“To go wrong in one's own way is better than to go right in someone else's.”
“Nobody gives a rat’s nipple about me.”
Monta Ellis is a minor god. He’s not exactly a regular human being like a dude you’d accidentally collide with at the bank or someone you’d text your feelings to at 2am after too many drinks or a person who politely hands you your ornately crafted latte. He’s not those guys. He’s special and amazing and an idiosyncratic mess. But for all that, he’ll never ascend to an honored place in any Pantheon worth a damn, nor be recalled fondly by ESPN talking heads, or burrow his way into the grooves of the folklore of the casual spectator of NBA basketball. Monta is niche. He was dazzling and audacious and doomed and pointlessly heroic in near equal measure. He was an incredibly talented human being in a milieu that only exalts gods. But gods are boring. People are uncomfortable and grimy and imperfect and they make sense.
The Indiana Pacers, a franchise permanently slithering towards a new remix or reboot, waived Monta back in July, invoking the stretch provision to mitigate his salary cap impact. This wasn’t a bad business move, if you think in terms of dollars and cents and rebuilds and roster flexibility. This happens and it’s fine. Unfortunately, the advanced notice hasn’t translated to a cushy deal for Monta, or any kind of deal at all. As NBA preseason commences, he remains a man without a country, perhaps a planet, and certainly without a clear path forward.
Monta Ellis would be a star in China, or Turkey, or Russia, or the Philippines, or Lebanon. But it’s not personal, it’s systemic. The prototype that Monta typifies is in imminent danger of extinction, the (undersized) ball-dominant slashing guard who doesn’t reliably punish you from range. The twenty-foot jumper maestro, pounding the ball like he means it harm, content to go iso against increasingly sophisticated defenses and just sort of hope for the best. Monta was a rags to riches story and now he’s an anachronism. That’s just the stipend of existence.
History does not march towards an outcome so much as it stumbles, diverges, loops around, follows the trajectory of a rhombus. The NBA has weathered and adapted to paradigm shifts borne out of both necessity and stylistic inclination. The game evolves constantly, as do the personnel. In another decade, perhaps the turgid World War One methodology will return with a vengeance. For now, Monta’s a supremely fine basketball player ensnared in the vortex of the latest slow-burn evolution. This is Steph Curry’s game now. Absurd three-pointers, switchblade defenders, motion-offenses that suggest balletic Waterloos. None of that really speaks to Monta’s boots-on-the-ground reality, but of course, who cares? He was still plenty impressive, albeit always with caveats.
The first time the general public took note of the scrawny, blank-faced Monta was almost certainly during the midst of the short lived but nostalgia soaked We Believe Era in Golden State. This was a team that could accurately be described as barbarians at the gates. Barbarians who came to slay giants. Their incendiary fury wasn’t sustainable. Too many ins and outs and what have yous. The We Believe style evoked a righteous tantrum, and to the naked eye the organizing principle was chaos, small-ball, suffocating long-armed defense, point-forwards, eager three-point artillery, all deployed in a relatively conservative atmosphere, long before it became fashionable. If they happened to be on, they cut through you like a guillotine, but alas, the dictatorship of the proletariat can’t last forever. The team scattered, leaving Monta, the least flammable of the major personalities, to shoulder the wreckage of an abruptly cancelled mythology.
And he did. As best as he was able. Again, Monta is an incredible talent, but not what you’d call a transcendent one. A supremely competent novelist plying his wares against Faulkner and Joyce. At his best, his squads inched towards the upper echelons of mediocrity. Before and after that pivotal moped accident, he charted a blueprint of intoxicating but limited success. 36 wins, buzzer beaters, delicious finger-rolls. There was sincere enchantment there. His 18-foot jumper was money. He was quick, like some sort of coked up lizard or a hyena who smelled blood. His spin moves in traffic were not borne of brute force, nor even craftiness per se, but a natural languid sixth sense and awareness of what his body was capable of when pushed. He was electric. He was the real deal. One of the best. There was no artifice or relentless brand testing with him. He was all mumbles and slothful bellicosity. He wasn’t relatable exactly, but he made sense. He liked basketball, fishing, and riding mopeds. And he played hard, albeit imperfectly. He was a cut-rate superstar, the biggest thing the Bay Area had going for it until the Giants somehow won like four hundred even-year championships in a row. He was the John the Baptist to Steph Curry’s Jesus Christ. He was important...but not crucial. We knew that, even if he didn’t.
