The Private Inferno Of Dale Ellis -- A Hard-Driving Basketball Player's Unrelenting Success On The Court Belied Trouble Outside The Arena



MARIETTA, Ga. - On the evening after Dale Ellis almost killed himself in a car accident, his family spent the night in his room at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center.

Money for a hotel suite was not the problem, not now. They are as secure as Ellis himself, whose $7.4 million contract with the Seattle SuperSonics ensures that his mother never again will need to sleep on the hard surface of box springs. Lucille, Vivien, Stephanie and his twin, Darryl, merely preferred to be near him, so they curled up in chairs and on sofas around his hospital bed.

Not much was said. Tubes ran from Ellis' chest to drain blood. He had three broken ribs, a collapsed lung and the bruised look of a person recently inside a two-seat Mercedes when thrust at high speed against an Interstate ramp divider. He barely moved, rarely spoke. So he gave short, quiet answers - ``I'll be fine'' - that failed to soothe the fear and puzzlement the family had carried 2,500 miles on its sudden trip from Marietta.

Why this, again? Still pending against him was a lawsuit started 19 months earlier after Ellis wrecked a loaned BMW - another late-night, high-speed, one-car accident that could have turned fatal. He hit the ramp divider in that one, too. On the same highway. After another Sonic game.

What possibly could torment him? He has what no other kid from the Marietta housing projects achieved - a high-profile career in pro basketball, a sterling home in the suburbs, travel, a college degree and enough cash to buy several cars, several Mercedes even - and essentially one requirement to keep it all coming: that he be around to collect it.

Yet, since joining the Sonics in July 1986, Ellis, 29, has been arrested three times, convicted in a domestic-violence incident with his wife, Monique, and put on probation, cited for at least 17 speeding and other moving violations, and been involved in three car accidents. Now, after his expected return to the court this month, he faces the possibility of a brief stay in jail if convicted of driving while intoxicated for the early-morning Jan. 12 wreck at the Mercer Street entrance to Interstate 5.

Lucille Ellis spoke with her son later in the week about life - of invincibility and fragility, the fibers of the tightrope Dale maneuvers with such insistence. And she prayed, a Baptist woman hovering over her youngest son and former junior deacon, whose father, too, had a collapsed lung before his death from a gunfight.

``I don't want him to die and be lost,'' she said. ``I want him to be safe. I want him to go to church. He's grown up in the church, you know.

``That is what I want for him.''


Crestview Baptist Church

Protestant chapels sprout from the red clay of Cobb County, Ga., like museums, robust shrines as fixed to the rural landscape as the Chattahoochee River. Most have message boards out front, reaching out to drivers with Bible quotes and religious axioms.

A half-hour drive northwest from Atlanta, Marietta succumbs, reluctantly, to what a Yankee calls progress. Amid the disposable culture of fast-food outlets and ``unisex'' hair salons that signal the inevitable direction of Marietta, seat of the 11th-fastest-growing county in the country, Confederate flags flutter in the soft wind.

Dale Ellis is one of those Marietta mementos. He left for the University of Tennessee 11 years ago, the realization of what the town of 30,000 aspired to make of its underprivileged youth. He was that rare kid who spent his lunch hour in the library with a book, that impeccable athlete who never missed a practice, was never late, never even argued with the coach. Among the first group of children to go through integrated schools, Ellis still gets credit today as a social pioneer, for his popularity brought together whites and blacks at Marietta High.

They wrote a song about Dale Ellis, Marietta's all-state forward, just before the state tournament. Then the coaches sang it before him at a pep rally where sheets of the lyrics sold for $1 each, to raise money for the trip to Macon.

``People respect him because he always did the right thing,'' said Marietta Coach Charlie Hood. ``He didn't go to the wrong places and didn't hang around with the wrong kids.

``I'd take any number of Dales on my next team,'' he said, ``even if they can't play a lick.''

The youngest sons of a Korean War veteran, twins Dale and Darryl were raised amid discipline and family pride, if little money. The Ellises qualified for welfare, but their mother refused it. They lived in the projects, but the furniture was clean, the floors stayed waxed, the refrigerator worked.

