Few players in Nuggets history cooler than 'The Phonz'
LaPhonso Ellis flashed an easy smile when he spotted the jersey in South Bend, Ind.
After all, given its proximity to Chicago and its passion for Notre Dame athletics, South Bend isn’t exactly a hotbed for Denver Nuggets fans.
The numbers forming Ellis’ familiar No. 20 were peeling away from years of wear and tear, but the Nuggets jersey was a pleasant reminder of six seasons that included the joy of a historic playoff victory and the agony of career-changing injuries.
“If somebody mentions Denver, of course I get a big smile because that’s where my wife and I started out our young adulthood together,” Ellis said during a recent telephone interview. “We had some unbelievably memorable moments both on the floor and in the community. It’s one of those places that you reflect upon and you have nothing but sweet memories about.”
Drafted by the Nuggets fifth overall in the 1992 NBA Draft, Ellis brought athleticism, charisma, and a lethal low-post game to a Denver team that was building a foundation with young players such as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Dikembe Mutombo, Robert Pack and Bryant Stith.
“The Phonz” was a seamless fit, averaging 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds in 82 games as a rookie. Ellis used his remarkable first step to blow past slow-footed power forwards, and his 38-inch vertical leap allowed him to finish with a flourish around the basket.
He also played with a passion that was contagious in the locker room, and the Nuggets built a chemistry unlike anything Ellis had experienced in all his years of playing basketball. They considered themselves family to the point where team members' children referred to Ellis as “Uncle Phonz” and vice versa.
“It was a really unique group,” Ellis said. “There’s a special bond that we had, a special chemistry and synergy that we had off the floor that translated to having that same kind synergy and chemistry on the floor. I never had the same kind of team chemistry or synergy anywhere else. It was a really special group.”
That chemistry helped the Nuggets make history in 1994. After three straight losing seasons, Denver won 42 games and earned a first-round matchup against the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics coached by George Karl.
The Nuggets lost the first two games by a combined 34 points but rallied to become the first No. 8 seed in NBA history to win a playoff series. Ellis had 27 points and 17 rebounds in Denver’s overtime win in Game 4 and added 19 points in the deciding Game 5.
“Any time you see a young player break onto the scene by winning a playoff series, it’s pretty impressive,” Karl said. “They had a lot of other guys who were in a similar position, but I thought LaPhonso was kind of the glue and the go-to guy in that series. LaPhonso was kind of the rock of that team.”
The Nuggets lost to the Utah Jazz in seven games in the second round, but they had established themselves as the NBA’s next big thing. Ellis was a burgeoning All-Star when his career was forever altered during an offseason workout on Sept. 11, 1994.
The initial diagnosis was a hyperextended right knee, but Ellis later learned that he had degenerative cysts in his kneecap. The same problem was later discovered in his left knee, requiring a double-surgery that threatened to end his career.
As a devoted Christian, Ellis put his faith in God and never wavered in his bid to return to form. He was averaging a career-high 21.9 points when he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon with just eight games left in the 1996-97 season.
“What hit me the most at that point was I would never get a chance to fully realize how good I could possibly be,” Ellis said. “My game was up and down the floor. I could run and jump. I had a low-post game and was starting to develop a perimeter game. Those things that made me who I was I no longer had. It was a great opportunity for me to trust the Lord. Those situations develop your character.”
Ellis returned to average 14.3 points and 7.2 rebounds in 76 games for the Nuggets in 1997-98 but signed with the Atlanta Hawks as a free agent after the season. He went on to play two years with the Hawks, one with the Minnesota Timberwolves and two with the Miami Heat before retiring in 2003.
When he looks back on his 11 years in the NBA, Ellis has one major regret. He feels he could have provided better leadership for the Nuggets when they went 11-71 under rookie coach Bill Hanzlik.
“I just didn’t handle my responsibilities,” Ellis said. “I was kind of a senior statesman on our team. I didn’t feel I was as good of a leader for Bill. I’ve apologized to him on a couple occasions for that.”
Hanzlik, a fellow Notre Dame alumnus, said he appreciated Ellis reaching out to him: “I’m really happy he was able to overcome his injuries and adversity,” Hanzlik said. “He seems to be doing really well in life.”
Ellis credits much of his personal and professional growth to former Nuggets executive Tim Leiweke, a business mogul who now is chief executive of AEG. Leiweke showed Ellis that it takes everyone from the ticket office to the locker room to make a team successful. With that philosophy in mind, Ellis was active in the community and tried to get to know many people as possible on the Nuggets’ support staff.
“The custodial engineer is no less important than the person on the floor who’s averaging 22 points,” Ellis said. “I wanted everyone to feel accepted. I wanted everyone to feel their role was important for the Denver Nuggets franchise to be successful.”
Ellis is now working on his post-NBA success story. He and his wife opened a Jamba Juice franchise in South Bend last fall, and he’s preparing for his third season as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
Ellis spends much of his spring and summer coaching youth basketball. With the proliferation of elite AAU programs, he has discovered that many young players get overlooked because their skills haven’t developed as quickly.
“I’ve found this really cool vacuum where I see kids who really want to learn how to play the game but aren’t elite athletes,” he said. “By the grace of the Lord, I do my best to instill good habits and good principles and be a good role model for the kids as well.”
Anyone with a LaPhonso Ellis jersey still hanging in their closet will agree. You won’t find many role models cooler than The Phonz.
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