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

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For more than a decade, Leigh Ellis went to extraordinary, and self-deprecating, lengths to share his passion for basketball. The former NBA TV personality and popular podcaster consumed hot peppers, donned a wet suit and even shaved his chest in various on-air stunts as he sought to bring a lighter tone to the discourse.

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, shaped during his travels to 40 countries. Ellis uncorked his signature catchphrase — “very solid play” — to reward bounce passes, backdoor cuts and below-the-rim finishes that might not make it onto “SportsCenter’s” 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 ball racks once led to a private shooting session with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

Ellis stunned his colleagues and listeners in October, then, when he joined the Great Resignation, abruptly announcing his departure from “No Dunks,” the Athletic’s flagship NBA podcast, without lining up another job in sports media. While traveling with his wife, Roxana, and his two young sons during the offseason, Ellis concluded that he had soured on many aspects of the NBA grind. After taping more than 2,500 shows over the past 11 years, he felt that the regular season was far too long, load management had run amok and a number of superstars had lost touch with the average fan.

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“Anthony Davis can only ever play for two weeks at a time,” Ellis said by telephone from Europe last week. “James Harden wanted respect for giving back $7 million in free agency. Kevin Durant said to fire everyone in Brooklyn. These sorts 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 at them and you go, ‘What the f— is wrong with this guy?’ The NBA season doesn’t have the same spark.”

Although Ellis was burned out on the NBA, basketball remained a driving force in his life. He had set up a pickup game in Barcelona over the summer and posted about 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 he could take up all the Instagrammers on their offers? Why not travel the globe, organize runs, hang out with the locals, absorb their basketball tales, eat their cuisine and then document it all on video and social media? Thus began Ellis’s self-funded “20 Cities, 20 Countries, 20 Games” global basketball tour. In recent weeks, he’s bounced through Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Greece, eschewing fancy indoor gyms for outdoor courts at every 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. 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 head first. I felt like I had to try it.”

When Ellis laid out his admittedly unfinished plans to his longtime podcast partners, they were supportive but surprised and a little skeptical about how he would financially sustain the project. JE Skeets, the co-host of “No Dunks,” had long referred to Ellis as “the International Man of Mystery” because of his circuitous life journey from Sunbury, a suburb of Melbourne, to London in his 20s, to Toronto in his 30s, and then to Atlanta, where he currently resides. Given that background, and Ellis’s tales of playing pickup in Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Peru over the years, Skeets understood why some fans envision 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 that this was Leigh Ellis. He takes chances in life. I would love to travel the world and play pickup. That’s why it resonates with people. Not a lot of us can do it. It’s ballsy.”

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Ellis’s public announcement of his tour drew hundreds of new invites from Nepal, Sierra Leone and everywhere in between, and he immediately got to work 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 is acting as his own travel agent, location scout, booking manager, event planner, public relations chief, content creator, video editor and, of course, shooting guard. He’s received help from a photographer and has relied on connections and tips from his 29,000 Instagram followers, but he’s mostly a one-man band. While Ellis hopes to attract sponsors or turn the journey into a series for a streaming service or attract sponsors, his main focus has been preempting a lifetime of regrets.

“I’m not afraid of failing at this project,” he said. “I’m more afraid of sitting in the same job for 10 years wishing that I had done this. Travel is the best life experience. You can’t teach traveling, 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 raucous five-hour barbecue dinner with Sasha Doncic, father of Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, and met Biserka Petrovic for a visit to the museum dedicated to her 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, offered a tour of his childhood home, complete with tea brewed with leaves grown on the family farm.

Ellis has compiled a cultural catalog along the way. The shot-happy, full-court, five-on-five games he was accustomed to 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 adapt to the faster game, and a recent opponent likened him to Warriors star Klay Thompson thanks to his reliable jumper. During intense mixed-gender games in Barcelona over the summer, he noted that the women were often as physical in the paint as the men. In Germany, he marveled at the firm metal rims and chain link nets that were built last decades, regardless of the weather. In Belgrade, he took to a spongy court surface that was easier on the knees than typical concrete.

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After months of working from an isolated home office during the coronavirus pandemic, Ellis’s life has suddenly become a series of chance encounters with fellow pickup enthusiasts and meetups with his loyal fans. Boshko Shukovic, a Serbian basketball coach, said that he was “heartbroken” when Ellis left “No Dunks” and was so excited to meet his favorite podcaster in Belgrade that he had “jitters” for days in advance. Shukovic introduced Ellis to a court inside the Kalemegdan fortress, and he broke out a new pair of sneakers for the run. That night, the assembled hoopers traded stories about Serbia’s basketball history and Ellis’s NBA experiences.

“Leigh approached 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 ashamed for thinking he might be different in real life. Within a few possessions, he felt like he was one of us and we were his friends. Leigh was just a righteous dude.”

Ellis is careful 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’s given himself six to 12 months to turn his traveling act into a viable enterprise before he considers a more conventional job to pay the mortgage.

Either way, he is enjoying his first extended break after nearly 30 years of nonstop 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 within arm’s reach, has another game to get to and another stamp to add to his passport.

“Almost everywhere I go, I don’t speak the language of the people on the court,” he said. “But basketball brings us together. You can go from being a stranger to a teammate in two seconds. There’s 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 bond and it just leaves you with a great feeling. That’s basketball at its purest.”

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