Sunday school and church were musts. Time for homework was no less mandatory.

They did not hang out at night in front of the liquor stores. The Ellises stayed in the apartment - other kids were not allowed inside - and played board games, or watched TV, as Lucille cleaned and ironed their clothes for the next day. Even though the schools were public, the Ellises wore uniforms: white shoes, blue slacks, white-collared shirts. Creases in the pants, no mud on the shoes, rigid starch on the shirts. Every day.

``The kids at school didn't care to see that stuff, 'cause some of them would be wearing the same clothes as yesterday,'' said Vivien, 33, Dale's older brother. ``It made us look a little bit uppity, as if we thought we were in the wrong place (the projects).

``We were poverty. We were as destitute as anyone else. But we were respectful and destitute. We were not your regular individuals in the projects.''

That way of living had a cost, Vivien believes, and that was his father's life. On Sept. 22, 1969, John Henry Ellis Jr. was shot to death at age 42, the victim, Vivien says, of intra-family animosity.

John knew the man, a distant in-law, and for years they rode to work at the Lockheed plant together. But Vivien said the man did not like the Ellises, and on that day in an all-black Marietta restaurant tempers boiled over. The man shot John in the back. John turned and fired, hitting him. The gunfight ended with one last blast, a bullet through the heart of John Ellis.

``They argued, he shot him, he died,'' Lucille said.

The older children grieved the loss openly. One night Lucille sent Stephanie to bed, only to find her in the morning in another room curled up in the love seat where her father sat every Sunday night, sharing ice cream and Walt Disney with his kids. Another time Lucille discovered Vivien on his knees in the bathroom praying, weeping as if, she said, ``he didn't have no one but himself anymore.''

If Dale felt the same, he did not let on. Dale and Darryl had to stay home when the family went to the hospital. Too young, they were told. So Dale dealt with the matter on his own, a 9-year-old pillar of strength. Vivien can't recall him ever crying, and the twins rarely talked about it after that.

John left Lucille $737.20 in leftover pay and five children to care for: Vivien, 12; Stephanie, 11; Nina, 10; and the twins. She took jobs at a restaurant in the morning and a chicken-preparation company until the evening, then would come home late and cook dinner, often falling asleep in a chair after pressing clothes. By the time the kids would wake up in the morning she was back at work. Breakfast was on the stove.

The consolation to living without a father, and rarely seeing their mother, was that the Ellises got out of the projects. John's death brought on another source of income, Social Security, which allowed them to move into a house and to keep buying new basketball sneakers for the boys.

``You wonder what would have happened if he had lived,'' said Vivien. ``That might have been the break that we had to have. Now, that's a hell of a way to go through a break. But that's the way it was.''

Dale found a magnificent way to channel each hardship. Whatever emotions percolated inside he carried to the basketball court, where the ball bounced the same for everyone, the rims were forever fair and unchanged, and Dale could control his fate. As he said in a 1987 interview, ``Whenever I had problems I'd go out on the court and shoot until I couldn't put it up there anymore. I'm the kind of person who holds everything inside.''

Rather than allowing that anger to subside, he used it, turned it up and into motivation and concentration on the court, refining a focus that would make him among the best shooters ever to play in the National Basketball Association. And it worked, this private inferno. He was a starter his sophomore year at Marietta, was all-state his last two years, then had his pick of college scholarships.

Beyond Marietta, though, the high-stakes, heavy-pressure scenario Dale set up for himself no longer yielded constant, obvious victories - his catharses. He sat on the bench at Tennessee only one season, his freshman year, but brooded much of his college career that his talents were misused.

In July 1983, two weeks after the Dallas Mavericks drafted him, Ellis was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated.

At 4 a.m. that Wednesday in Knoxville, court records state, Ellis drove his new Jaguar up to the rear of a state patrol car at about 70 mph. He slowed down, then passed. Police watched as Ellis weaved back and forth across both lanes. Ellis told them he was drinking beer, and a test revealed a 0.10 percent blood-alcohol level.

Ellis pleaded not guilty, and the DWI charge was dismissed at trial nine days later. His attorney said there were questions about the accuracy of the test.

