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


For greater than a decade, Leigh Ellis went to extraordinary, and self-deprecating, lengths to share his ardour for basketball. The former NBA TV character and in style podcaster consumed sizzling peppers, donned a moist swimsuit and even shaved his chest in numerous on-air stunts as he sought to deliver a lighter tone to the discourse.

But the quirky 46-year-old Australian had severe chops, too, thanks to an encyclopedic data of gamers relationship to the late Nineteen Eighties and an old-school philosophical method to the recreation, formed throughout his travels to 40 nations. Ellis uncorked his signature catchphrase — “very stable play” — to reward bounce passes, backdoor cuts and below-the-rim finishes that may not make it onto “SportsCenter’s” Top 10. A lifelong pickup participant, Ellis had fastidiously thought-about just about each facet of the sport, and his ideas on how three-point contest contributors ought to arrange their ball racks as soon as led to a personal taking pictures session with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

Ellis shocked his colleagues and listeners in October, then, when he joined the Great Resignation, abruptly asserting his departure from “No Dunks,” the Athletic’s flagship NBA podcast, with out lining up one other job in sports activities media. While touring with his spouse, Roxana, and his two younger sons throughout the offseason, Ellis concluded that he had soured on many features of the NBA grind. After taping greater than 2,500 exhibits over the previous 11 years, he felt the common season was far too lengthy, load administration had run amok and various superstars had misplaced contact with the common fan.

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“Anthony Davis can solely ever play for 2 weeks at a time,” Ellis mentioned by phone from Europe final week. “James Harden wished respect for giving again $7 million in free company. Kevin Durant mentioned to fireplace everybody in Brooklyn. These types of men do not encourage me anymore. Maybe that is an age factor. When you are a child, you lookup to these guys as heroes. Now you take a look at them and also you go, ‘What the f— is mistaken with this man?’ The NBA season does not have the similar spark.”

Although Ellis was burned out on the NBA, basketball remained a driving pressure in his life. He had arrange a pickup recreation in Barcelona over the summer season and posted about it on social media, and invites to play poured into his direct messages from Portugal to Pakistan. As he ready to go away what had lengthy been his dream job, Ellis cultivated a brand new dream.

What if he may take up all the Instagrammers on their presents? Why not journey the globe, manage runs, hang around with the locals, soak up their basketball tales, eat their delicacies after which doc all of it on video and social media? Thus started Ellis’s self-funded “20 Cities, 20 Countries, 20 Games” world basketball tour. In latest weeks, he has bounced via Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Greece, eschewing fancy indoor gyms for outside courts at each cease.

“I do not know if I can flip this right into a profession, however I would like to discover out,” he mentioned. “If I do not do that now, it isn’t going to occur. No one was going to come to me with this concept and ask me if I wished to do it. The solely means was to make a clear break and dive in head first. I felt like I had to strive it.”

When Ellis laid out his admittedly unfinished plans to his longtime podcast companions, they have been supportive however stunned and a bit of skeptical about how he would financially maintain the mission. JE Skeets, the co-host of “No Dunks,” had lengthy referred to Ellis as “the International Man of Mystery” due to his circuitous life journey from Sunbury, a suburb of Melbourne, to London in his 20s, to Toronto in his 30s, after which to Atlanta, the place he at the moment resides. Given that background, and Ellis’s tales of taking part in pickup in Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Peru over the years, Skeets understood why some followers envision him changing into basketball’s reply to Anthony Bourdain.

“Are you having a midlife disaster? Instead of shopping for a Corvette, you are touring the world to play basketball,” Skeets mentioned. “But after a minute of interested by it, I noticed that this was Leigh Ellis. He takes possibilities in life. I might love to journey the world and play pickup. That’s why it resonates with folks. Not a number of us can do it. It’s ballsy.”

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Ellis’s public announcement of his tour drew tons of of recent invitations from Nepal, Sierra Leone and in all places in between, and he instantly bought to work on potential itineraries. How lengthy he can keep in movement stays to be seen.

