Meet Leigh Ellis: Australian basketball's media pioneer

Ellis represents many things to the Australian basketball community.

Leigh Ellis represents many things to the Australian basketball community.

He is an international media member, championing a prime time television show on a network that bears the NBA’s name. Depending on the day, he could be seen interviewing sporting commissioners, jacking threes with Steph Curry or interpreting Kanye West’s back catalogue. It’s often hard to know which the 42-year-old prefers, such is his outward comfort on the world-wide dais.

Ellis was arguably Australia’s first basketball hipster. Before the family names of Bolden, Simmons, Exum and Brown were global brands, they were American imports laying the roots of a basketball revolution in a foreign land. Ellis was onto them a generation before most.

He was that childhood friend we all remember; the one seduced by an international powerhouse, long before it was mainstream. Sporting fascinations are a standard phenomenon for Australian teenagers, but NBA basketball, in the 1980s? Think again. When the NBA captured Ellis’ heart, there was no cable television to reel him in. No Internet to foster faux communities. They weren’t hiding behind a pay wall; they didn’t exist. While NBA fanatics now dawdle in anticipation of the next #LeaguePassAlert blowing up their timeline, in a bygone era, Ellis was penny pinching for offhand copies of American newspapers to service his needs.

“When I started following the NBA back in the late 80s, [cable television and social media] didn’t exist,” Ellis explained, during his exclusive sit down with The Pick and Roll. “I had to rely on USA Today newspapers, hoop magazines or when the ABC had one game a week that was late on Friday nights.”

Ellis is most certainly the foremost historian on 1987’s NBA All-Star game. The combination of an MVP performance from Tom Chambers and a bootleg VCR morphed into a powerful force. Anyone under the age of 30 should Google both Chambers and VCR for mind blowing content; both were fleeting footprints towards the League Pass generation.

And just like Ben Simmons or Andrew Bogut, Ellis is a Victorian kid made good. His career ascension is systematic proof that basketball is a global language, while his story serves a starring role on the periphery of Australian basketball’s growth, and offers a timely reminder that innocent childhood obsessions are for nurturing; never suppression.

“I look at myself as what I was growing up,” Ellis said. “I was a huge basketball fan and I just wanted to get involved with the NBA in any way that I could.”

For everything Ellis has now accomplished, the roots of his success reside in Sunbury, a town located 42 kilometres north-west of Melbourne's CBD. More accurately, they rest with a teenage visionary, writing letters to every NBA franchise, begging for tangible substantiation on his fascination; seeking merchandise, posters, statistics, and above all else, validation. An oversimplification, sure, but Ellis had a dream and it became a reality. He is living proof that career goals within the sporting media, whether they’re in basketball, or covering sport internationally, are achievable. Confirmation that being Australian – or anything novel in a dominant industry – should never be used as a qualifier.

“I never tried to go out there and defend myself as an Australian,” Ellis explained. “I defended myself as an analyst. If people didn’t like that, then they didn’t like me because of my analysis, rather than the country I was born in.

“For me, that’s what is important. I don’t try to sell myself in any way as a gimmick, being a different sounding person to most of the other people in this industry, particularly in the NBA world.”

As he often is with all things related to the NBA, Ellis is correct when it comes to his appearance within the NBA media. He sounds different and there is no arguing that. His larrikin twang explodes across the airwaves and onto an audience that, at first, wasn’t trusting of this new voice.

When Ellis started working for NBA TV in 2013, much of the negative feedback centred on his origins. People would ask, “what does this Australian guy know about basketball?” and question, “what is an Aussie doing on TV?”. The roots of such criticism are obvious, although the sentiment did have some validity. What was Ellis doing on TV? Basketball media is a blueblood industry. It is dominated by characters from two distinct subsets: ex-NBA players and talking heads fostered through the traditional prisms of American journalism. Ellis is neither, and there he was, plastered all over the NBA universe.

Ellis reached global acclaim as a member of The Starters. Along with Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets and Trey Kerby, he forms the death line-up of NBA media personalities. Along with their tireless support crew, they have turned a Toronto based sports discussion – originally known as The Basketball Jones – into a syndicated television show that is now one of the prominent brands within sports media.

None of The Starters played basketball at a semi-professional level. They didn’t have the cache of those who are now colleagues. Ostensibly, they were just basketball fans who wanted something different from the sports media. Turns out they weren’t the only ones seeking change.

