Noie: There may be better players, but not many better people than ND great LaPhonso Ellis
On a specific summer weekend, a text message from a specific former Notre Dame men’s basketball player always arrives.
Without fail, and with nothing more than good wishes for you and your family.
Doesn’t matter if you’ve gone weeks without speaking. Doesn’t matter if you’ve gone months without seeing his large and engaging presence somewhere in an arena or around town. Doesn’t matter. When Father’s Day weekend hits, the first message to hit wishing you a great day – before anyone in your family, before any of your friends, sometimes before your wife – is from former Notre Dame power forward LaPhonso Ellis.
Have a great day, the guy everyone knows as “Phonz” writes, and blessings to your family.
It gets to you. Like, this guy cares. Really cares.
It’s not phony. It’s all Phonz.
That’s the way he’s built, to think of you and yours way before himself. You know that. You see that. You might be getting ready to work a Notre Dame men’s basketball game, but if you see him, you know what’s coming. You might run into him at the Heritage Square Martin’s, and if he’s running in for a loaf of bread or gallon of milk, he’s going to stop. It’s coming.
It's always coming. It's him. That huge handshake. That all-enveloping hug. Then the questions about how you’re doing, how your kids are doing. Your wife. Your life. Everything you’re about, Ellis wants to know. It’s no act. It's as real and as genuine as it comes.
As is Ellis. Nobody can be that good, that friendly, that downright nice, can they?
“I’ve always tried to practice the Golden Rule of do unto others as you’ve had done to you,” Ellis said earlier this week about 48 hours before a big basketball moment in his life arrived. “I hope each encounter can bring a ray of hope and positivity into the lives of everyone I try to connect with and them knowing that I see them beyond just a greeting of, ‘How are you doing?’
“No, it’s how are you REALLY doing?”
When he called games on the Notre Dame radio network, and then later for ESPN before his current assignment as a studio analyst, it was entertaining to watch Ellis exit Purcell Pavilion. Or try to. You’d head back from post-game pressers and return his fist bump as he was wrapping up the post-game radio show, then settle in to write.
Ellis and his wife, Jennifer, would be ready to leave, but not really. Twenty, 30, 45 minutes would pass. So would your deadline. The couple barely had moved. There always was someone to talk with, someone to catch up with, another bear hug to offer or a handshake or a kind word or a smile or something.
Sometimes, you’d leave and the Ellises still were there.
Ellis has something for everybody he knows and around Notre Dame, he knows everybody from the ticket takers to the game officials to the ushers. Better players have passed through the men’s basketball program. Some have scored more points, grabbed more rebounds, won more games than Ellis did during his career (1988-92).
As far as people, there’s easily been nobody better than the 6-foot-8 guy who arrived a coveted recruit but who always wondered if he was good enough to make it.
Ellis was the No. 5 pick in the 1992 NBA draft. No Irish has since been selected as high. He played 11 years for four teams at the sport’s premier level.
Think he made it? Oh, yeah.
He was special from the start
Ellis was earmarked for excellence coming out of Lincoln High School in East St. Louis, Ill. He had lived a rough life, but was determined to earn a better one. He was a Parade All-American. He was a McDonald’s All-American. He was special. In quiet times, he often wondered as he watched the likes of Shawn Kemp and Chris Jackson and Alonzo Mourning earn more accolades.
Might he ever be that good? Any doubt fueled a determination to go do it.
“I always felt a level of insecurity when it came to those guys,” Ellis said. “They were bigger and stronger and more developed than I because I was a late bloomer. It was that insecurity of wanting to be the best and wanting to demonstrate that I was equally as good in that edge that I played with.”
Everyone around Notre Dame basketball could tell that Ellis was good. Ellis was different, almost from the jump. First game his freshman year, he scored 27 points in 27 minutes – off the bench – in a win over Saint Bonaventure. Next time out, in the RCA Dome against Kentucky, Ellis made the first of his 94 starts. He delivered 12 points and 16 rebounds with three assists, three steals and a block in 30 minutes of an 81-65 Irish win.
On the sideline that day in Indianapolis as a first-year Irish assistant, current Iowa coach Fran McCaffery sat in awe of Ellis. The kid had it.
“He was just annihilating Kentucky’s front line and I was like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s different,’” said McCaffery. “But for him it was like, ‘Yeah, no biggie, just another day.’ It’s what he did.”
As soft-spoken and as friendly as he was away from the game, Ellis was an assassin on the basketball court. He’d dunk on you and crush your spirit. He’d rebound your misses and cripple your confidence. He’d embarrass you with a blocked shot that sailed into the third row.
