Leigh Ellis quit her job to play hoops around the world
But the flamboyant 46-year-old Australian was also in serious trouble, 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 unleashed his signature catchphrase — “very solid game” — to reward bounce passes, backdoor cuts and under-the-rim finishes that might not make the “SportsCenter” Top 10. A lifelong pickup player, Ellis had carefully considered virtually every aspect. of the sport, and his thoughts on how three-point contest participants should set up their hoops once led to a private shooting session with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.
Ellis surprised his colleagues and listeners in October when he joined the Great Resignation, abruptly announcing his departure from “No Dunks,” the Athletic’s flagship NBA podcast, without lining up another sports media job. While traveling with his wife, Roxana, and their two young children during the offseason, Ellis concluded that he had been assaulted in many aspects of the NBA. After taping more than 2,500 shows over the last 11 years, he felt the regular season was too long, the load management had run amok and a host of superstars had lost touch with the average fan.
“Anthony Davis can only play two weeks at a time,” Ellis said by phone from Europe last week. “James Harden wanted respect for returning $7 million in free agency. Kevin Durant said to fire everyone in Brooklyn. Those kinds of guys don’t inspire me anymore. Maybe that’s an age thing. When you’re a kid, you see these guys as heroes. Now you look at them and say, ‘What the hell is wrong with this guy?’ The NBA season just doesn’t have the same spark.”
Although Ellis burned out in the NBA, basketball remained a driving force in his life. Over the summer he had organized a pickup game in Barcelona and posted it on social media, and invitations to play poured into his direct messages from Portugal to Pakistan. As he prepared to leave what had long been his dream job, Ellis cultivated a new dream.
What if you could take all Instagrammers up on their offers? Why not travel the world, host races, hang out with the locals, soak up their basketball stories, eat their cuisine, and then document it all on video and social media? Thus began Ellis’ self-funded “20 Cities, 20 Countries, 20 Games” world basketball tour. In recent weeks, he’s bounced around 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 find out,” he said. “If I don’t do this now, it’s not going to happen. Nobody 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. I felt I had to to prove”.
When Ellis laid out his admittedly unfinished plans to his longtime podcast partners, they were supportive, but surprised and somewhat skeptical about how he would sustain the project financially. “No Dunks” co-host JE Skeets had long referred to Ellis as “the international man of mystery” because of his tortuous life journey from Sunbury, a Melbourne suburb, to London in his 20s, in Toronto in his 30s, and then in Atlanta, where he currently resides. Given that background and Ellis’ stories of playing pickup in Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Peru over the years, Skeets understood why some fans envisioned him becoming basketball’s answer to Anthony Bourdain .
“Are you having a midlife crisis? Instead of buying a Corvette, you’re traveling the world to play basketball,” Skeets said. “But after a minute of thinking about it, I realized this is Leigh Ellis. She’s a life risk taker. I’d love to travel the world and play pickup. That’s why she resonates with people. Not many of we can do it. It’s crazy.”
Ellis’ public announcement of his tour attracted hundreds of new invitations from Nepal, Sierra Leone and everywhere in between, and he immediately went to work on possible itineraries. How long it can stay on the move remains to be seen.
In addition to juggling his responsibilities as a husband and father, he acts as his own travel agent, location scout, booking manager, event planner, PR manager, content creator, video editor and , of course, shooting guard. He’s enlisted the help of a photographer and relied on connections and advice from his 29,000 Instagram followers, but he’s mostly a one-man band. While Ellis hopes to attract sponsors or turn the ride into a series for a streaming service or attract sponsors, his main goal has been to avoid a lifetime of regrets.
“I’m not afraid to fail in this project,” he said. “I’m more afraid of sitting at the same job in 10 years wishing I had done this. Travel is the best life experience. Travel can’t be taught, it can only be learned. Every time you wake up, you can say you’ve done some thing for the first time.”
There have already been some notable successes. Ellis went to a five-hour barbecue dinner with Sasha Doncic, father of Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, and met Biserka Petrovic to visit the museum dedicated to his son, former NBA star Dražen Petrovic , who died tragically in 1993. Damjan Rudez, a Croatian forward who spent three seasons in the NBA from 2014 to 2017, gave a tour of his childhood home, complete with tea made from leaves grown on the family farm .
Ellis has compiled a cultural catalog along the way. Five-on-five games at Atlanta’s Underwood Hills Park have given way to a pass-and-move style in the Balkans, where three-on-three games are the norm. The 5-foot-11 Ellis has had to adjust to the faster game, and one recent opponent compared him to Warriors star Klay Thompson because of his reliable jumper. During intense mixed games in Barcelona over the summer, she noted that women were often as physical in the paint as men. In Germany, he marveled at the sturdy metal rims and chain link nets that were built to last for decades, regardless of the weather. In Belgrade, he took a spongy track surface that was easier on the knees than typical concrete.
After months of working from an isolated home office during the coronavirus pandemic, Ellis’ life has suddenly turned into a series of chance encounters with fellow collecting enthusiasts and encounters with his loyal fans. Boshko Shukovic, a Serbian basketball coach, said he was “heartbroken” when Ellis left “No Dunks” and was so excited to meet his favorite podcaster in Belgrade that he had “anxieties” for days beforehand. Shukovic presented Ellis to a court inside Kalemegdan Fortress, and broke out a new pair of running sneakers. That night, the assembled hoopers traded stories about Serbian basketball history and Ellis’ experiences in the NBA.
“Leigh came up to me and gave me such a warm, welcoming, heartfelt hug,” Shukovic said in a series of text messages. “He always felt so genuine on the show, and I was embarrassed to think that he might be different in real life. In a few possessions, he felt like he was one of us and we were his friends. Leigh was just a righteous man.”
Ellis is careful to note that he’s not running away from his real life in Atlanta and that his wife gave him her full blessing before he got serious about his tour. He’s given himself six to 12 months to turn his travel act into a viable business before considering a more conventional job to pay the mortgage.
Either way, he’s savoring his first extended break after nearly 30 years of non-stop work. Someone else can worry about whether LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will make the playoffs, or whether the Brooklyn Nets should trade Durant. Ellis, who keeps his vintage Allen Iverson sweatbands at arm’s length, has another game to get into and another stamp to add to his passport.
“Pretty much everywhere I go, I don’t speak the language of the people on the track,” he said. “But basketball unites us. You can go from 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 a game winner, you come together and it leaves you with a great feeling. This is pure basketball.”
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