Melas and Skeets, who have known each other since their high school days in Canada, started things off. They laid the foundations. “They wanted to present sport in a different way,” Ellis explained. Kerby connected next, and by the time Ellis joined in 2011, The Basketball Jones was one of the biggest podcasts in the English speaking world.

“[The Basketball Jones] just brought something new” Ellis said. “It’s ok to have opinions. It’s ok to have a style that is like any group of friends who get together and talk about basketball.

“When you are with your friends, nobody is always agreeing with each other. It’s ‘I think this’ and ‘I think that’ and you base those opinions from when you watch games and follow games, based on how they are.”

This simple premise created a monster. It launched careers, and in relation to Ellis, it facilitated the life he always wanted. This week, he was on assignment in Oakland, working as an NBA analyst on location for Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Above all else, that is what he is, and what he wants to be known as.

Australians may see him as one of their own taking on a global domain. Many Americans still see him as foreigner intruding their sacred game, but Ellis sees himself in the most literal of interpretations.

“I want you to judge me based on my work performance,” Ellis said. “How I am as an analyst or a person who is breaking down the NBA. That’s what I want to be judged on.

“If people judge me on that, then that’s great. If people decide to make the Australian and the accent thing is what they are most concerned about, then it really doesn’t bother me because I don’t want to get into a conversation or argument with anybody about that.”

Ellis has never used nationality as an accelerant for his career. Nor is it an excuse for those with a love of basketball outside of North America. During our discussion, Ellis correctly noted that basketball is arguably the second biggest team sport in the world behind football. He explains that, with so many nationalities speaking the global language of basketball, it logically follows that a diverse group of people would follow and love the game as passionately as he do.

For him, it doesn’t matter if you’re from Argentina, China, South Africa or anywhere really. If you follow the sport and are passionate about it, then you are able to develop a fundamental understanding of the game. And why wouldn’t Ellis echo such a sentiment? It has been the driving force behind his career.

“I have found,” Ellis explains, “that people have sent me messages saying ‘when I first heard your accent I didn’t want to listen to you. I dismissed you. But now, I’ve started to trust your analysis.'

“People are almost prejudiced against you at the start, but after they listen to you and hear what you say, you are able to turn them and convince them that you know what you’re talking about. That you’re not there just because you sound different and you’re something different in terms of the television show that I am on.”

Ellis rightfully points to a 30-year obsession with the NBA as his differentiating feature. He provides the audience with analysis and opinions based on a robust experience following the league. That is his gift, and despite the aesthetics, his gaudy encyclopaedia of basketball knowledge speaks for itself.

“You should always make your reputation on how well you follow the game and know it,” Ellis said. “From there, you can base your career out of that knowledge, rather than saying I am from this country, I have a different accent so listen to me because of that.

“Always base your career on what you are trying to be as a person and not necessarily where you are from or how you sound.”

Ellis is now a role model for aspiring journalists who want what he has. A generation of budding basketball devotees want to join him within the inner circles of NBA media, and Ellis is their tangible proof that fandom can be leveraged into a career. The Victorian feels a growing presence from the Australian basketball community, evidenced through a groundswell of emails, tweets and messages from people back home. They all want advice on how to successfully infiltrate the world of sports media. They want insight on how they can become the next Leigh Ellis.

“It’s always a tough question to answer because of the path I went on,” Ellis noted, when speaking on the concept of career advice. “It’s not a path that’s easy to replicate. It’s not like I had a grand plan 20 years ago and I decided to mark it all down, and execute it step by step.

“A lot of it was more about putting myself in the right position to have an opportunity that came my way. When an opportunity came along, I tried my very best to take it.”

Ellis played to his strengths in creating his golden opportunity. This occurred when The Basketball Jones came knocking in 2011, but the groundwork was laid long before the trifecta of Skeets, Tas and Trey came into his life.

Toronto was where Ellis found his start, and where he also found a home. A few weeks after arriving as a 29-year-old, he met his now wife Roxana. A little while later he enrolled at the College of Sports Media. The following January he joined The Score, a Canadian sports TV network, on an internship that blossomed into full time employment as a website content producer. So when The Basketball Jones joined The Score in March 2010, Ellis was now in the orbit of a group of equally devoted basketball minds.

“Once I saw [The Basketball Jones] had joined The Score and I saw their daily video show,” Ellis said. “I was like ‘this is great, this is what I need to get involved in.”

