On every block in his hometown of Jackson, Miss., there’s a story about Monta Ellis. The very mention of the “Mississippi Bullet” sparks unbelievable stories of the South’s living legend. And now, Monta’s here to make the NBA believe.
Cruising down Route 55 through central Mississippi, there are roughly twenty different McDonald’s between Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi. Aside from the occasional Playplace, there’s little to distinguish one from another. That is, except for the legend of Monta Ellis and the masses who once followed him to the Golden Arches on East 15th Street in Yazoo City.
“We went to McDonald’s to eat after the Yazoo City game Monta’s senior year, and cars and cars and trucks came, just loads trying to get his autograph,” says former Lanier High School (Jackson, Miss.) assistant coach Jonas James. “Once we started moving, we didn’t stop moving until we got on the bus. People came all the way from close up by Memphis to Yazoo City, ’cause that’s the closest game of Monta’s they mighta seen. They’d come that far. ‘I want to see Monta Ellis.’ He was that great a show. There was at least 600-700 people outside just to see him.”
Grown men guided their kids, or vice versa, to get a glimpse of Monta, now the 22-year-old Golden State Warriors‘ franchise guard, who back then was as much of a mythical figure in Mississippi as he was a basketball player. His statistical rap sheet of 4,167 career points and a 129-16 record at Lanier justified a packed house whenever he suited up. But the 200-mile road trips and mobbed fast food stopovers weren’t just to see a rare preps-to-pros prospect. People fueled their trucks to catch a glimpse of the “Mississippi Bullet,” a fabled star whose legend as a modern day basketball-bouncing version of Paul Bunyan surpassed even his ridiculous accomplishments on the hardwood.
“Every gym we went to — I don’t care how big or small it was — it sold out,” says James. “Some people was still in awe. Some people would still be in disbelief — those that didn’t know him or didn’t see him all the time. And once they came to a game and saw the proof in the pudding? Oh baby.”
But this fairy tale isn’t written in the pages of some storybook. It’s etched in the heart of Jackson, an unforgiving city where Monta fearlessly fought to make it off of his block on Horseshoe Circle. By dedicating every aspect of his life to basketball, Monta built the electrifying game that first made him a Mississippi legend, and now has people from coast to coast calling him the most exciting young guard in the League.
“How can I put this?” Monta thinks aloud. “Get a cat. Nah, nah, get a puppy — get one of the smallest dogs. Get a Chihuahua. Take it and put it in the middle, surrounded by pitbulls. That’s how it was like. You think that Chihuahua would be afraid of them pits? That’s about right. That’s how it is. I’m in the middle of that surrounding. I’m in the middle of it and everything outside, around that area where I stayed is like drugs, gangbanging, murder, all that around me.”
Back on that block, where Monta looked the worst that Jackson had to offer right in the face, he developed an impenetrable cool — the same one that is unmistakable in his voice now. Sure he was intimidated, vulnerable, scared. But he never ran. He and his cousins still walked out the front door of their houses, turned their backs on the blacktop that Monta’s mother forbade them from going to as it was better suited for gangbangers than ballplayers, and turned Horseshoe Circle into their own court. They transformed telephone poles into baskets and converted any round object with bounce into a basketball.
“It was pretty much whatever we could put together to play basketball,” says Ellis. “It could be a crate on this end and then a garbage can or a bike rim on the other end, so whatever we could put up there to play. Whatever it took. A regular ball would fit through. But the little mini balls they sell — we used to go to the fair and win mini basketballs — but we’d play with a tennis ball. If it bounced and could fit through that rim…”
Everything about Monta’s life was consumed by hooping. Right next to the little TV, the video game setup, and the dozen or so basketball video games stacked on his dresser, Monta had hundreds of tapes of old games that his trainer Omhar Carter gave him. Carter recorded basically everyone who came through Jackson on VHS, and Ellis was an eager audience. After he played the tapes back on his tube, Monta darted out of the house and added those moves to his repertoire.
“I watched them, and whatever I seen on the tape, just like a kid, I used to go out and try it,” says Ellis. “I’d try to go out and do the moves I seen them do. I would just add a little more to my game. That’s all it was.”
