American Basketball “Exiles” in the Wacky World of Filipino Basketball

With three minutes to play in the second quarter, Rosell Ellis has a look on his face that is two parts disbelief, three parts frustration, and a dash of homicidal wrath. It’s late July 2007, and in Game 5 of the best-of-seven Philippine Basketball Association Finals, Ellis, the 32-year-old former Washington state player of the year for Rainier Beach High School and now import for the PBA’s Alaska Aces, is taking his first breather of the night.

Fuming on the bench, Ellis has just watched Dale Singson, one of his Filipino teammates, lunge into the lane like a doomed soldier leaping out of a trench. Three long-armed defenders were waiting for Singson, who bunny-hopped sideways and sent up a one-hander, which an opponent swatted into the crowd. Ellis’ forehead wrinkled and his eyes bulged. Rocking back and forth and shaking his fists, he alternated between mouthing obscenities and chewing on his lower lip.

Before the PBA finals, Ellis seemed primed to win his first championship as an international player. Early in the series, he was named the PBA’s best import, and his teammate, Willie Miller, won the league’s MVP award. With Ellis, Miller, and a veteran supporting cast, Alaska (not to be confused with the state) was favored over the younger Talk ‘N Text Phone Pals. But after routing their opponents in Game 1, the Aces faded. Alaska dropped Games 2 and 3 and managed to steal Game 4 with a late surge.

Now, in the crucial fifth game, they were playing their worst basketball of the postseason. The guards repeatedly chucked blind shots at the rim. The big men played like they had traded their high-tops for cement clogs. On defense, Ellis grew tired of watching Talk ‘N Text guard Mac-Mac Cardona blow past Alaska’s flat-footed defenders, so Ellis waved off his teammates and manned up on Cardona himself, forcing the speedy guard to heave an impossible turnaround from 19 feet. But when the miss caromed off the rim, Ellis’ teammates let an opposing forward grab the offensive rebound and score on a put-back.

Just before halftime, Talk ‘N Text point guard Donbel Belano snagged a long rebound off a missed Alaska jumper, slalomed the length of the court through Alaska’s indifferent defenders, pulled up at the top of the key, and rolled in a three-point shot that sent Alaska into the locker room trailing by nine points. With his best shot at a title slipping away due to his teammates’ ongoing carelessness, Ellis was ready to express his anger with more than a facial expression.

With his teammates seated around him in the locker room, heads bowed, Ellis began talking about the game. “You got in the game for eight minutes, and you ain’t do shit!” he screamed. “If I’m gonna be out there busting my ass, you best believe you better go out there and bust your ass. You ain’t gonna ride me to death. Fuck that! I’m talking to everybody collectively now, but in a minute I’m starting to get personal.”

Tim Cone, Alaska’s head coach, was also furious with the team, and thought Ellis’ invectives were some kind of fiery pep talk. Cone tried to transition from Ellis’ tirade into his own speech. He walked over to Ellis, patted him on the thigh, and said, “I got it now, Roe.”

But rather than yielding to his coach, Ellis bolted to his feet, got in Cone’s face, and screamed, “Fuck that! You ain’t got shit!” Ellis then blamed the coaches for letting the team go soft. “You guys just stand there collecting a check,” he said to his superiors. “What are you guys here for? You don’t say nothing! When a guy comes out the game, tell him what he did wrong or tell him what he needs to do. Don’t just be sitting there. That’s what the goddamn fans are for.”

“Fuck you, Roe!” Cone shot back, and from there, the two faced off in a foul-mouthed tête-à-tête as the other players and coaches watched in horror. Here were the two most important people on the team—the 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound star player, a towering mass of muscle, a web of veins bulging in his forearms and neck as he clenched his fists; and Cone, the 5-foot-10-inch, middle-aged, mildly potbellied head coach—on the verge of attacking each other.

Beneath the surface of this ugly confrontation, you’ll find the essence of Ellis’ life in basketball: an incident of on-court violence in Ellis’ past that nixed his NBA chances; the pressure of being a hired gun abroad, tasked to play with strangers and accept a disproportionate amount of responsibility for a team’s fortunes; the grief that accompanies missing out on his loved ones’ lives in Seattle; and the passion and professionalism Ellis brings to the game, which, despite his volatile temper, have earned him a reputation as one of the true gentlemen of international basketball.

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