“It was different. At that point in time, it wasn’t as big as it was now, but I could see something was right, and if the hunger and motivation would stay there, then I felt it had enormous potential.”

Some may discount Ellis crossing paths with the One Direction of media posse's, right at the dawn of their explosions no less, as dumb luck. While there was certainly an element of convenient happenstance at play, there was nothing dumb about it. Ellis put himself in position to ride the wave of fortune and was infinitely rewarded, as his timing couldn’t have been better. This accident of timing proved to be a most blessed breeder of success, as Ellis sprinted through the opening he had been offered. The cautionary tale mirrors Ellis’ fundamental advice for those wanting to follow in his footsteps.

“What I would say to any person who wants to pursue a career is this: try to get where that career may begin for you. For me, covering the NBA started in Toronto.

“That was great because there is an NBA team there. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I was doing now if I wasn’t in Canada in the first place. Trying to work in sports media and get my first start there.”

Ellis implores those with an NBA dream to come to North America, spend some time on a tourist visa and gain exposure around the league. He notes that some of the best opportunities to come his way simply arose from asking questions and knocking on doors. Old fashioned advice sure, but there is no doubting the success of his methods.

“It’s simply not going to happen if you stay in the same routine, Ellis said. “Or stay in the same area you have been for all your life and just hope someone is going to come knocking on your door one day. You have to get out of your comfort zone and try put yourself in a position where other opportunities might present themselves.”

Finding a role on The Starters might not happen, but a social media age offers the tools to build one's profile away from the glitz of mainstream. First hand access can serve as the testing ground, and potentially the accelerant to a new life.

“Now it’s very easy for anybody to create their own brand,” Ellis said. “I don’t love using that word but it works in this sense, in that you can write a blog, you can start a video blog, you can podcast.

“You have the tools and ability to do all that stuff. So if that’s something you want to do, then the best way is to try come here, try get access and try get yourself off the ground.”

Getting off the ground is no longer an issue for Ellis. He is established and very much comfortable within the world he always wanted. The Starters have achieved gaudy success by breaking the mould. Woven in between astute basketball discussions - to that end, Ellis notes that he, along with his teammates, are students of the game – are humorous shenanigans, that often border on the ridiculous. Toilet habits, man scaping and wedgies run parallel to NBA nerdery and advanced analytics. It’s organised chaos, yet embedded in the madness is a formula that works. In March, the group completed their 1,000th episode on NBA TV.

“We have all watched so much basketball over our lives,” Ellis said, of The Starters. “We try to put on a show that is not only engaging, but also informing, entertaining and different.

“You are going to see our personalities on the show, as much as you are going to see highlights and analysis of the NBA. That’s something very important to us.”

Staying true to their origins is a point of emphasis for all involved with The Starters. Their fan base has been drawn in, and remains loyal, because they never pretend to be anything they are not. They aren’t ex-NBA players. In a heightened irony, that is their competitive advantage. They are basketball fans who, just like their audience, consume the sport from their living rooms with Twitter riding shotgun. And just like their audience, they have opinions to share with their friends.

“If you are watching the show for the personalities then that is great,” Ellis said. “Because you are tuning in to see the same guys every night. That is something that we like to highlight on the show.

“We all are very unique in our own way. We have our quirks and things that people like, and that makes it a fun show for us because we always get a chance to express ourselves as who we are as people, while also being professional in our analysis and breaking down of the NBA.”

Ellis’ personality comes barrelling into life every time he steps in front of the microphone.

He is equal parts endearing, knowledgeable and jovial; all wrapped around a basketball aficionado who fell in love with the game as a child. Perhaps that is the secret to his success. The reason why so many Australians look up to him. Ellis has made the big time and his innocent charm still resonates to this very day.

Ellis admits to feeling happy knowing he is able inspire people and provide them with the motivation to pursue their own career goal. Whether it’s in basketball, or just covering sport internationally from a global base, he is the blueprint on how it can be done.

“I think for Australians to see an Australian on NBA TV, it encourages them,” Ellis said. “To think that their dream, if it’s the same sort of dream that I had, is achievable in some way.

Ellis has proven that all things are possible, that it's possible to succeed, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Naturally, it doesn’t sound like he's going anywhere else.

“Because once you get an opportunity like this, you want to take it and hold onto it for as long as possible.”

Wise words, and oddly appropriate, given how he's always been introduced on the show.

"Here's Leigh Ellis... taking it to the max!"

And with that, comes the familiar, warm drawl we all recognise so well.