Ellis refused a blood-alcohol test on his most recent DWI arrest. King County prosecutors are building their case on circumstantial evidence, alleging that he had at least four double shots of vodka at two bars and that his black coupe blew by witnesses at 60 mph in a 35-mph zone moments before the accident. About an hour earlier, Ellis had dropped off Dallas Mavericks guard Derek Harper at his downtown hotel.

While the Dale Ellis that Marietta knows does not smell of alcohol, or stumble and fall at 2 a.m. next to a highway ramp with a collapsed lung - which police say happened Jan. 12 - Ellis was acting not completely unlike he did when growing up. Only this time, that internal-combustion engine landed him in the wrong place.

``In Marietta he focused on basketball and that's all he wanted to do,'' said Darryl, now working for Vivien in the family business, a Marietta telephone-contracting company. ``Now that he's gotten where he wanted to be, he's got his focus on a lot of other things.

``That sums it up. He just gets more frustrated now when things don't go right for him.''


Mount Harmony Baptist Church

Among the top NBA players, Ellis cuts a mysterious swath. Few are as efficient, or as insistently private as ``Lamar Mundane,'' a nickname given by his Sonic teammates. While perhaps no player dominated All-Star weekend in Houston last year as thoroughly as Ellis, he was equally conspicuous with his absence of enthusiasm.

``. . . Daaale Ellissss,'' boomed the announcer at the All-Star presentation the evening after he won the three-point shooting contest. Several thousand corporate sponsors, league executives and other well-dressed visitors peered through the darkness to the glittery stage as the spotlight swung to where Ellis was supposed to walk out.

No Ellis. Just skipped it.

The next day he started for the Western Conference, made 12 of 16 shots for 27 points and finished third in most-valuable player balloting. Then he dressed and left the locker room, alone.

``My mother always said, `Quiet people are the ones you've got to watch out for,' '' said Harper, whose friendship with Ellis goes back to when they were rookies together in Dallas. ``That's the way Dale is. He'll do anything to win when we play tennis. Cheat. Call the ball out. And if we beat Seattle he's just sick, even today.''

Rare are the times when Ellis draws attention to himself on the court. Whatever singes him, he collects in his lips, in a ball that purses tighter with every bad call by officials and allows few bitter words to escape. Until consecutive ejections for arguing in the week of his recent accident, he had gone all season without getting thrown out of a game.

But pity those, such as former Dallas Coach Dick Motta, who find themselves in Ellis' line of sight. By focusing so intensely on the Mavericks, with whom he sat on the bench for three years, Ellis propelled the Sonics past highly favored Dallas in the first round of the 1987 playoffs, leading to Motta's resignation after the season.

In the next round, Ellis dismantled the Houston Rockets, with an assist from that city's policemen. Feeling he was wrongly arrested during a nightspot scuffle that landed him in jail for an evening in Houston, Ellis turned his anger on the Rockets and shot down the 1986 NBA-championship finalists. That club has never been the same since.

Even Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls has found himself the target of Ellis' determination. Last season, the most vaunted scorer in the NBA was held to 19.5 points a game against the Sonics, mostly because of Ellis' stonewall defense.

``Dale thinks he's the best (shooting) guard in the league, including Jordan,'' Harper said. ``He thinks he can score 40 points on anybody.''

Peculiar to Ellis is that he tends to play his best when he's at his worst off the court, as if nothing can keep him down. The recent accident followed that pattern, for several hours earlier he had one of his few stellar games this season, scoring 10 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Mavericks.

The season after he won the NBA most-improved-player award - for increasing his scoring average 17.8 points a game, the largest one-season jump in NBA history - had the makings of a collapse:

- In October 1987, after he failed to get a renegotiated contract, he threatened to leave the team. The grudge stuck with him all season.

- In November, he wrecked the loaned BMW and abandoned it. The owner of the company that sued Ellis in May 1988 for payment of the car, Brian Burns of Complete Automotive, said Ellis settled the suit last month on the afternoon he was charged with his most recent DWI.

