out… not so fast. You desperately need that specific type of personnel. It’s true with Denver now too, with a once-in-a-lifetime guy like Jokic, and bringing the game up the floor through your big man. Seeing now what Denver does to beat opponents, people pay attention.
So the game keeps changing, and that trickles down to all levels. You hear collegiate teams talking about “positionless basketball” now all the time. You hear youth coaches talk about their smallest kids jacking up “Steph shots”. Now you look at the top teams at both levels, and many of them now are experimenting with a big man that you can play through.
Yet, the number one college team in the country, Purdue, has a 7’4” back-to-the-basket big man who will just punish you in the post. It’s fascinating, as I think the best teams simply play to their strengths instead of trying so hard to copy others.
Too true, and probably easier for the pros to try and mimic whatever method is looking rosiest in that moment. Not always so easy at the collegiate level with so many styles and tiers of talent. What is your favorite part about the college game?
Just that. The variety. Coloradans will be familiar with this idea, as you can see all four seasons in a day in Denver. On a given night covering college basketball, we’ve got games where it’s a zone team playing against a full-court pressure team. We’ll follow that with a burn-the-shot-clock team playing against a fast-breaking team. And on, and on. So many combinations, and it still comes down to who can impose their will on a game. That’s what makes it fascinating to me.
You’ve said with all you take on for GameDay, you don’t get to follow the NBA as closely as you might care to, but I know you also follow your old teams, especially at your old position (power forward). What do you think of today’s Denver Nuggets?
Funny you ask, I was so disappointed a couple seasons ago when Jerami Grant decided to go, because I am just crazy about his game, all of the different things that he can do out there on the floor. We eventually end up getting Aaron Gordon, and you wondered how big a shift that would be, as they are vastly different players. Grant is one of those guys that on the very very very rare night that Jokic may not have it going, he can go out and get us 20 and 10, maybe 25 and 15, as he’s demonstrated he can do in Detroit and now Portland, where he’s getting ready to sign a big deal.
But now, AG has really come on. I’ve been so pleased to see it, and he has become such an incredible complement to the team, maybe even better than Jerami might have ended up being. It’s all worked out, and it’s such a gift for those guys to get to play alongside Joker, Jamal (Murray), and Michael (Porter, Jr). It’s tough to not get to watch, as my responsibilities to know and stay on top of the college game run deep, so I don’t get a chance to really dig in and watch until playoffs come.
You still say “us” and “we” when it comes to the Nuggets.
Of course I do!
How do you think you might have fared in today’s NBA? I’m biased, but feel like you’d do well.
I’d like to think so, but in many ways, it’s hard to say. My position really doesn’t exist any more, because I was playing in a back-to-the-basket era for power forwards, with a lot of moves and counters around the rim. I think I could have stretched the floor, as in my rookie year, I could hit 15-18 footers reliably, and eventually got solid out to the three-point line by around year four. So, in some ways, yes. You look at how every power forward next to Joker has fared, and… my goodness, yes.
But what I really would have wanted is someone who could have taught me how to be a really significant defender out on the perimeter. I took pride in that part of my game, wanted to be a lockdown defender, and was built well for the perimeter, I think. While I could guard some fives, I was undersized for even most fours I was facing in my day. In today’s game, you have so many small-ball fours and fives, I think I’d have had the right length, etc to have played well, and would have loved to have learned the game played that way.
Best part about your time in Denver?
Oh man, so many… Let’s see… Our second child was born there. Becoming the first eight seed to beat a one seed. As much as anything, simply the way the city embraced me as a stranger. Embraced us. And I still don’t fully understand why, but feel so blessed for it. I still speak of it, of them, in a high regard. It’s where my wife and I started our young lives together. Denver will always resonate deeply in our hearts because it’s where it all started for us.
Last words for Nuggets fans?
Thank you. Just a big big big thank you. Thank you to Bernie Bickerstaff and the Denver Nuggets for feeling I had value at the number five pick, and taking a chance on a kid from a football school. Thank you so much to the Nuggets faithful, and the community of Denver who still to this day make us feel like we were native-born. Denver will always be a special place to my family and me.
Many thanks to LaPhonso Ellis for a gracious amount of his time and thought to chat with DNVR. You can catch LaPhonso throughout the college basketball season on ESPN’s College GameDay.