Ellis still has the touch

InsideTennessee gives you the best possible coverage of Vol hoops every day. Check out this story on a visit from a UT legend:

Tennessee still played basketball at Stokely Athletics Center when Dale Ellis starred for the Vols (1979-83), so he never got to attempt a shot in spacious Thompson-Boling Arena. He rectified that situation Friday afternoon, launching from the left corner of the west baseline moments before the Vols' practice began.

The shot, a 3-pointer, swished through the hoop, barely disturbing the net.

No surprise there. Although he did most of his scoring around the basket in college, he went on to become one of the greatest 3-point shooters in NBA history, leading the league with a 46.4 percentage in 1997-98.

Despite a distinguished 19-year NBA career, Ellis is best known in Big Orange Country for his spectacular time at Tennessee. He was first-team All-SEC three times. He was SEC Player of the Year twice. He was first-team All-America twice. He averaged 21.2 points per game as a junior and 22.6 as a senior. He shot a mind-boggling 65.4 percent from the field in 1981-82 and 59.5 percent for his career. His 2,065 points rank sixth on UT's all-time scoring list, even though he played in an era when there was no 3-point basket in college hoops.

Given all that Ellis has meant to Vol basketball, retiring his jersey was a no-brainer. The honor will occur prior to Saturday's noon tip-off against Vanderbilt. Dozens of friends, family members and teammates will be on hand for the ceremony.

Ellis learned that his jersey would be retired a year ago. After asking him to attend the jersey retirement of ex-Vol Allan Houston, school officials informed him that he was next on the list.

"I was told ‘Pick a game, and we'll get it done,'" Ellis recalled. "It just so happened that we couldn't get it done till this moment, but I'm really excited about it."

Ellis has many fond recollections of his time at Tennessee. He enjoyed playing before "the best fans in the country … behind you 100 percent." He enjoyed watching Pat Summitt conduct Lady Vol practices. He enjoyed the camaraderie with his teammates. The most vivid memory, he says, was the final one.

"I can remember the last game we played … how emotional I was," he said. "I started crying. It was emotional."

Ellis led Tennessee to one SEC title and four NCAA Tournaments … each time winning one game before being ousted. He was challenged to guard 7-foot-2 Virginia superstar Ralph Sampson in 1981 and ‘82. Though significantly out-sized, the 6-foot-7, 205-pound Ellis did an exceptional job on the Cavalier giant.

Best known for the superior quickness and athleticism that made him virtually unstoppable on offense, Ellis proved just as dynamic in Don DeVoe's man-to-man defense.

"I remember him foaming at the mouth if I made defensive mistakes," Ellis said with a smile. "He was a very intense coach…. You had to come with it every single day with DeVoe."

Despite the long-range shooting prowess he exhibited in the pros, Ellis believes the 3-point basket would not have affected his college performances.

"I don't think it would," he said. "I played with my back to the basket. It was only rare occasions that I took shots outside the 3-point line. "

Each player had a specific role in DeVoe's system, and the perimeter scorer in those days was Michael Brooks.

"He would've been a great one (3-point shooter)," Ellis said. "It would have enhanced his chances of playing professional basketball."

When DeVoe wasn't around, however, Ellis did his scoring from the perimeter in pickup games.

"I love the game of basketball, so I can't remember many days when I didn't go out and play with a group of friends on the playgrounds," he said. "You could never catch me posting up … only when we needed a basket to win. I played on the perimeter."

Ellis was scheduled to address Tennessee's players following Friday's practice. Asked for the gist of his message, he shrugged.

"I don't really know," he said. "I'm just going to wing it."

Ellis has not seen the Vols play this year but he's aware they're in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for a third year in succession. He hopes they haven't lost their optimism.

"They still have an opportunity to do something special," he said. "When I got traded to Seattle we were picked to lose more games than anybody in the NBA … picked to be dead last. But we jelled at the end of the season. That's when it's most important. We ended up in the Western Conference finals."

The start of that fateful playoff run was especially memorable.

"We were the No. 8 seed and facing the No. 1 seed," Ellis recalled. "They beat us by 35 points in the first game but we went on to beat ‘em three straight games. Anything can happen in basketball. You just have to go out and play as hard as you can, try to limit your mistakes on the floor."

There is no greater honor for a basketball player than to have his jersey retired. Ellis is understandably thrilled to be the recipient of such an honor.

"There wasn't much thought about my jersey being retired," he admitted. "I just believed at some point it would be."

After a brief pause, he smiled and added:

"I just wanted to be alive when it happens."

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