- In December, he spoke publicly of marital problems and checked into a hotel because ``things were falling apart.'' He soon moved back to his home in Bellevue with Monique and their daughter, Ashley, but 13 months later Ellis was arrested in the domestic-violence incident and put on probation.

- In February 1988, he received his third late-night ticket in two months, this time for running a red light. Overall, Ellis' driving record shows one moving violation in 1986, three in 1987, seven in 1988, and four in 1989, before he was charged with DWI and reckless driving two months ago. Ellis, who did not apply for a Washington driver's license until November 1988, got most of those tickets on Texas and Tennessee licenses.

- In March, Monique had to be separated by police from the wife of Sonic teammate Alton Lister, Bobby Jo, in a post-game fight outside the Sonic locker room at the Coliseum. The fight culminated a season-long feud between the wives that began after Lister was given a contract similar to what Ellis wanted.

Ellis also began showing up late for practice that 1987-88 season, skipped out on promised community appearances, refused to give the normal post-game radio interviews and declined other media requests. Yet his on-court concentration was unswerving: Ellis raised his team-leading scoring average to 25.8 points a game (seventh-best in the NBA) and made more than half of his shots.

The off-court troubles continued in June, when Ellis was cited for inattention for a Bellevue accident in his Jaguar. But, pronouncing that ``I'm 100 percent confident in Dale as a person,'' Sonic President Bob Whitsitt rewarded Ellis in October 1988 with a contract that made him the second-highest-paid guard in the NBA, behind Jordan.

``Let me tell you, Dale thinks that in basketball there's no one tougher than he is,'' Vivien said.

Ellis, though, never truly has been invincible. Sometimes, money just pushes the consequences away.

Each time he's wrecked his car, he's had another at home. The $1,600 in tickets and court costs over the past four years make for a fraction of his salary. At least four attorneys have worked for him since coming to Seattle, and for his current case he employs Steve Hayne, one of the top DWI experts in the state, and private investigator Roger Dunn, who worked on the Ted Bundy murders as a police detective.

Ellis has spoken only with family and friends since the accident.

``Right now Dale needs to recognize by himself what his problems are,'' Sonic Coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. ``We can't do anything for him anymore.''


Saint Stephens United Methodist

The face of Darryl Ellis is almost that of the person he entered life with, Dale. The flat, penetrating stare comes just as naturally to Darryl. But the eyes are more gentle, the edges of his face less severe, and an easy smile acquiesces.

Darryl never really left Marietta. He played after high school at Piedmont College, but that ended quickly when Darryl couldn't get along with the coach. Same thing happened at Savannah State, so he joined the Marine Corps, and since then he has been trying to find his niche, bouncing in and out of jobs in the family business.

Darryl admits awe at the kind of ``gold'' Dale makes, and on occasion, when Dale streaks across his television screen, he feels an occasional pang of envy.

``I feel that sometimes,'' Darryl said softly. ``But I always say, I'm happy for him. The fact that he made it tells me I could have made it.''

Without a father, Darryl lives up, not by choice, to a twin.

It was not always that way. Until junior-high school they wore the same clothes, carried almost the same temperament. Then Dale began to grow faster and developed as the superior athlete. Though smaller, Darryl assumed the role of the inside player in their two-on-one battles with Vivien, drawing his older brother's attention by faking the drive and passing out to Dale on the perimeter for the easy jump shot.

``As early as junior high, no one ever thought he wouldn't make it to the NBA,'' Darryl said. ``Me, I tried to get wise in other fields.''

To many, Darryl - hot-tempered, more inclined to skip practice then or get in trouble - is the polar opposite in personality to Dale, whose charisma remains legendary around Marietta. Every NBA off-season, Dale returns to Marietta as the summer Santa, driving back into his old neighborhood, gathering kids for his free basketball camp, enhancing the stature that prompted the city to designate an annual ``Dale Ellis Day.'' For an Atlanta girl he did not know who had sickle-cell anemia, he recently wrote a check for several thousand dollars.

Marietta is beginning to realize that something is different, though, in Ellis. There was always that sense of moral right and wrong that prompted him as a boy, while watching the television mini-series ``Roots'' in his room with his mother, to announce in a rare emotional outburst: ``I'm going to school and ain't no one gonna say nothing to me.'' But now he is even more obstinate.

