But the quirky 46-year-old Australian also had serious chops, thanks to an encyclopedic knowledge of players dating back to the late 1980s and an old-school philosophical approach to the game, formed during his travels to 40 countries. Ellis uncorked his trademark catchphrase, “very solid game,” to reward bouncing passes, backdoor cuts and shots below the rim that might not make the “SportsCenter” Top 10. As a lifelong player, Ellis had carefully considered just about every aspect. of the sport, and his thoughts on how 3-point contest participants should set up their racks of balls once led him to a private shooting session with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.
Ellis surprised 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 seeking another job in sports media. While traveling with his wife, Roxana, and their two young children during the offseason, Ellis concluded that he had soured on many aspects of the NBA routine. After taping more than 2,500 shows in the past 11 years, he felt the regular season was too long, load management had gone haywire, and several superstars had lost touch with the average fan.
“Anthony Davis can only play for two weeks in a row,” 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. These types of guys don’t inspire me anymore. Maybe that’s a matter of age. When you’re a kid, you look up to these guys as heroes. Now you look at them and you’re like, ‘What the hell is wrong with this guy?’ The NBA season doesn’t have the same spark.”
Although Ellis was burned out in the NBA, basketball continued to be a driving force in his life. He had organized an impromptu game in Barcelona over the summer and posted it on social media, and invitations to play rained in direct messages from him 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 accept all offers from Instagrammers? Why not travel the world, organize 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’s self-financed “20 Cities, 20 Countries, 20 Games” World Basketball Tour. In recent weeks, he has bounced around Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Greece, avoiding fancy gyms covered by open-air 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 headfirst. I felt like I had to try.”
When Ellis presented his unfinished plans to his longtime podcast partners, they were supportive but surprised and a bit 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” due to his circuitous life journey from Sunbury, a Melbourne suburb, to London when he was 20, to Toronto in her 30s, and then on to Atlanta, where she currently resides. Given that background, and Ellis’ stories of playing in Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Peru over the years, Skeets understood why some fans envision him as 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 it was Leigh Ellis. She takes risks in life. I would love to travel the world and play fetch. That’s why she resonates with people. Not many of us can do it. Is daring.
Ellis’s public announcement of his tour drew hundreds of new invites from Nepal, Sierra Leone and everywhere in between, and he immediately set to work on possible itineraries. It remains to be seen how long she can stay on the move.
In addition to juggling his responsibilities as a husband and father, he acts as his own travel agent, location scout, reservations manager, event planner, PR manager, content creator, video editor, and of course, escort. . He’s gotten help from 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 trip into a series for a streaming service, her main focus has been avoiding a lifetime of regrets.
“I am not afraid of failing in this project,” he said. “I am more afraid of sitting in the same job 10 years from now wishing I had done this. Traveling is the best life experience. Travel cannot be taught, it can only be learned. Every time you wake up, you can say that you did something for the first time. ”
There have already been notable successes. Ellis attended a raucous five-hour barbecue dinner with Sasha Doncic, father of Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, and met Biserka Petrovic to visit the museum dedicated to her son, former NBA star Dražen Petrovic, who he died 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. The shoot-happy, full-court, five-on-five games he was used 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 adjust to the game faster, and a recent opponent compared him to Warriors star Klay Thompson thanks to his reliable jump shot. During the intense mixed-gender games in Barcelona over the summer, he noticed that the women were often just as physical in the paint as the 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 opted for a spongy court surface that was easier on the knees than typical concrete.
After months of working from an isolated home office during the coronavirus pandemic, Ellis’s life has suddenly turned into a series of chance encounters with other truck 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 was “nervous” days in advance. Shukovic presented Ellis to a court inside the Kalemegdan fortress and brought out a new pair of shoes for the race. 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 a warm, welcoming, heartfelt hug,” Shukovic said in a series of text messages. “He always felt so genuine on the show, and he embarrassed me to think that he could be any 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 fair guy.”
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 has given himself six to 12 months to turn his tour number into a viable business before considering a more conventional job to pay off the mortgage.
Either way, he’s savoring his first extended break after nearly 30 years of uninterrupted work. Someone else may 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 old Allen Iverson sweatbands within arm’s reach, has another game to go 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 unites us. You can go from stranger to 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 winner, you come together and it leaves you feeling great. That is basketball in its purest form”.