Leigh Ellis quit his job to play pickup hoops around the world

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For more than a decade, Leigh Ellis has made extraordinary and self-deprecating efforts to share his passion for basketball. The former NBA TV personality and popular podcaster consumed hot peppers, donned a wetsuit and even shaved his chest during various on-air stunts to bring a lighter tone to the discourse.

But the quirky 46-year-old Australian also had serious skills, thanks to an encyclopedic knowledge of gamers dating back to the late 1980s and an old-school philosophical approach to the game that he’s shaped throughout his travels to 40 countries. Ellis uncorked his signature catchphrase — “very solid game” — to reward bounce passes, backdoor cuts, and under-the-rim finishes that might not make the SportsCenter top 10. A lifelong pickup player, Ellis had carefully considered virtually every aspect of the sport, and his thoughts on how participants in a three-point contest should set up their ball stands once led to a private shooting session with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

Ellis stunned his peers and listeners in October when he joined the Great Resignation and abruptly announced his departure from Athletic’s NBA flagship “No Dunks” without taking another job in sports media. Traveling with his wife, Roxana, and their two young sons during the offseason, Ellis concluded that he had spoiled many aspects of the NBA grind. Having recorded more than 2,500 shows over the past 11 years, he felt the regular season was way too long, load management had run amok and a number of superstars had fallen behind the average fan.

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“Anthony Davis can only play for two weeks at a time,” Ellis said over the phone from Europe last week. “James Harden wanted credit for giving back $7 million freehand. Kevin Durant said to fire everyone in Brooklyn. These guys don’t inspire me anymore. Maybe it’s an age thing. As a kid, you look up to these guys as heroes. Now you look at her and you’re like, ‘What the hell is wrong with this guy?’ The NBA season doesn’t have that same spark.”

Even though Ellis burned out in the NBA, basketball remained a driving force in his life. He had organized a pickup game in Barcelona in the summer and posted about it on social media, and invitations to play flowed in his direct messages from Portugal to Pakistan. As he prepared to leave his longtime dream job, Ellis cultivated a new dream.

What if he could include all Instagrammers on their listings? Why not travel the world, organize runs, hang out with the locals, record their basketball stories, eat their cuisine, and then document it all on video and social media? Thus began Ellis’ self-funded “20 Cities, 20 Countries, 20 Games” worldwide basketball tour. In recent weeks, he’s bounced through Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Greece, eschewing fancy indoor gyms at each stop and using outdoor courts instead.

“I don’t know if I can make a career out of this, but I want to find out,” he said. “If I don’t do this now, it won’t happen. Nobody would come up to me with this idea and ask me if I wanted to do it. The only way was to take a clean break and dive headfirst. I felt like I had to try.”

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 sustain the project financially. JE Skeets, the co-host of “No Dunks,” had long dubbed Ellis “the international man of mystery” because of his circuitous life journey from Sunbury, a suburb of Melbourne, to London in his 20s and to Toronto in his years 30, and then to Atlanta, where he currently resides. Given that background and Ellis’ stories 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 travel the world to play basketball,” said Skeets. “But after thinking about it for a minute, I realized this was Leigh Ellis. He takes risks in life. I would like to travel the world and play pickup. That’s why it matters to people. Not many of us can do that. It’s brave.”

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Ellis’ public announcement of his tour attracted hundreds of new invites from Nepal, Sierra Leone and everywhere in between, and he immediately got to work on possible itineraries. How long he can keep moving remains to be seen.

In addition to his responsibilities as a husband and father, he acts as his own travel consultant, location scout, bookings manager, events planner, public relations director, content creator, video editor and of course shooting guard. He’s had help from a photographer and relied on the connections and tips of his 29,000 Instagram followers, but it’s mostly a one-man band. While Ellis hopes to attract sponsors, or turn the trip into a series for a streaming service, or attract sponsors, his main focus has been to prevent lifetime regrets.

“I’m not afraid of failing this project,” he said. “I’m more scared of sitting in the same job 10 years from now and wishing I had. 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. ”

Significant successes have already been achieved. Ellis went to a hilarious five-hour barbecue dinner with Sasha Doncic, the 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 in 1993 died tragically. 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 put together a cultural catalog on the side. The shooting five-a-side 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-a-side games are the norm. The 5-foot-11 Ellis had to adapt to the faster game, and a new opponent compared him to Warriors star Klay Thompson thanks to his reliable jumper. During intense mixed-gender matches in Barcelona over the summer, he noticed that the women were often just as physically colored as the men. In Germany, he marveled at the solid metal rims and chain link netting built to last for decades in all weathers. In Belgrade he switched to a spongy surface that was more knee-friendly than typical concrete.

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After working from an isolated home office for months during the coronavirus pandemic, Ellis’ life has suddenly devolved into a series of chance encounters with fellow pickup truck enthusiasts and meet-ups 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 “shook” for days. Shukovic introduced Ellis to a court at Kalemegdan Fortress and he pulled out a new pair of sneakers for the run. That evening, the assembled hoops shared stories about Serbia’s basketball history and Ellis’ NBA experiences.

“Leigh came up to me and gave me such a warm, welcoming and heartfelt hug,” Shukovic said in a series of text messages. “He always felt so real on the show and I felt ashamed for thinking he could be different in real life. Within a few possessions he felt like one of us and we were his friends. Leigh was just a righteous guy.”

Ellis makes sure he isn’t running away from his real life in Atlanta and that his wife has given her full blessings before he embarks on his tour in earnest. He has given himself six to 12 months to turn his travel activity into a viable business before considering a more conventional job to pay the mortgage.

Either way, he’s enjoying his first lengthy sabbatical in almost 30 years of uninterrupted work. Someone else can worry about whether LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers make the playoffs or whether the Brooklyn Nets should trade Durant. Ellis, who keeps his vintage Allen Iverson sweatbands within reach, has yet to reach a game and put another stamp on his pass.

“Almost everywhere I go I don’t speak the language of the people on the pitch,” he said. “But basketball brings us together. You can go from stranger to teammate in two seconds. There’s a certain understanding and chemistry that comes about very quickly. When you make the right play or pass or hit a game winner, you commit and leave a great feeling behind. This is basketball at its purest.”

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