Sunday, January 10, 2010

Player of the Week: Leroy Ellis

After a one week hiatus due to technical problems, the Player of the Week series returns with a look at obscure Lakers, Bullets, Blazers, and Sixers center Leroy Ellis. Ellis was drafted in the first round by the Lakers in 1962, one pick before John Havlicek, joining a loaded Lakers team that already featured Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Dick Barnett, and Rudy LaRusso.

That Lakers team was in the process of finding new ways to lose in the Finals every year despite having West and Baylor (although Elgin was done as a dominant player after 1963). Ellis was considered part of the problem, as the Lakers shopped around for a dominant center for nearly a decade before landing Wilt Chamberlain for the 1969 season. But by that point, Ellis was long gone. He spent four years with the Lakers before landing on a bad Bullets team for the 1967 season.

The Bullets had been mediocre the year before, but had lost their best player (Bailey Howell) to Boston. With a core of Leroy Ellis, Gus Johnson, and Kevin Loughery, the Bullets finished 20-61. Despite the lack of talent around him, or maybe because of it, he posted career highs in points and rebounds with 15 and 12. The Bullets drafted Earl Monroe with the second overall pick in the 1967 draft, and improved by 16 games with a core of Monroe, Johnson, Ellis, and Ray Scott. They ended up with the second overall pick again, and drafted Wes Unseld. While the pick was excellent for the franchise, as the Bullets immediately improved to 57-25 with improvement from young players Earl Monroe and Jack Marin, a career year from veteran guard Kevin Loughery, and 18 rebounds a game from Rookie of the Year and MVP Wes Unseld, it wasn’t good for Leroy Ellis. With Unseld taking the lion’s share of playing time in the middle, Ellis’ minutes per game fell from 35 in 1968 to 20 in 1969 to 16 in 1970.

By this time, Ellis was largely irrelevant to the Bullets, and was taken by the Blazers in the 1970 expansion draft. Ellis responded with (arguably) his best season, averaging 16 and 12 in 35 minutes for the expansion Blazers, teaming with rookie guard Geoff Petrie to lead Portland to a surprisingly competitive 29-53 record. After the season, Ellis was traded back to the Lakers for a second round pick (which would become Ollie Johnson). He backed up Wilt and Happy Hairston on the 72 Lakers, one of the greatest teams of all time, finally winning a championship. However, Ellis would immediately return to the other end of the spectrum, being traded to the 76ers for Bill Bridges ten games into the 1973 season, becoming a “key” part of that legendarily awful 9-73 team. He hung around with Philadelphia for a few more years, retiring after the 1976 season.

That transition, from the best team in basketball to the worst, really sums up Ellis’ career. He wasn’t a great player, and if you depended on him, you weren’t that good, but he was good enough to be a role player on a very good team for over a decade. He wasn't a good scorer, but he was a decent rebounder, and there were certainly worse centers around.

After his basketball career, Ellis stayed out of professional sports, opening a tire store, although he continued to play (non professionally) into his sixties. Some of his kids became basketball players, including his son LeRon, who played three years in the NBA. Ellis was a man who knew the importance of a good first syllable, naming some of his other kids LeRoy Jr, Lisa, and Lee (who was tragically murdered at the age of 19). Sadly, Ellis is now suffering from cancer that may be terminal, but he is still keeping a positive outlook.

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