Before Monta there was Antwain. And any opponent brave enough to slash into the lane of Lanier High’s defense had to contend with Antwain Ellis. With his long reach and feline instincts, the 6-foot-8 power forward made a habit of spiking basketballs out of the paint. Patrolling the middle for Lanier, a basketball powerhouse in Jackson, Mississippi, the elder Ellis possessed a unique blend of power and grace. He played point guard as a freshman, but after sprouting several inches over the summer, he shifted inside without sacrificing his playmaking ability. “Put it this way,” Darius Rice, a high school teammate who later starred at the University of Miami, says, “Antwain was a professional.”
In 1999, Ellis was the anchor of Lanier’s Class 5A state championship run; his late-game dunk against Provine High School helped clinch the title. “When it was time to pull off, we showed no mercy,” Ellis told The Clarion-Ledger afterward. The win was Lanier coach Thomas Billups’s1 fourth state championship in his 600-win career. “There were only two players in this state that I thought were going to be drafted out of high school,” Billups says. “Antwain and Jonathan Bender.”
For two seasons, Ellis played for the memory of former teammate Ronnie Gaylor. In August 1997, authorities alleged that Gaylor visited Kecia Brown at her home to collect an unpaid drug debt of $30. Brown told police that Gaylor attacked her when she refused to give him the money. Darlene Cheek, another woman in the house, grabbed a shotgun and fired at Gaylor, the bullet grazing him. Then Brown stabbed Gaylor three times in the chest with a kitchen knife, killing him.
“After it happened, the team didn’t miss a beat, we kept rolling,” Rice says. “But every minute of [every] game was about that, about him.”
Brown was indicted on murder charges in December 1997 and convicted a year later. The tragedy and its aftermath affected everyone on the team, but no one more than Antwain Ellis. “You know how you can be so close to somebody that when they die, it’s like they take a part of you with them?” asks Angelo Broadus, a youth basketball coach in Jackson. “That’s the way [Ellis] was. I don’t think he ever recovered from that.”
Ellis continued to play, leading the team to a championship in 1999, but his interest in basketball had begun to wane. College recruiters slowly began to evaporate. He stopped showing up for class. Something irrevocable had happened to Antwain. “We didn’t know what it was, but we could see it happening,” Billups says.
“When [Gaylor] died, it really affected Antwain worse than anybody. He was his absolute best friend and it was several days before they had found his body in that abandoned house where a drug deal had gone bad,” says Sylvester Kyles Jr., an assistant coach at Lanier from 1996 until 2004. “It really got to Antwain, and my understanding from the other guys on the team was he got onto some bad drugs. He was smoking some marijuana, somebody had laced it with something, and it affected him really adversely. He came back his senior year and played a little bit and finished school. But the last I heard, Antwain was kind of just wandering around the neighborhood, not really in his full mind.”
Lanier’s ball boy during that championship season was Antwain’s younger brother, Monta.
“[Antwain] was the first star of their family,” says Greg Riley, who coached a young Monta. “He was the star of the high school. He was the kid that everybody wanted to be. [Monta] definitely wanted to be like him because everybody wanted to be like him.”
Monta was five years younger, and five inches shorter, than his brother. Before he began to drift, Antwain drew chalk lines in the street so Monta and their cousins could run suicide drills. “I just fell in love with basketball from day one,” Monta Ellis, now a guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, says from the team’s practice facility. “I give that credit to my older brother. Watching him, him showing me the game, what his coaches were showing him. At his age, he was coming home [every day] and showing it to me.”
Monta spent his Sunday afternoons watching NBA games on TV. It always seemed like the games between the Magic and Bulls, Kings and Lakers, Knicks and Heat came down to the last second. After the games ended, Monta would go outside to mimic the last-second shots on his makeshift court, a garbage can on one end and a milk crate on the other. “I always approach the game like I approached it when I was a little boy,” Ellis says. “It’s just basketball.”
Monta Ellis’s game is simple. Unless he’s lighting it up with one of his trademark scoring barrages, he appears to be fairly unremarkable. He isn’t big. He doesn’t talk trash. He shows little emotion. He is singularly focused. He often imagines himself as a kid again, shooting into that milk crate with no backboard, willing the ball in so he won’t have to chase down an errant shot. Growing up, he trained himself to tune out the noise on Jackson’s Bailey Avenue: the hustle of a drug deal, the crack of gunshots. Those memories, the same ones that consumed his brother Antwain, still haunt Monta. “It wasn’t pretty,” Ellis says. “I still have nightmares about the things that I’ve done seen.”
