It happened on Saturday, but bears repeating: Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh played their first games as Milwaukee Bucks against the Golden State Warriors, of all teams. Fans had no adjustment time, their first glimpses of Ellis and Udoh in opposing uniforms occured at home. Shocking as the sight of both in red and green was, I was more surprised to hear Oracle in full-throated support of Ellis. This same crowd half-booed Baron’s return as a Clipper, and continues to jeer Mike Dunleavy, every time he visits. Monta had quite a rocky time in Oakland. There was the MoPed incident, declarations that he “just can’t” play with Stephen Curry, and a recent sexual harassment allegation. Moreover, there are indications that Ellis had wanted out, and he did not exactly seem heartbroken over leaving. But they loved him.
Monta Ellis was the inscrutable man who grew up right in front of us. He appeared relatable in the beginning, if only because his bulging eyes betrayed a raw, rookie terror. This fear was further amplified by his incredible quickness, it was like young Ellis was afraid of an unbridled force that pulled him faster than the speed at which he could process high pressure decisions.
He was a spindly kid, he’d come straight from high school in Mississippi to Oakland via the second round. I didn’t know what I assumed of his personality, but those first televised post-game interviews were shocking. He just didn’t make sense with words. Interview questions were swallowed up by his garble, though I’m sure that some watching back in Mississippi understood him just fine. Monta’s interviews revealed America as a bigger country than I’d previously known, a vast land where whole dialects flout the rules of English as I understand them.
That was the genius of And 1’s Ellis-based commercials. They probed Monta’s world for all its hardships, for all its warmth. They took you deep into Mississippi and into his childhood. These commerce-based manipulations are the closest I ever got to really feeling I knew anything of the man.
Alongside Baron Davis, Ellis grew into an efficient, exciting player. Davis would slash into the paint, kick out to Monta on the wing. Ellis would run toward the pass en route to the quickest layup in the league. I’ve never been the biggest Bob Fitzgerald fan but his, “Monta to the rim!” call was always fun.
The spindly kid mostly played a background role in that “We Believe” run. Either Don Nelson didn’t trust him, or the old man preferred to blast the Mavericks with a barrage of threes from surer shooters. It was working fine right up until the momentary disaster of Baron’s Game 6 injury. My viewing party assumed the worse, as the whole experience exuded “too good to be true.”
That was Monta’s call to action and he answered. The series may be remembered as the inevitable result of a bad matchup, but Ellis’ steady hand saved the day at a juncture that wasn’t the fourth quarter or final shot. Six threes from Stephen Jackson helped, of course.
From there, Ellis looked in control of his instrument, he even grew a deadly line drive jumpshot. I had never expected him to become a shooter, so this addition made his potential appear limitless.
In the Summer of 08′, Baron left for Los Angeles, the Warriors got Corey Maggette. This kicked off a dark period, an era marked by Monta’s leading of a sputtering GSW offense. Before it could even begin, Monta Ellis injured himself while driving a MoPed.
It got ugly. The Warriors did not know whether to part ways with damaged goods, punish their star, or merely welcome him back with open arms. Half measures resulted from an inter-organizational rift, poisoning the situation. In this league, stars are not fined millions of dollars by their teams, even if they screw up. It just isn’t done. But the Warriors did it, fining Monta 30 games worth of pay, right after signing him to a 66 million dollar contract. Chris Mullin’s ouster as GM soon followed.
Fortune favored the Warriors on 09′ draft night, as the Minnesota Timberwolves quite insanely drafted two point guards. Stephen Curry donned the GSW hat. Ellis welcomed the addition with the aforementioned declaration that the two simply couldn’t play together. Monta was probably right, bad optics aside.
It got bleaker. Don Nelson further descended into a whimsical kind of madness, occasionally playing all guard lineups. This era was marked by such incongruous horrors as Vladimir Radmanovic at center, and Mikki Moore playing major minutes. Ellis was no longer the hyper efficient complement to Baron Davis. He dominated the ball, often taking horrendous shots at the beginning of the shotclock. This tendency did not abate through the following Keith Smart and Mark Jackson stints.
And now, here we are. Many Warriors fans have hoped for this moment, the expedition of a decision that had been made long ago. “Steph or Monta?” has been hanging over this organization for years, and it is a relief to see it finally settled.
In my admittedly brief time covering Warriors games, I never saw the two talk once in the locker room. Though to be fair, Monta rarely spoke to anyone. He would come in, draped in Beats by Dre, holding a hand bag. Sometimes he would eat a turkey sandwich in the corner. After games he would often exit as he arrived, quickly and quietly.
He was always at a distance, but fans felt a visceral thrill from watching him play. There was a certain Iversonian romance to how Monta hurled himself into 360-degree layups. It connected with the crowd, even if every measure spoke to his negative impact on GSW’s record. They watched him grow up, from a distance. And they’ll always love him, at a distance.