In addition to juggling his obligations as a husband and father, he’s appearing as his personal journey agent, location scout, reserving supervisor, occasion planner, public relations chief, content material creator, video editor and, after all, taking pictures guard. He has acquired assist from a photographer and has relied on connections and suggestions from his 29,000 Instagram followers, however he’s largely a one-man band. While Ellis hopes to entice sponsors or flip the journey right into a collection for a streaming service, his most important focus has been preempting a lifetime of regrets.

“I’m not afraid of failing at this mission,” he mentioned. “I’m extra afraid of sitting in the similar job in 10 years wishing that I had achieved this. Travel is the greatest life expertise. You cannot train touring, you’ll be able to solely study. Every time you get up, you’ll be able to say that you just did one thing for the first time. “

Already, there have been notable successes. Ellis went to a raucous five-hour barbecue dinner with Sasha Doncic, father of Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, and met Biserka Petrovic for a go to to the museum devoted to her son, former NBA star Dražen Petrovic, who died in 1993. Damjan Rudez , a Croatian ahead who spent three seasons in the NBA from 2014 to 2017, provided a tour of his childhood dwelling, full with tea brewed with leaves grown on the household farm.

Ellis has compiled a cultural catalog alongside the means. The shot-happy, full-court, five-on-five video games he was accustomed to at Atlanta’s Underwood Hills Park have given means to a pass-and-move type in the Balkans, the place three-on-three video games are the norm. The 5-foot-11 Ellis has had to adapt to the sooner recreation, and a latest opponent likened him to Warriors star Klay Thompson thanks to his dependable jumper. During intense mixed-gender video games in Barcelona over the summer season, he observed that the ladies have been typically as bodily in the paint as the males. In Germany, he marveled at the agency metallic rims and chain hyperlink nets that have been constructed to final a long time, no matter the climate. In Belgrade, he took to a spongy courtroom floor that was simpler on the knees than typical concrete.

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After months of working from an remoted dwelling workplace throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Ellis’s life has out of the blue grow to be a collection of likelihood encounters with fellow pickup fans and meetups with his loyal followers. Boshko Shukovic, a Serbian basketball coach, mentioned that he was “heartbroken” when Ellis left “No Dunks” and was so excited to meet his favourite podcaster in Belgrade that he had “jitters” for days prematurely. Shukovic launched Ellis to a courtroom inside the Kalemegdan fortress, and he broke out a brand new pair of sneakers for the run. That night time, the assembled hoopers traded tales about Serbia’s basketball historical past and Ellis’s NBA experiences.

“Leigh approached me and gave me such a heat, welcoming, heartfelt hug,” Shukovic mentioned in a collection of textual content messages. “He at all times felt so real on the present, and I used to be ashamed for pondering he is likely to be completely different in actual life. Within just a few possessions, he felt like he was considered one of us and we have been his pals. Leigh was only a righteous dude.”

Ellis is cautious to be aware that he isn’t operating away from his actual life in Atlanta, and that his spouse offered her full blessing earlier than he bought severe about his tour. He’s given himself six to 12 months to flip his touring act right into a viable enterprise earlier than he considers a extra typical job to pay the mortgage.

Either means, he’s savoring his first prolonged break after almost 30 years of nonstop working. Someone else can fear about whether or not LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will make the playoffs, or whether or not the Brooklyn Nets ought to commerce Durant. Ellis, who retains his classic Allen Iverson sweatbands inside arm’s attain, has one other recreation to get to and one other stamp to add to his passport.

“Almost in all places I’m going, I do not communicate the language of the folks on the courtroom,” he mentioned. “But basketball brings us collectively. You can go from being a stranger to a teammate in two seconds. There’s a sure understanding and chemistry that comes in a short time. If you make the proper play or the proper cross, or hit a game-winner, you bond and it simply leaves you with a fantastic feeling. That’s basketball at its purest.”

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