There’s a thin line between potential and prosperity. Monta seized his opportunity. Under different circumstances, Antwain might have done the same.
“You talk about somebody who should have been in the league?” says Jonas James, Monta’s middle school coach, about Antwain. “Oh my lord, that kid could do everything with a basketball for his size. He could block a shot. He could dunk it on you. He was some kind of special.”
But Antwain didn’t make it.
“He would have made a far better pro prospect than Monta,” Kyles Jr. says, “because he had the same skills, but he was five inches taller.”
Mississippi is rarely regarded as a basketball stronghold. “But if you talk to the right person, they know,” says Utah Jazz guard Mo Williams, a product of Jackson’s Murrah High School, who played against Antwain Ellis in high school. Mississippi hosts no professional teams, and the occasional Marshall Henderson notwithstanding, the states’ colleges are rarely competitive. But dig deeper and you’ll find a professional pipeline. Jonathan Bender from Picayune, Starkville’s Travis Outlaw, and Al Jefferson from Prentiss all declared for the NBA straight out of high school. From 1995 to 2005, only California produced more high schoolers drafted straight into the league with Illinois and Texas tying Mississippi with four. That exodus forced local colleges such as the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State to approach phenoms with caution.
“Coach [Rick] Stansbury recruited Jonathan Bender for four years,” says Phil Cunningham, a former assistant at Mississippi State. “It’s a long way from Starkville to Picayune. He was telling me about driving back and forth. Jonathan was one of the first ones to leave early in high school [in 1999]. Then we had Travis Outlaw. Travis was right there in Starkville. We watched him from the time he was little, all the way up, and we saw how good he was. He goes straight to the NBA. But they’re both big guys, right? Then Monta comes along.”
Monta Ellis was a local legend by the time of his recruitment. He began humbly with Operation Shoestring’s Project KIDS, an after-school program that taught him about basketball while building self-esteem. The nonprofit, designed to promote racial harmony, originated in 1968 in the basement of a Methodist church — eventually, it morphed into a safe haven for underprivileged kids from Jackson.
“You might walk by the park on your way to school and see somebody get stabbed,” Riley says of Bailey Avenue. “You could be playing a pickup game and see somebody get shot.”2
Operation Shoestring renovated an antiquated furniture store into an after-school center and converted a warehouse into a basketball half court. With 9-foot ceilings, the rims reached just 7½ feet, but even in that compromised environment, Ellis stood out.
“He was skin and bones, a bean stick,” Riley says. “You think he doesn’t have enough strength to shoot the ball, but he did. You think he can’t lay it up, but he did. He looked so weak and fragile, but once he started playing, you forgot how weak and fragile he looked and you start thinking, I hope he doesn’t embarrass me.”
Ellis always played above his age, with Antwain and his friends Mo Williams and Justin Reed, who played at Ole Miss and briefly in the NBA. “He was a dynamic player,” Williams says. “He was a special player. You saw that early on.” Billups, long familiar with the Ellis family, watched Monta during open-gym runs before his freshman year at Lanier. He decided at that moment to turn over the program’s reins to the younger Ellis.
With his freakish feel for scoring, he owned Mississippi high school basketball for the next three years. “There is no question [that Antwain’s troubles fueled] him,” Kyles says. “Monta was the straitlaced kid at the school. We never had a problem with Monta sagging his pants or earrings or talking back to anybody. This young man was the perfect gentleman. He was so driven. There was actually a point in high school where we gave Monta the keys to the gym because we were tired of going up there and opening the gym up for him late at night.”
Early on, Broadus filmed Ellis’s games. Eventually, he had to stop. “I couldn’t keep up with him,” Broadus says. “The tape would be on one end and he would already be on the other end.” During one game, Ellis overheard a Greenwood High School coach telling his team that Ellis was just an ordinary player. Ellis had scored 15 points in the first half when the coach made his speech. We’ll see about that, he thought to himself. He finished the game with 65.