He’d compete longer and harder and better than anyone. He had that look. If you saw it, you knew it.
How did someone go from so mellow to so maniacal/mean in a snap? Ellis still doesn’t know. He just did.
“There was something about competition and winning as a power forward whose inclination was to rebound and block shots and who happened to be able to score, there was kind of a protector role in that,” he said. “I just always played with great energy and emotion and wanted to bring the fans into the experience without losing focus.”
Afterward, Ellis would find a quiet spot to decompress. To process all that had just happened. To pack that competitor and that drive away for the next game, and to become the easy-going, gentle kind of a giant everyone around campus, around town, embraced.
“I’d learned that there could be the competitive me,” he said, “and who I naturally am as a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.”
Saint Joseph (Ind.) County Commissioners President Andy Kostielney saw all sides of Ellis as his Fisher Hall dorm mate. Ellis was Fisher 4A as a freshman. Kostielney, a South Bend native, was Fisher 4B. Ellis was one of the first students that Kostielney met when he moved in.
The two had less than zero in common as freshmen, but formed an unbreakable bond. They’d stay up late into nights – Ellis back from basketball, Kostielney back from “studying” – and laugh and talk and learn about each another to the point they became forever friends, even serving as the best man at one another’s wedding.
“He is genuinely the nicest person that I’ve met and I ever will meet,” Kostielney said. “But he was a monster on the basketball floor. We’d give him grief about his nostril flare. You could tell when he was really fired up. It was like, something good is going to happen.”
Then it often did. For Ellis. For the Irish.
His rightful place in the arena rafters
Ellis bumped into Mike Brey in late summer and the Irish head coach sprang on him a surprise – the ninth individual in program history inducted into the program’s Ring of Honor during halftime of Saturday’s nationally-televised game against No. 10 Kentucky would be the 51-year-old Ellis. He scored 1,505 points with 1,075 rebounds and 200 blocks during his collegiate career. When that ended in 1992, Ellis ranked sixth, third and first all-time in those statistical categories. He currently is 17th, fourth and second. He tallied 54 double doubles for points and rebounds, still second in school history.
On Saturday, Ellis gets his place alongside some of the program’s greats like Austin Carr and Adrian Dantley and Troy Murphy and Kelly Tripucka. His initial reaction to Brey’s bombshell news? He wasn’t comfortable with it. He tossed out the term “unworthy” then and again during a 20-minute phone conversation Thursday from his Granger home.
“I’m so grateful (but) I still haven’t really gotten the chance to fully deal with it from an emotional standpoint,” he said.
Those emotions likely will come at halftime, when Ellis plans to speak from the heart. Speak with humility. From where he’ll stand at center court, Ellis will think of others who played more or scored more or did more who deserve the honor. Why? Part of it stems from the fact that Ellis missed basically an entire year – the fall semester of the 1989-90 season and the spring semester of 1990-91 – because he was academically ineligible.
He overcame those obstacles to return to the court and eventually graduate with an accounting degree. His story is one of perseverance and persistence, not just what he did when he played. That stands for something, though Ellis insisted he won’t stand alone come halftime.
“God gave me a tremendous opportunity, but that’s something my coaches, teammates, trainers, all had influence on,” he said. “It was a collaborative effort. That’s all of us going into the rafters.”
Who among that group will be there Saturday remained a mystery deep into this week. Those close to him wanted to keep the guest list a surprise. Ellis expects to see the likes of Elmer Bennett, Jamere Jackson, Daimon Sweet and Keith Tower. Likely too the Ross brothers, Joe and Jon. Former trainer Skip Meyer. Maybe Scott Paddock. Joe Fredrick couldn’t make it because of a coaching commitment. Same for McCaffery and assistant Billy Taylor, another college teammate.
Ellis will think of and thank Digger Phelps, who coached him for three years and is in Europe on vacation. He'll think of and thank the late John MacLeod, who coached him his final college season in 1992.
Everyone not there Saturday will be there in spirit. McCaffery knows how important a day it is for Ellis. Not just the player, but the person.
“In the locker room, he was a terrific presence, then when you go on the road, he never rattled,” McCaffery said. “Everybody needs to take pride in the fact that No. 20 is going up in the rafters not only for what he did, but more importantly, who he is.”
If Brey is the self-described loosest coach in college basketball, Ellis is undoubtedly the nicest person in college basketball. Quick with a smile and a kind word, quicker with a hug and a query about what’s happening in your life.
He isn’t one of the many OK ones, or even good ones. He's one of the few great ones.
“There’s no way you can have a bad day,” Kostielney said, “if part of your day is seeing Phonz.”
And getting that text message come June.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI