One year and two weeks ago from today, I was eating with my family at a Ruby Tuesday’s in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson wasn’t our final destination. It was just the last stop for lunch off the interstate before we checked into a little two room state-run cabin in nearby Bienville National Forest.
But that’s all extraneous information. You have no interest in my family’s past vacation plans, and I would have no interest in sharing this specific anecdote had it not been for a conversation I happened to overhear as I made my way to the restroom. The conversation took place between two men who were seated in a booth near the bathroom. One man was black, one was white, and both were very old and weathered. They sat across from each other and spoke wistfully about whatever it is that old, weathered men talk about.
They had drawn my attention from the moment we sat down. This was mostly due to the fact that they were the only other patrons in the restaurant, but there was something else about them too. They seemed like the kind of interstate diner regulars who had their own booth, ordered nothing but the daily special, and called the waitresses all by their first name. They just happened to be displaced inside of a Ruby Tuesdays.
They were seated too far away for me to eavesdrop, although I tried my best to overhear. I tried to imagine what they could possibly be talking about when one would start to flail their arms dramatically and send the other into wheezing spouts of laughter. But my guesses were only guesses and I needed more.
In this way, my bathroom visit took on two purposes. The first was conventional. I needed to drain my bladder before we hit the road once more. Still, I was more than willing to use it as one in order to accomplish a second task – infiltrating these old men’s conversation and gathering as much intel as I could about their assumed salt of the Earth wisdom and overall friendship dynamic.
That is why my ears were perked en route to the toilet. Sadly, I happened to pass by just as a particularly spirited anecdote came to an end and the conversation hit a lull. Disappointed, I slowed my pace hoping that something particularly insightful would arise before I was out of earshot. Instead, the two men just continued to chuckle at some past happening and sipped their coffee. Then, one of the men gathered himself and said, “Monta freakin’ Ellis, the Mississippi Missile.” More stifled laughter, more sips of coffee.
I have no other context to put that quote into. I don’t even know if that preceding tall tale had anything to do with Monta Ellis at all, but it takes very little stretching of the imagination to imagine the flailing arm gesture representing some helpless defender of the past, forever immortalized in story as another victim of the 6’3 phenom from Lanier High School. Monta freakin’ Ellis, the Mississippi Missile.
That Monta Ellis’ name arose during this particular conversation in no way makes it an outlier or exception. I have a good friend who, while spending time in Jackson playing basketball at Millsaps College, was often regaled with recollections of the feats accomplished by the youthful Monta. “People said he would pull up just across half court and shoot it,” he told me. “Once, an opponent told him that he wouldn’t be able to score 20 points. He dropped 72 on them.”
Small town legends often inflate with time and become saturated with hyperbole. Some of the stories you hear about Monta Ellis’ days at Lanier High School sound like they have lost some of their detail to time, fallen prey to the haziness of the past and the fading of memory. And that’s true. That opponent never said Monta would be held to 20 points. He said that Monta couldn’t score more than 17. Monta’s response to that remark: “I asked which quarter.”
That 72 point mark, well, that’s documented fact. As of 2013, that total stood as the most points scored in a game in the history Lanier High School. Those half court threes are a little bit harder to fact check, but at least three happened in that record setting game. Two heat check half court chunks went in. The third rolled out.
You may have heard whispers of the friendship between Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo being a potential advantage for Dallas after Smith was waived by the Pistons. It wound up not being enough to keep Smith from going to Houston, but it was not fabricated. Smith and Rondo went to high school together at Oak Hill. Their Oak Hill squad ran into Monta’s Lanier team once in tournament play. Monta scored 42 points on them. Josh Smith allegedly gave his tournament MVP trophy to Ellis after the game as a sign of respect.
In Jackson, the nearest professional sports franchise is five and a half hours away in Atlanta. Monta Ellis was the star attraction in Mississippi. Thousands of patrons would crowd into high school gymnasiums wearing Monta jerseys and t-shirts. Ellis verbally committed to Mississippi State, but he never attended. Instead he declared for the draft straight out of high school and wound up being selected 40th overall in the second round by the Golden State Warriors. That declaration ended an era of Montaball in the state of Mississippi.
Jackson is the largest city and capital in Mississippi, but there are 137 bigger cities in the US. At 172, 638 residents, Jackson sits right in between No.137 Oceanside, California and No.139 Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Ten years ago, Jackson had over 180,000 people. The population has been in steady decline ever since. Barring some sort of economic boom or insidious overreaching expansion campaign by the league, there will never be an NBA team in Mississippi.
But Jackson did manage to send one remarkable projectile, a missile if you will, right into the heart of the professional basketball. For now, he resides six hours to the west, down interstate 20, in Dallas. True to his roots, he’s produced more than a few awe inspiring moments to keep old men in diners chatting about his exploits during his time with the Mavericks: dramatic game winning buzzer beaters against Portland and Milwaukee, the series against San Antonio last spring, countless drives and impossible finishes.
Monta Ellis has the option to opt out of his contract at the end of this season. Mark Cuban has expressed the desire to keep this current cast intact, but money is money and free agency is a fickle business. Right now Monta Ellis is playing like an All-Star- averaging 20.6 points, 4.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds a game. He most certainly won’t get to make the trip to Brooklyn due to a loaded Western Conference backcourt and a popular voting system that has Jeremy Lin and Kobe Bryant ranked higher, but at a little over $8 million a year, Monta Ellis is a relative steal. If he opts out, he’ll almost certainly be a hotter commodity than he was when he walked away from Milwaukee two years ago.
Let’s not be morbid, though. Montaball won’t be happening in Dallas forever, but it’s here now and it’s quite a show. If you appreciate it, you should vote daily to get him into the All-Star game, but that’s your choice. Either way, I have the creeping notion that more than a few of us will wind up in a booth somewhere someday chuckling, sipping coffee, flailing our arms wildly, and mumbling, “Monta freakin’ Ellis, the Mississippi Missile.”