Afterward, someone told Ellis he’d be held to 17 in his next game against Greenwood. “I asked which quarter,” Ellis says. “I had to sit out the last three minutes of the first half because I was in foul trouble. I had 23. So then, the second half starts, I was shooting the ball and I was just having fun. I wasn’t bent on breaking any record. But I wasn’t missing. You do a heat check — I took two steps across half court, shot a 3. It went in. Then I took another step across half court and shot. It went in. Then the next time, I damn near shot it from half court and it rolled in and then comes out. Coach was like, ‘If you’re going to do all that, you might as well break the record.'”
Ellis finished with 72 points, the most in Lanier history. He scored 4,167 points in his high school career — shattering the state mark held by NBA veteran Othella Harrington. Ellis scored 42 points in a loss to an Oak Hill team that featured Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo, prompting Smith to hand over his tournament MVP trophy to Ellis. Ellis dropped another 46 points in a hyped matchup against South Gwinnett High School’s Louis Williams.
“The first thing I remember is walking into an arena that was sold out with 11,000 people booing us when we got there,” says Williams, now a member of the Hawks. “I remember Monta Ellis T-shirts and jerseys. Everybody was there for him. I just remember [thinking], Wow. This is a guy that’s in high school and he has this thing sold out as if he’s a pro or if he had made it already. His whole town was supporting him. I remember thinking to myself during the game that I had never played against somebody in high school who basically plays the same way that I play and has the impact on the game the exact same way. I was trying to find a way to trump that. Obviously it didn’t work out. We went into three overtimes and he ended up winning the game.”
Ellis verbally committed to Mississippi State in February 2004. A few months later, Sebastian Telfair declared for the 2004 NBA draft. It was a watershed moment. Before Telfair, Kobe Bryant and DeShawn Stevenson were the only guards to successfully make the transition from high school to the NBA. Bryant and Stevenson, who stood about 6-foot-5, flexed prototypical NBA bodies for a shooting guard. But Telfair was just 6 feet and looked like hundreds of other high school players, his outstanding athletic skill notwithstanding. The Trail Blazers selected Telfair with the 13th overall pick, igniting a significant shift in thinking regarding undersize high school guards.
“We were in Denver, Colorado, for Team USA,” says Williams, a 6-foot-1 guard taken 45th in the 2005 draft after bypassing college. “We were watching the draft on television and when Sebastian got drafted 13th, I think all of our light bulbs went off: If he can do it, we can go pro, too. He’s small just like us. I think that was the moment when guys started preparing themselves to go into their senior year like, We think we can go pro.
College recruiters noticed, too. “You know how coaches wear those polos with their logos on them at recruiting events?” asks Cunningham. “It went from, ‘Is Alabama going to show up to try and recruit Monta away? Is North Carolina?’ to NBA logos [everywhere], all of a sudden, when Monta played. It was the San Antonio Spurs or Phoenix Suns or Atlanta Hawks.”
Telfair may have cleared a path, but Ellis says he’d always planned to enter the NBA out of high school. He was fulfilling a prophecy he had made to a best friend when they were kids. Ellis was about 6-foot-3, bigger than Allen Iverson. And if Iverson could play in the NBA, Ellis figured he could as well. He loved for people to doubt him so that he could prove them wrong. But Ellis still had made a commitment to Mississippi State. “They’re the home team,” Ellis says about his choice. “I guess [I did it] to get their recruiting class up.”
Before his decision was final, Cunningham laid out the facts for Ellis. He jotted down the expected salaries of each first-round pick, one through 30, explaining the difference between what Chris Paul — then a sophomore at Wake Forest and a projected top-five pick — would make versus a player drafted in the late teens. “Monta, think about this,” Cunningham told him. “If you come to Mississippi State for one year, you’re going to be the best player in the SEC. You’ll be MVP of the SEC. You’ll probably be first-team All-American. You think if you come here for one year, you can’t be as good as Chris Paul and be a top pick in the draft next year and make this type of money as opposed to going in right now and [then] you’re locked into this lower spot?”
Ellis looked at him with cold, blank eyes. Cunningham had seen those eyes before. They were the same unforgiving eyes that made Cunningham want to recruit Ellis in the first place. Ellis flatly and firmly told Cunningham that he was already better than Paul. “That very second, I knew it was over,” Cunningham says.