Still, as a superstar, he was uniquely ill-equipped. Festooned with what might charitably be described as anti-charisma, Monta’s irritation and impatience with folks (the press) who couldn’t understand the voices that incited him to his own restricted quasi-brilliance, was evident. He said the wrong things. He was arrogant. He was thinking about fishing in Mississippi. This is the guy who claimed he was the world’s second-best player, after Kobe but before LeBron. And who can forget the disparaging training camp comments about rookie Stephen Curry! That was fun! And let’s not forget the sexual harassment incident, adroitly swept under the rug by Warriors apparatchiks after management had banished him to some obscure city called (checks notes) Milwaukee.
Still. That all matters. But so does this.
Monta was energy. He was a spitfire doing battle with everyone on the court, including himself. He was an evolved Barbosa, an Iverson with less swagger, a spindly proto-Westbrook. An unlikely hero at best, the Warriors faithful supported him and Curry both, as the two 6’3” combo-guards were forced to co-exist. Steph was the son of a former NBA player, the type of rich boy who was destined to blunder into the league, despite his size and the supposed limits to his game. Monta, not a man whose father was a former Sixth Man of the Year, and among the last high-schoolers who jumped directly to the league, was in no spiritual way connected to the sort of privilege that Steph unwittingly dragged into his locker room. Monta was a Cassandra. They couldn’t play together. It just wouldn’t work. He was right. Give him that much credit, at least.
We look for meaning on continuums, spectrums. Efficient, inefficient, righteous, evil. Fun, stodgy. We want things to make sense, to bend to our realities. But there is room in the margins for things that don’t quite fit. These are human beings, not cells on a spreadsheet. Monta Ellis is by all standards agreed upon by polite society, not a star. Fine. But so what? Monta Ellis is a twelve-year veteran at thirty-one years old. He’s been in the league longer than Napoleon held sway over Europe. And he’s had to watch in slow-motion as he’s been evolved into an anachronism. It feels akin to Blockbuster swaggering into a town and destroying all the Ma and Pa video stores only to be pulverized by Netflix in turn. Which is all well and good in the abstract, when you’re talking about business models and buildings and such. But Monta Ellis (and others like him) are people. And they’ve been so, so good at one thing their entire lives. But it doesn’t matter. Because they can’t stroke the three with an efficiency that satisfies Daryl Morey and his ilk. Not to sound like a Luddite, because obviously, the way the game has progressed and opened up and staggered into its most recent gorgeous iteration is largely positive. But the symphonic radiance of the modern NBA must be scant comfort to Monta Ellis. He’s on the outside looking in, wondering if he should download Duolingo so he can brush up on his Mandarin.
Perhaps Monta will find himself a member of the Charlotte Hornets as some low risk high-reward playmaker. Or the Sacramento Kings for nihilist reasons. Or the Miami Heat because Erik Spoelstra’s has a knack for cursed shoot-first two-guards with scorpions in their veins. Maybe he’ll find himself a member of the Bulls or more likely, pull a Stephon Marbury and transition into a folk-hero in China. Maybe this, maybe that. Largely, it’s all irrelevant. In the end, the time he has left remains borrowed, even if he stays in the NBA. Part of that is just capitalism’s pitiless participation trophy. But another part are the aggravating footfalls of time. Monta is getting up there for a one-ish dimensional player. The doomsday clock won’t stop for anyone, especially not a character actor of Monta’s importance. It’s out of his hands, like a twenty-foot shot with eighteen seconds left on the shot clock.
The way the old-heads and former NBA players bemoan schoolyard kids shooting threes to mimic Stephen Curry is dumb, mostly because former players will bemoan anything that doesn’t pay homage and tribute to their Spartan pathos. The kids, they should mimic Steph Curry if they want to. He’s a transcendent player. He can do what basically no other human beings can do. But there has to be a kid who was weaned on the whirling dervish cannonball drives of Monta Ellis, and the old soul curmudgeonly dominance he was capable of displaying a few minutes a game.
To think that Monta is being forced into extinction because is depressing, but not surprising. He was never a company man. He was never someone who said the thing he was supposed to say or took the shot he should have shot or even played the position his build demanded. Monta was always Monta, no matter what you wanted him to be. And taken together and weighed against all his myriad imperfections, the holes in his game, the holes in his personality, the holes in his morality, it still matters. Here lies Monta Ellis, who led the charge alone and yet somehow never ran out of ammunition. He was a loner, Dottie. A rebel. Not a star, but there are millions of stars, and most of them look the same.