As indicative, the early-morning domestic-violence incident with his wife turned into a resisting-arrest charge after Ellis tussled with police on his front lawn. When an anger-management program was suggested, he refused. When private counseling was agreed to as a condition for a suspended sentence, Ellis failed to show the court proof of meetings until eight months later.

``When we talked to Dale we told him, `Yo, it's like every year something's going down,' '' Vivien said. ``When you're a superstar, you've got to shine like a superstar, and we told him, `You're dulling it up like a rock.' I don't know what it is.

``Nobody believes it,'' Vivien said of the DWI charge. ``Around here, he can do no wrong.''

Lucille Ellis tried to get Dale back home in 1987. She talked with Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello that year, hoping to convince him to pursue Dale when he became a restricted free agent that summer. But Dale preferred to stay in Seattle. Lucille wonders if he will ever return to Marietta.

Perhaps it is better he stay away, for in Marietta he is more icon than person. Ellis has said he thinks athletes are too prominent as role models, but he never had a choice. There, especially, he is the inspiration. He learned that not long after he left town, on a trip home from college, when he agreed to speak before an elementary-school class.

``The children just wanted to touch him,'' said Lonnie Austin, a Marietta High guidance counselor and friend of Ellis for 18 years. ``I said then to Dale, `You see why you've got to do something with your life?' And he said, `Yes, Mrs. Austin, I do.'

``I want him to keep his image. People here have a great deal of respect for him, and I don't want him to let me down.''


Hinsley Chapel Church of God in Christ

Reruns from an old series flickered from a television against the wall as Darryl leaned forward and offered that his brother's DWI charge came as no surprise to him.

``I expected this to happen to Dale,'' Darryl said. ``It's what happens to all pro athletes once they get to that status.''

Darryl does not mean to say he knows of a drinking problem or other trouble with Dale. He simply holds a skepticism of the whole sports-in-America process, of how it always seems that no matter how real or exaggerated the transgressions of leading sports figures, they all seem to make more money in the end.

``Next thing you know he'll be doing a rehabilitation commercial,'' Darryl said, motioning at the television, where a credit-card spot flashed its message, ``then he'll get a Discover Card ad or something.''

Not anytime soon, however. His agent, David Falk, predicts that the car crash throws a damper on endorsement possibilities that were already limited because of Ellis' past troubles. The third-leading scorer in the NBA last season had only a shoe contract and a poster at the time of the accident. ``You can't just snap your fingers and have them go away,'' Falk said.

But endorsements have never been of utmost concern with Ellis. Vivien asked him soon after the accident about the possible effect on his image around the league, about his marketability. ``He was more concerned about the kids at his basketball camp,'' Vivien said, incredulous, ``and he doesn't make any money off them.'' Dale wanted to know if Vivien thought they might still attend.

Indeed, when Ellis returns with the Sonics, his most important comeback may be staged in Marietta. In Seattle, Ellis earns $14,024 a game. But in Marietta he is rewarded, with the faith and support of a people drawn to him before he made his millions.

There is credibility to recoup, and Vivien says Dale realizes that. Ellis' attorney has requested his DWI trial be delayed until after the season, so chances are he will not have to serve jail time during the Sonic season if he's convicted. But no matter how the matter is resolved in court, or how long Ellis refuses public comment, only time, patience and good behavior can mend what is most precious.

``I don't think he'll ever do it again, because he's got in mind what could happen,'' Vivien said. ``He never thought it'd be like this. I know he didn't.''

Across a sleepy, two-lane street from Marietta High is an old, small cemetery. At the top of the leaf-covered hill, staring back at the entrance of the place where Ellis set his dreams in motion, rises a dulled, chalky-white statue of a woman cradling twins. She is looking down, a baby in each arm. Local legend has it that on the night of a full moon, if you walk around her three times, you can see her cry.

Lucille Ellis is not crying. Her own local legend, Dale, has been around once or twice with her. She says she does not expect a third go.

``I can't see him throwing it all away,'' she said. ``This is his life.''