One of the NBA polos that Cunningham noticed belonged to the Golden State Warriors. Front-office members Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, and Rod Higgins made a pit stop in Jackson on their way to the Big East tournament in 2005. Mullin remembers being impressed by Ellis’s athleticism. “His numbers were astronomical, those 40-point games,” Mullin says. “We always liked him.”
The Warriors selected Ellis in the second round, 40th overall, after knee surgery limited his workouts.3 Though he had fallen in the draft, he wasn’t dismayed. He only needed his foot in the NBA’s door, he told friends. It wasn’t long before teammates took note of his speed and athleticism. “His rookie year, we were in Hawaii for training camp and in the first four days of training camp, he was the best player on the court,” Baron Davis says.
Despite his gifts, Ellis needed time to develop. Mike Montgomery, the Warriors coach during Ellis’s rookie season, needed wins. So Ellis rarely left the bench. “He probably didn’t like me all that much,” Montgomery says. “It was hard for me to imagine a kid coming straight from high school to an NBA situation, and then he had had health issues a little bit. You could see his ability to go right, particularly, was phenomenal. His first step was phenomenal. But we did have some pretty good guards. There wasn’t a lot of playing time for him there.”4
Mario Elie, a Warriors assistant, tried to make it clear to Ellis that he’d have to wait his turn. “I didn’t understand that no matter how good you think you are and what you can do for that team, you always have to wait your opportunity and just be ready for it,” Ellis says.
So he bristled on the bench. Veterans like Calbert Cheaney and Derek Fisher tried to mentor Ellis. Cheaney invited him over for Thanksgiving that year, where Ellis bragged about his 72-point game. “There is no way you scored 72 points in one game,” Cheaney said to him. So Ellis went home and returned with a VHS recording of the game.
“Lo and behold, he had 72 points,” Cheaney says. “He was giving it to them every which way: dunks, shooting the ball well beyond the NBA line.”
Ellis improved dramatically during his sophomore season. The Warriors had fired Montgomery and Don Nelson had returned to the organization. Nelson’s frenzied up-and-down pace suited Ellis’s speed and athleticism so much that he picked up a nickname: “The Mississippi Missile.” “That was the whole reason that people got to see the Monta Ellis of today,” Ellis says.5
But Ellis and Nelson had a love-hate relationship. “Nellie sometimes really got on his case,” says Russell Turner, a Warriors assistant at the time. “Monta never realized that sometimes his body language wasn’t positive. For a young guy that’s never really been called out like that, that was really an interesting moment. The guys that make it have that ability to fight through that, and the guys that don’t have that to go with their talent kind of wash out.”
That season, the Warriors made a trade with Indiana that transformed their team. Golden State acquired Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Josh Powell in exchange for Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Ike Diogu, and Keith McLeod. The trade elevated Golden State’s athleticism, and Harrington and Jackson instantly clicked in Nelson’s offense. The Warriors finished the season on a 16-5 run, nudged their way into the playoffs, and made history in becoming just the second no. 8 seed to upset a top seed by dominating Dallas. Their team motto, “We believe,” became a mantra in the Bay Area.
But success proved fleeting. The Warriors traded mainstay Jason Richardson6 in the offseason. One by one, pieces from that team slowly left the organization. “Our plan was to continue on with that group,” Mullin says. “We felt we had that in place, but management felt differently.”
The Warriors won 48 games in 2007-08, six more than the previous year, but still failed to make the playoffs. Davis, then still a dynamic point guard, left for the Clippers in the 2008 offseason following a bitter contract negotiation. “We really felt like we were one piece away,” Davis recently said. “It was unfortunate that it was just bad communication up top with management about the team being broken up. But it was like the one time that you really had a team kind of like a brotherhood. We were all for it for the same reasons, to win and make each other look good. We all understood each other on and off the court. It was just like a special team. You don’t get too many moments in your NBA career, win or lose, to be part of something so special.”
Despite the dissolution of that team, Ellis became a fan favorite. He followed his Most Improved Player Award in 2007 by averaging 20.2 points in the 2007-08 season.7 But then, just as everything was coming into focus, he put his career in peril. While riding a moped back home in Jackson in August 2008, he tore a ligament in his left ankle, just weeks after signing a contract worth $66 million over six years. Ellis originally told team executives that he sustained the injury while working out. He still seems conflicted about the incident.
