To truly understand what kind of player LaPhonso Ellis was for the Denver Nuggets, all you need to see is one video containing a single highlight. This occurred against the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1994... someone decided to take the ball down the middle against the Nuggets interior defense of Dikembe Mutombo and Phonz.
I believe the surprised/humiliated look on the player's face post-block sums up that play perfectly. You really need no other video clip to describe the play of the 6'8" power forward from Notre Dame and his abilities during that time. Truth be told, if you ask many Nuggets fans from around that time they would tell you that Phonz was their favorite player. He was definitely my favorite.
As with all Nuggets players of this era, there's a twinge of sadness that comes with this recollection. Much like his future teammate/successor Antonio McDyess, the Nuggets famous power forward curse claimed him (knee injuries), and after the Nuggets magical run in 1994 he was never the same.
High flying, dunk rattling, block getting, rebound gobbling...
Inside the palatial Colorado Sports Guys studios hangs one of my friend and colleague Ross Martin's favorite possessions. It is a signed #20 jersey of Laphonso Ellis. The first time I ever spoke with Ross about the jersey he told me the story of how he got the signature with a tremendous amount of pride. You can tell that it meant a lot to him and quite frankly I would hold it in the same regard. Not only because of what a good, dynamic, athletic player Ellis was - but for what a classy person he was and continues to be. If you want to see Phonz' impact on Nuggets fans in the early 90's, look no further than one Ross Martin.
When Ellis was drafted (5th pick in the 1992 draft) I felt it was another extension of the Nuggets draft lottery curse. The Nuggets finished with the second worst record in the NBA in 1992 and ended up with the fifth pick. I vividly remember listening to the draft on KOA radio and when the Nuggets drafted Ellis I was kind of scratching my head. Although I had been vaguely aware of Ellis prior to the draft, I really didn't KNOW him. What kind of player would he be for a team that was in transition from the disastrous Paul Westhead years to the shiny new Dan Issel era?
What was very much clear was Phonz' freakish athletic abilities, for example his many dunks where he would hang on the rim and swing around (Phonz was probably a primary reason the NBA instituted the "no hanging on the rim" policy) you can see a package of Ellis related highlights right here
In Phonz the Nuggets had a high flying, dunk rattling, block getting, rebound gobbling power forward with supreme athleticism - the likes of which hadn't been seen in Denver since the "good old days" of David Thompson. It's amazing when you look back on it to realize that up until Phonz came to Denver the relatively few freakishly athletically gifted players that came through Denver. In that vein it was up to Dan Issel to maximize the obvious raw talent and use him in the best way possible.
In the transition from Paul Westhead to Issel, the Nuggets went for a more deliberate approach, emphasizing an inside-out game rather than constant fast breaks (does this ring a bell Nuggets fans?). The Nuggets pace (according to basketball reference) went from 1st in 1991 and 7th in 1992 under Westhead - to 20th in 1993 under Issel. In Ellis, the Nuggets found the perfect compliment to Mutombo's inside presence. While not a gifted shooter, he did have the ability to "stretch" and developed a nice mid-range game by the time he reached his second year in Denver (the 1993-94 season).
In his rookie season Ellis averaged an astounding 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds in 82 games started. Remarkable considering he was thrown into the fire immediately. He made first team all-rookie for the 1992-93 season and was one of the brightest spots on the Nuggets squad entering in to the 1993-94 season. In that magical season for the Nuggets, Ellis increased his points per game average to 15.4 a game while still averaging 8.6 rebounds per. Keep in mind these are the first two season's of Phonz' career. That kind of average is pretty amazing for a power forward that young and the sky was the limit.
In the playoffs that year things kept on getting better. In 12 games played Ellis averaged 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds (in his first-ever playoff appearance!) and had an extremely memorable 27 points and 17 rebounds in Game 4 of the amazing first round series against the Seattle Supersonics. One of the best playoff performances of any Nuggets player ... in history. What happened that season pointed a certain "sky is the limit" air about both Ellis and Deke. And when the Nuggets drafted Jalen Rose in the1994 draft there was a feeling that things could only get better.
The smile that made everything better
On September 11th, 1994 in a pick up game with teammate and fellow 1992 first round draft pick Bryant Stith, Ellis suffered a stress fracture of his right kneecap. He played briefly at the end of the season, but was effectively gone for the year. That one injury, coupled with Bernie Bickerstaff's insistence on bringing in shooter and all-around bad guy Dale Ellis ended up being the death knell for one of the most exciting teams in Nuggets history. In one fell swoop the promise of 1994 was gone.
While Phonz would come back from that particular injury, that didn't stop Bickerstaff from trading for the second pick in the draft from the Clippers, that player was Antonio McDyess. Dyess was for all intents and purposes the "replacement" for Phonz. LaPhonso was hampered by injuries to both knees (in 1995-96 Ellis suffered an injury to his left knee which caused him to lose half the season) and a sports hernia for the rest of his career, finishing 82 games only once in the next 8 years. While Phonz did put up some good numbers on a horrible team (the 1997-98 Bill Hanzlik coached 11-71 team) he effectively was playing for another team. Phonz left for the Atlanta Hawks in 1998, ending his time with the Nuggets.
What could have been? That is a question Nuggets fans will forever ask. If Phonz doesn't get injured do the Nuggets fare better at the beginning of the season? Would this cause Issel to have a better frame of mind in the 1994-95 season and not resign midway through? Does Phonz' presence mitigate the bad influence of Dale Ellis on the team? These are questions that will never be answered. We will never know.
What IS known, however, is what an absolute class act Phonz was during his time in Denver. Believe me when I say that there have been some loved athletes that have come through this town, but you would have a tough time topping Phonz for pure class and all around great attitude. Despite some injuries that might have crushed a lesser person, Ellis' was able to persevere and put in some good seasons despite battling through constant injuries. All the while ingratiating himself with the fans of Denver. There are many, many tales of Ellis' charitable efforts as well as his interaction with the fans in Denver that has left everyone saying the same thing: What a great guy.
In an age where it's easy to get cynical about the motives of athletes, Phonz ... during his time in Denver proved that you can be both a good player and a better person. Just ask Ross Martin, or even Nuggets Media Relations man Tim Gelt, who said that Ellis was "...one of the most important players in Nuggets history." and Gelt has even developed a good friendship with Phonz in recent years. Those kinds of interactions and relationships were pretty common with Phonz.
I've never had a chance to meet LaPhonso Ellis. Would love the opportunity in the future though. What would I say?
Well, I'd shake his hand and say "Thank you, Phonz. Thank you.".