True Warrior

by October 05, 2011


Originally published in KICKS 14

words Aggrey Sam | portraits JUCO

What do you really know about Monta Ellis?

Came to the NBA straight out of high school; broke out on the national scene during the Golden State Warriors’ “We Believe” Playoff run of ’07; established himself as one of the NBA’s most dynamic scorers; became the face and stare of the AND 1 brand—those are the basics. Outside of that, however, what’s your perception of the 6-3 Jackson, MS, native? Do you see him as a disgruntled star on a subpar team or a perennial All-Star snub, underpublicized and underappreciated by the masses?

“When I’m playing basketball, people are sleeping or kids are getting ready to go to school,” says the 25-year-old Ellis on a blazing July day at his off-season home on the outskirts of Memphis, referring to being on a West Coast team that doesn’t make a lot of national TV appearances. “I’m known more than people think and not more than I should be.”

Known, perhaps, but as much as a player with averages of 24.1 and 25.5 ppg the last two seasons—along with leading the League in minutes per game and averaging over 2 steals and 5 dimes per—can, Ellis flies under the radar. Of course, GState hasn’t been a serious Playoff contender during that stretch, but with the capability to slice his way to the cup at will for fearless finishes, to light defenses up from deep and be one of the most explosive transition players in the game, real talk, after Kobe and DWade, it isn’t a stretch to say Ellis is the next-best 2 in the game.

“My game’s going to speak for itself. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. The only thing that I know is I know that I went out there every night and left it on the court. That’s all that I can ask for. I did everything that I can possibly do,” the six-year vet insists from inside the sprawling crib that once belonged to the late Lorenzen Wright. “The only thing I know is [other players] respect my game just as much as I respect theirs and that’s the only thing that matters. As long as they know when they come on that court and they tie their shoes up against me that we’re going to go toe to toe, it’s going to be a barn-burner, there isn’t any backing down, none of that.”

Ellis’ game may be on par with the best shooting guards in the League, but he goes about getting buckets in his own unique way, contorting his body and spinning the ball off the glass in seemingly impossible, never-seen-before ways. And while most 2s are getting buckets with an assortment of Swooshs, Three Stripes and the like on their feet, Ellis does it while repping the street-tested, NBA-approved brand, AND 1.

Fitting the ethos of Ellis’ inspired style of scoring and grown-man mindset is his new signature shoe, the AND 1 ME8 Empire. Embracing the proud company’s L2G philosophy, the Empire is lightweight with a mid-cut design. Featuring full-length cushioning that reduces impact, a combination mesh and synthetic upper and a herringbone outsole, AND 1 was inspired to make the shoes—at $75, the affordability jibes with Ellis’ relative penny-pinching, minus the Bentley and Rolls in his driveway—by their marquee endorser’s quickness, explosiveness, versatility and creativity. Looking at the brand’s history, looking at the shoe, looking at Ellis you have to wonder: Could there be a better match for the Man of Many Tats, who doesn’t neatly fit into any defined category and represents the approach AND 1’s been known for since its outset?

Nah. Probably not.

In his hometown of Jackson, a capital city that, in the best and worst ways, retains the feel of a small town, Ellis was a legend, scoring over 4,000 points in his prep career for traditional power Lanier High School. Raised mostly by his gospel music-loving grandparents (before Monta’s hardwood exploits, the family was probably best known around Jackson for its musical talents), Ellis was singled out as a hoops prodigy early on, and by age 10 he took it upon himself to be his family’s savior. If you’re up on his background, you already know that he believes his older brother by five years, Antwain, a 6-8 former Lanier standout, should have been the first one to make it before he was derailed by off-court issues. But while Monta makes no excuses for his eldest brother’s travails, he does credit Antwain for the relentless mentality that allows him to thrive despite being undersized.

“When I was playing with my oldest brother, I was usually playing with the kids in his age group. My oldest brother is five years older than me, so I used to play with kids in his age group. I never played with the kids in my age group, even when I was in middle school,” recalls Ellis, who was drafted 40th overall in ’05. “When I was in middle school, I worked out with the high school kids. When I was in high school, I worked out with Mo [Williams, a fellow Jackson native] and them, when they were in college. When I was in high school, going up to my last two years, my junior and senior years, I was working out with Mo and them. They were in the NBA.

“I took a gamble in coming out of high school and going to the NBA, trying to skip college. I took a gamble. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to play in the NBA. I’d just had knee surgery a couple months before the Draft…I told my homeboy Marlon that I was going to the NBA out of high school when I was going into my freshman year and I didn’t see that reality come until the day I got drafted,” he continues. “It was just plan A through Z…There wasn’t anything [else] at all I was thinking about. I’ve seen so much and I’ve seen my family struggle for so long, and I knew I was the only one that could change that. I could have went the last pick in the NBA Draft. As long as I got my opportunity, that’s all that really mattered to me.”

After a disappointing rookie year for Ellis, the Warriors brought in Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson, who employed a fast-paced style that better suited the AND 1 endorser’s abilities. After seeing his scoring average soar from 6.8 to 16.5 ppg, becoming a fan favorite and copping Most Improved Player Honors in ’07, Ellis was suddenly viewed as the team’s future.

“It never got to the point where it was like, Dang, I don’t know if I can do this, if I’m going to be able to make it,” says Ellis, who moved to the Bay with an entourage consisting of just one younger cousin and remained in NorCal for his first three NBA offseasons. “It’s been a bumpy, rocky seven years, but at the end of the day, I look at where I am today and where I could have been.”

Last summer, Ellis got married—his wife, Juanika, is a Memphis native, explaining the couple’s decision to make their tastefully appointed home in Tennessee; he also owns a spot in Mississippi—and from their trainer-supervised morning workout session together to wedding portraits throughout the home, it’s clear Ellis isn’t bashful about marriage or fatherhood, things he believes have helped him at his job.

“It’s easy when you’re single. You don’t really have anybody but yourself,” continues Ellis, whose grandparents have been married for over 40 years. “When you’ve got a family, you have to manage—like, ‘We’re going to spend this, we’re going to save this amount’ or ‘We’re going to break it down through the months that we figure the lockout is going to last, so we need to save as much as possible’—but that really comes in when you have a great wife.”

A father of two (a 3-month-old daughter and a 2-year-old son), when Ellis isn’t parenting or fishing or in the recording studio, he’s putting in work on the weights (it shows) or going through individual workouts on his state-of-the-art backyard Versacourt. Unlike many of his peers, Monta has no ideas about going overseas during the lockout, as he’d rather stay close to the nest. Crossing the waters might not be in his plans, but that doesn’t mean Ellis isn’t planning business moves—aside from his deal with AND 1—unrelated to hoops. With his longtime agent, Jeff Fried, Ellis is looking to give back to his hometown in a meaningful way by creating jobs through multiple small businesses, a partnership with military veterans, a mentoring program (and proposed TV show, Shot Callers) and through his ME8 Foundation, discounted youth basketball camp and scholarship award to Jackson State University.

“I just feel like there’s nothing down in Jackson to do, no job opportunities,” he says. “I see my city struggling and I just want to lift it back up.

“I know when I see most kids, they don’t just compliment me about my basketball. It’s crazy when these young kids talk to me about ‘the way you act’ and this and that, and it’s touching. And another side of it, when you have your own son, then you’re trying to set an example for him anyway,” continues Ellis, who also counsels younger teammates. “With my son [Monta Jr] being named after me, I don’t want to mess up his name by something that his father does.”