Bruce Pearl understands the importance of basketball history and tradition. During his tenure in Knoxville, Pearl has done a remarkable job of reuniting former great players with the program — something that had been severely lacking before his arrival.
On Wednesday, that trend continued as two-time All-American Dale Ellis stepped to the podium to address the Big Orange Tipoff Club.
Ellis played for Coach Don DeVoe at Tennessee from 1980 until 1983 and was a force in the paint during that span. He left as the all-time leader in field goal percentage and currently ranks sixth all-time in scoring. Ellis’ teams made the NCAA Tournament each of the four seasons he played and won the SEC Championship in 1982.
“First of all I’d like to thank God for the opportunity to be back back in Big Orange Country,” Ellis said. “I’m always excited to be here.”
“The four years I spent here at the University of Tennessee were the best time of my life.”
As most great players do, Ellis was certain to credit his coach for the success he achieved on the basketball court.
“Playing for Don DeVoe was a wonderful experience,” Ellis said. “I had the opportunity to play for quite a few coaches over the years. I played with five professional basketball teams and Don Devoe was the toughest of them all — tooth and nails, foaming at the mouth intensity. He gave me an understanding of what it was going to take for me to get to the next level and I love him and I appreciate him for that.”
After a brief prepared statement, Ellis fielded questions from the crowd and was asked to share a favorite memory from his playing career in Knoxville.
“In my first NCAA Tournament we played VCU and I hit a shot at the end of the game,” Ellis recalled. “I was a freshman and Reggie (Johnson) was a senior. I would have loved to have played four years along side of Reggie. I think we could have done something special.”
“That shot actually gave me the confidence to go on and believe that I could actually do this on the college level and pursue a dream of playing professional basketball.”
Ellis, a 17-year NBA veteran, said Michael Jordan was one of the best he ever played against.
“Michael and I had to match up against each other at the guard position,” said Ellis. “It was difficult to play against (him).”
“I got up for it. It was easier for me to get up against a Michael Jordan than an average basketball player. I looked at it like this: all eyes were going to be on me,” Ellis joked.
“My teammates would laugh and joke about Michael coming to town and what he was going to do to me. I would laugh it off and let them know it’s not me he’s going to dunk on, it’s going to be one of you guys standing under the basket.”
Ellis’ transition from college to the NBA was an interesting one. While at Tennessee, he scored most of his points around the basket, but that wasn’t true in the NBA where he became a feared three-point shooter. Ellis is third all-time in NBA history in three-point baskets made.
“I was always a decent shooter,” Ellis said. “I grew up on the playground shooting one handed hook shots. I thought I was Kareem.”
“I was forced to play the center position as a youngster because I was taller than my teammates,” Ellis added. “It’s not where I wanted to play. I wanted to be on the outside. In pickup games that’s all I did. You couldn’t find me underneath the basket.”
Ellis admitted that after a life of playing basketball, watching games isn’t high on his priority list.
“To tell you the honest truth, I haven’t watched must basketball,” Ellis said. “I did so much playing. I spent so much time playing that I would rather watch a good movie than a basketball game.”
Before closing, the NBA legend was sure to compliment Bruce Pearl on the great job he is doing.
“The group that is here with Bruce Pearl, it’s a great group of players,” Ellis said. “I take my hat off to him. He’s doing a wonderful job with those guys. I know the mishap that happened a month or so ago. It’s a setback, but those things happen. But even so, look at the way this team is performing now. It’s amazing.”
Ellis was in attendance for Tennessee’s 69-60 victory over the Georgia Bulldogs at Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday night.