“You’re just doing something you’ve done all your life,” Ellis says. “You’re not jerking. You’re not playing. You’re not goofing off and a freak accident happens. OK, at first you lie about it. You’re scared. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You just put in all that work and all that time to get what you play for and then for an accident like this to happen that could jeopardize that, you don’t know what to do. You panic, right? OK, they find out the actual deal of what happened. Somebody tells them this is the deal of what happened.”
The injury, and the lie, led to an awkward, confrontational meeting between Ellis; his agent, Jeff Fried; Mullin; then Warriors owner Christopher Cohan; and Robert Rowell, team president at the time. Ellis, whose injury was caused by an activity that violated his player contract, apologized for lying and agreed to return just less than $3 million.
“Then [Cohan], the old owner, started yelling, started pointing his finger, and I lost it for a minute because I felt like he was talking to me like they just gave me a deal, which that wasn’t the case,” Ellis says. “I worked hard. I earned it. It was hard to get that deal. Did I make a mistake? Yes, I did. But I earned that deal. It wasn’t like you just gave me something just to be giving me that. And then I felt like even though I was 20 years old, inside those lines, I was a grown man. So you can talk to me like a grown man. You don’t have to point your finger all at me like I’m one of your sons that you’re raising in your household.”
The Warriors, Ellis says, wanted him to return $500,000 more. The meeting revealed a power struggle among Mullin, Nelson, and Rowell. “Chris Mullin made it perfectly clear to both Mr. Cohan and myself that he didn’t think this was a big deal at the beginning,” Rowell told reporters. “And we happen to think it’s a very big deal.” Ellis returned from the injury in January.8 He played slowly and tentatively at first, before putting it together in March. He scored 42 points in an overtime win against Sacramento in April.
Familiar faces continued to fade. Mullin left the Warriors in May 2009 when the team declined to renew his contract. “I definitely have strong feelings about that situation,” Mullin says. “That’s looking at the whole situation. My support for him [after the injury] was the way to go.” Local newspapers reported that Rowell had taken offense that Mullin received most of the credit for acquiring the pieces of the “We Believe” team.
“Chris Mullin, he had my back 100 percent,” Ellis says. “And they jerked him off. Then when they jerked him off because he was sticking up for me as being a guy who made a mistake or a young man who made a mistake, when they did that to him, I was totally off the organization then. There wasn’t nothing I could do then, because who could I trust? The people that I could trust in the organization, you had just sent them away. It was a dark cloud from then on with the owner in that organization there.”
The Warriors soon became Ellis’s team, but his ascension coincided with the team’s downfall. Fatherhood and marriage brought maturity, though Ellis seemed unsettled in other areas. He fumed about his teammates. Every year, media day became a spectacle. In 2009, Ellis announced at a media session that he and rookie Stephen Curry could not play in the same backcourt together. Ellis maintains that he was only being realistic about the situation.
“I mean, [we were] in the West,” Ellis says. “How are you going to make it work? Steph is a 2-guard, but they’re playing him at the 1. How are you going to make that work? That’s just how I felt. You’ve got two 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 guards, both 185 pounds, if that. How are you going to win like that?”
True or not, with the dissension that Ellis brewed, either he or Curry would have to be traded. The Warriors ultimately chose Ellis, sending him, Kwame Brown, and Ekpe Udoh to the Milwaukee Bucks last season in exchange for Ellis’s old teammate Stephen Jackson and Andrew Bogut. Ellis says the trade caught him by surprise.
