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Ellis sees court from other side

Matt Lozar | Monday, November 17, 2003

Mike Brey almost scheduled his team into an exhibition loss.Brey called Notre Dame graduate LaPhonso Ellis and asked him if he would be interested in playing against the Irish when they played the Illinois All-Stars. Ellis thought Brey was just joking around, but Ellis returned Brey’s phone call and found out Notre Dame’s coach was serious. He decided to jump at the opportunity.”I made the phone call to see how serious [Brey] actually was and obviously he was,” Ellis said. “He of course needed to check with the Illinois All-Stars and the coaches to see if it was OK with them before he offered. A couple things came together [and I got to play].”Ellis was already coming to Notre Dame with his son for a “Dad-Son” weekend to watch the Irish in the exhibition game and the football team play Brigham Young. What made Ellis’ performane – 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting, nine rebounds and four assists – even more amazing, was that Friday night was the Notre Dame star’s first game since he retired from the NBA in April.But he credits his stat line on the abilities of his teammates, especially their impressive 3-point shooting (15-of-27).”It was great. I had great teammates who could penetrate and shoot the basketball. When you are playing with guys who really know how to play the game, it makes everything else easier,” Ellis said. “Catching the ball on the inside, looking at guys and they know how to cut and just dropping passes for easy lay-ups. “When you are playing with really good players, it makes the game so much easier.”That combined performance by Ellis and the rest of the Illinois All-Stars gave Brey some thoughts as this game stayed close the entire night.As Torrian Jones toed the free throw line with 1.4 seconds remaining and his team needing two free throws to send the game into overtime, Brey was formulating ways to turn an exhibition loss, a loss he would have been responsible for, into something good during practice this week. “I was thinking as [Torrian] was going back for his second free throw, ‘We can turn this into something over the next week,'” Brey said. “To have him hit those free throws and have the will to finish the game I thought was good. I wanted to add LaPhonso and then when he was spinning and shooting [jumpers] and passing, I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh, way to go, coach.'”Ellis has scrimmaged with the Irish on football weekends and has good relationships with most of the team. The one player who Ellis especially takes a liking to is forward Torin Francis. With Ellis and Francis both being low-post players, Ellis has a good feel for the Irish sophomore and sees a player who is close to becoming dominant.”He has a great upside potential. With Torin, he rebounds the ball very well. He is strong down there. If there is one thing I have to encourage him with is to really take his time down there and to realize he is pretty close to unstoppable,” Ellis said.”He is awfully tough down there and I love the confidence that he is playing with. The thing I love so much about him is that last year, he progressed and got better and better, culminating with his great performance throughout the NCAA Tournament. I just have a lot of affection for all of those guys, but particularly Torin, because when you’ve had a year like that and end the way he ended there is a bit of pressure that comes from the outside. “He worked really hard this summer, he looks in great shape, and I think he is going to have a great year.”Eleven years after playing his last game with the Irish, Ellis suited up against his former team in a place where he spent four years exciting Notre Dame fans.Friday night, even though some of the details are different, the trip back for Ellis was well worth it.”Although the environment isn’t the same, the JACC hasn’t changed. I love playing in here. The energy is a little different,” Ellis said. “Obviously the cast of characters on the side is a little different and the uniforms are different, I can’t say it was unusual. “There were enough things that were different that didn’t make it unusual but enjoyable.”