“He was hungry — he isolated himself,” says Carter. “He wasn’t a guy that looked to be around other guys. He was the type of guy that stuck around the people that he worked out with. He was always thinking about basketball. He always looked like a basketball player.”
Even when he went to the movies, the mall or some indoor building that didn’t have a hoop, Monta looked the part. And by keeping his basketball uniform on — whether it was a pair of team shorts or a shooting shirt — after he left the gym, Monta sent a message to the kids in his neighborhood: I’m not like you.
“I separated myself from all the mess that was going on so I could better myself. That’s why people always say I look like a basketball player. That’s the only thing that could separate me from everything going on — basketball. So that’s why all I did was play basketball.”
While image is king in the hood, it meant nothing to Monta on the hardwood. Sure, his wardrobe helped to differentiate him from the rest of his block, but it didn’t do anything to distinguish him from everyone else in the gym. Within those walls, he had to earn his rep. Starting in the eighth grade, Monta hooked up with former Arkansas State player Isaac Wells and former Tupelo Community College standout Shawn Johnson for killer training sessions every day. The Mississippi Basketball Association gym became battlegrounds for their three-man round-robin games to 24 points — three dribbles, max — in which someone walked out of the gym in tears or bloodied on the regular.
“Every day we couldn’t leave the gym unless somebody had a bloody nose, a bloody lip, something like that,” remembers Wells. “I’m being serious — I can remember days leaving the gym crying. That’s how serious it was between us.”
These drills shaped Monta’s game. Though he’d built a foundation for his supersonic speed by zipping from room to room in his house to avoid getting a whoopin’ from his cousins, the drills that emphasized efficiency and explosiveness are the bedrock for the player that he is today. Watching Monta in the League is eerily similar to these games. How many times does he need more than three dribbles to score?
“For people that don’t know Monta, his game hasn’t changed at all to me,” says Wells. “The only thing is that it’s smoother, it’s more crisp. That’s it. His game hasn’t changed at all. He does the same thing but it’s more smooth.”
When Monta walked into the Greenwood (Miss.) High gym in January 2005, the conditions were as tough as any one he’d ever walked into. As Mississippi’s favorite son, Monta never really met a hostile crowd. Throughout his high school career, there were legends of opposing teams standing up to applaud him just as they’d cheer for their own squad. But this night was destined to be different. After ripping off a 65-point performance the first time Lanier hosted Greenwood — 50 of which came in the second half — Monta and his crew took the two-hour ride to Greenwood, and walked into a war zone.
“Man, were they talking,” says Carter, “saying that he wouldn’t get his points again, that he wouldn’t be able to score like that again.”
“Monta first walks into the gym, the gym was packed,” remembers James. “In the front row, these guys who always heckle the players get on Monta. ‘You ain’t gon’ score no 65 tonight! You ain’t gon’ score but 17!’
“Well, when I first walked into the gym and we was going to sit down, there was a couple of dudes in the front row jus’ screaming. ‘Monta! Monta! Monta you only gon’ get 17 tonight! You only getting 17 tonight!'” recalls Monta. “So I was like, ‘Which quarter?'”
He sat out the last three minutes of the second quarter with foul trouble, and went into the half with 23. As soon as he walked out of that locker room, he tacked three threes on the scoreboard. Then it came like an avalanche.
“The next thing you know, I had 72.”
He was wetting threes from 25 feet, blowing past defenders for one-handed tomahawks, and tip-dunking his teammates’ misses. He put up 30 in the fourth quarter, and outscored Greenwood by 16 — on his own. Along with Dajuan Wagner‘s legendary 100-point game at Camden High (N.J.), and DeMatha’s (Hyattsville, Md.) unfathomable upset of Lew Alcindor‘s Power Memorial (N.Y.) in 1965, Monta’s 68.5-point average in two games against Greenwood transcends the actual performance. The story has taken on a life of its own. And in that way, it’s like a Bunyan-esque tall tale. The only difference is that it’s all true. …
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