“The thing is with that, you trade me, you didn’t let my agent know that you were going to trade me,” he says. “The killing thing about that, I’m in Sacramento, the trade deadline is going on and I talked to them. We talked to them. They said, ‘You’re not getting traded. You’re not going anywhere. Get ready for the game.’ I’m cool with that. We were just two games out of the eighth spot for playoffs. We rolling. Everybody’s jelling. We good. I get from the hotel to the gym. I’m getting dressed, the next thing you know, it comes on the bottom of the screen. One of my teammates sees it. I say, ‘Nah, I ain’t getting traded. They said I’m not getting traded.’ At the bottom of the screen, it comes across again. I’m fitting to go out there and work out for the game. Then Mark Jackson brings me back, he tells me, ‘Well, they didn’t want me to tell you, but I’m going to be a man and tell you we traded you.’ Those were his exact words.”9
Joe Lacob, who became Warriors co-owner in 2010, detailed the trade in an e-mail to the San Jose Mercury News’s Tim Kawakami. “I feel badly that players have to see their lives change on TV before we can even say anything,” he wrote. “Ridiculous. But it is the rules.” Lacob called Ellis “a tremendous talent and very exciting.” He added: “The fact is we just hit a home run.”10
“After everything I’ve done for that organization, playing through injuries, going out there every night, competing every night, leaving everything on the floor, for them to do me the way they did, it stung a little bit,” Ellis says of the trade. “At the same time, I put some dirt on it and moved on.”
He joined another small, speedy backcourt in pairing with Brandon Jennings.11 “I realized, I’ve just got to do what I’ve got to do,” Ellis says. “If I play the 2, I just got to play the 2.” Ellis averaged 17.6 points in 21 games with Milwaukee last season. The Bucks finished four games behind Philadelphia for the conference’s final playoff spot.
“The difference here?” Ellis says. “You’ve got guys over here that actually play hard. Over there, guys didn’t play hard. They didn’t play hard at all. They make it out to seem like ‘Monta was the selfish guy. He was always the one complaining.’ But if you look at it, I was averaging five or six assists throughout my whole career, top five in steals for at least six of the eight years I’ve been in the NBA. What more can I do? Everything was pointed at me. Everything was pointed at Monta. But what more you want me to do? You had [me] guarding the best player every night. There’s nothing else I can do.”
Monta Ellis remains one of the few players in the NBA capable of filling it up from nearly anywhere on the court. “It feels great because no matter what you throw up, it’s going to go in,” Ellis says of his mental approach on the court. “And then when the shots are going in, even the tough ones, you’ve got everybody saying, ‘Ooh, aah.’ And everybody’s going to always talk about that game, that moment.”
Throughout his career, Ellis has been derided by proprietors of advanced stats, particularly in recent years. There is a cold quality to his game — all volume, little efficiency. When he’s on, he’s on. But when he’s off, the shots don’t stop. But he never doubts his ability, which is why he thinks that next midrange jumper will snap through the net, even if he’s missed his previous seven. “He has the ability to understand handling being the hero very humbly and being the goat if it doesn’t go well,” says Keith Smart, who coached Ellis in Golden State.
This season, inefficient or not, Ellis has helped the Bucks qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2010. (Unfortunately, the team’s first-round opponents are the 66-win Miami Heat.) After that, the Bucks will have a big decision to make about their backcourt. Ellis can opt out of his contract, and the $11 million he would make, to become a free agent this summer. The Bucks also have to navigate Jennings’s restricted free agency and the unrestricted free agency of newly acquired guard J.J. Redick. It’s unlikely that all three will return — head coach Jim Boylan is still determining how to divvy minutes to all three in the same backcourt.
“I don’t try to put too much on me when you know you’re dealing with the NBA season, period,” Ellis says. “I just play basketball, and when it’s time to worry about situations like that, I’ll just worry about it then.”
Too often, Antwain Ellis found himself surrounded by the wrong people. Monta knows his brother should have been in the NBA before him, paving the way just as he did at Lanier. Instead, in 2008 their mother, Rosa, found Antwain at his Jackson home with two gunshot wounds in his back. Police believe he had been shot elsewhere before staggering home.
Miraculously, Antwain survived. And it seems to have changed something in him.
“I think he’s back to his old self,” Ellis says. “He plays basketball with a little traveling team that one of his ex-teammates started. He’s back to playing basketball.”
Monta Ellis is criticized for being a volume shooter, a feast-or-famine scorer, a gunner. But it takes a strong will to take the meaningful shot. He knows he’s blessed to be playing in the NBA — so he’s making (and taking) the most of it. He thinks about that every time he goes back home.
“To this day,” Ellis says in his soft Southern drawl, “my grandma asks me, every time I go back home, how I made it out of here.” He doesn’t finish the thought, but we know the answer.
This article has been updated.