While I was watching the NBA draft yesterday, for some reason, I was reminded of the one in 1983. I was an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee and our best player that year was Dale Ellis. Entering his senior year at UT, Dale was a consensus All-American, based on his stellar play the previous years, with the most impressive statistic being that he made an unheard of 66% (UT record) of his shots as a junior.
The three point line had yet to be incorporated into the collegiate game. Our head coach, Don DeVoe (recently inducted into the UT Hall-of-Fame), had the philosophy of pounding the ball inside. We employed a two in (post players), three out (perimeter players) offense and Dale was one of our posts. When we didn’t have a fast break opportunity, we ran set plays, the majority of which were to get a high percentage shot (the shot clock hadn’t been introduced at the college level either), usually for one of our posts.
The basketball coach during my college days was Richie Buckelew. By 1983, he’d become a scout for the Atlanta Hawks. Following one of our SEC games, he saw me said that I was going to be shocked when he told me what position Dale would play in “the league.”
I didn’t want to look like I had no knowledge of the pro game, so I said to him, “I know - small forward,” ready for him to praise me for my evaluation skills.
“No,” he said. “2 guard.”
During our season, we had broken the players into groups to work with before practice actually got under way. Dale had been in my group all year and I had told any scout who asked about his range that Dale could easily go out to 18′ and, in fact, that’s where most of our pre-practice shooting spots were. Never did I think that our center, and for all intents and purposes, that’s the position Dale played for us, could make the transition to second guard in the NBA - and be able to shoot three’s from five feet further out!
Dale’s ballhandling and passing skills were adequate and, while he was an outstanding post defender, mainly because he was so much quicker than nearly all of the big guys he guarded and he had excellent anticipation, there was no way I ever thought he could guard an NBA 2 guard.
Dale had another great season (capped off by playing to his fourth straight NCAA tournament) and when draft day came, he was being lauded as a Top 10 pick. The NBA draft was nowhere near the spectacle it is now, but, even though there wasn’t the hype, none of us were disappointed when he was selected ninth by the Dallas Mavericks.
When Dale returned in the summer to finish his degree (a promise he made - and kept - to his mother, i.e. that he’d get his degree), he came by my office. His mood was nothing short of doom and gloom. He said how disappointed he was that he’d play great in practices, but when game time came around, he seldom got in. What made it more frustrating was that, on the occasions he did manage to get quality time, he played very well, e.g. there was a game in which he came off the bench to score 18 - but, that performance was followed by the five most dreaded letters a players can see by his name in a box score: DNP-CD, standing for “Did Not Play - Coach’s Decision.”
Incidentally, for a couple more intriguing and insightful Dale Ellis stories, purchase a copy of my book, Life’s A Joke for only $10 (I’ll pay the S&H). Send a check to: Life’s A Joke 365 Sandpiper Ct. Fresno, CA 93730.
Dale once told me he trusted (that was the word he used) me because I would always give it to him straight. After hearing his stories about not playing (even though I could see it was really bothering him), I said, “Gee, Dale, it sounds like you’re miserable and you’re really getting screwed. Why don’t you quit and just get another job that pays you a quarter of a million dollars?” (which was what the ninth pick got back then and isn’t nearly what today’s guys are making, but still is a heckuva lot more than I’m pulling down - 26 years later!
The corners of his mouth turned up, just a little, into one of those “OK, you got me” smiles, and he said, fully understanding my point, “Nah, I think I’ll stick with this line of work.”
I then told him that I had talked to his agent because I, in fact, had been following him through the agate (small print in the sports section, e.g. box scores) and had seen exactly what he’d been complaining about. His agent told me that one thing he could be thankful for was that, while their coach, Dick Motta, indeed, did not like playing rookies, the Mavs’ organization was not known as one of those that was vindictive, and if they could make a move to better themselves - and a disgruntled player who, for whatever reasons did not fit into their plans - they would move him.
Sure enough, after Dale’s second year with the Mavs, he was traded to Seattle for former UNC star, Al Wood. Dale flourished in that system, making the NBA All-Star team, before ultimately spending 17 years in the NBA and, when he retired, left as the all-time leader for made three-pointers. He’s since dropped to third behind Reggie Miller and Ray Allen.
The morale of the story is, unless you are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, or a can’t miss player (and although he’s far and away the best player available in this draft, I’m not sure I’d even consider Blake Griffin a can’t miss player), the key to your success is . . . are you and what you bring to the franchise a good match for the team that selects you? If so, you’re fortunate and will most likely enjoy a long and profitable career. If not - and remember, the higher a player gets picked, usually, the worse a team he goes to, so slipping several spots might just land you on a pretty good team - one which can use the skill set you have and not need you to do more than you are physically - and mentally - equipped to take on.
There was a story in Sports Illustrated (4/28/08 edition) on Peyton Manning and how, during his initial meeting with the Colts’ coach Jim Mora and its GM, Bill Polian, he said to them, “I’d really like to come here if you want me.” The true football fan will recall that the year Manning was to be drafted, there was a great debate (as ridiculous as it seems now) as to which player deserved to be the overall number one pick in the draft (with everyone knowing the other would go number two), Manning or Ryan Leaf from Washington State? Obviously, Peyton felt strongly about his ability, since he continued - and I can’t say I remember anyone else possessing the stones to say anything even close:
“But if you don’t, I promise you I’ll come back and kick your ass for the next 15 years.”