Leigh Ellis was already living every basketball fan’s dream.
As one of the hosts of ‘No Dunks,’ a popular NBA podcast from The Athletic — formerly ‘The Starters,’ an NBA TV show — Ellis made a living geeking out over the sport he’s always loved.
But last October, he surprised listeners and his co-hosts alike by announcing he was quitting the show to travel the world playing pickup basketball.
Shortly after that announcement, he embarked on what he calls the “20-20-20” tour, with the goal of playing 20 games of pickup rings in 20 cities in 20 different countries.
The tour has made 13 stops so far, and his next one will be in Toronto on Thursday at It will be a homecoming of sorts for Ellis, who started his sports journalism career as an intern at The Score in Toronto nearly 15 years ago.
Ellis told CP24.com he got the idea for his new endeavor while traveling to Europe with his wife and two young sons in recent summers during the NBA offseason.
While abroad, he often went to outdoor basketball courts to shoot around, and ended up playing countless pickup basketball games with strangers.
“I just post those clips on social media [to say] ‘hey look I’m having a great time here in Berlin playing basketball,’ and I was flooded with messages from all over the world,” Ellis said.
“People say, ‘if you’re in my city or in Japan, Brazil, Greece, Turkey or wherever and you want to play, I’ll arrange a run.’ And at first I didn’t think much of it, but the more I got these messages, I said to my wife, “I wonder if I can make this work.”
The 47-year-old said he wanted to take people up on their offer to play pickup at courses around the world, merging two of his biggest passions; travel and basketball.
“The more I thought about it, I said to my wife, something like this will only happen if I make it happen, and that means sacrificing my stable career that I’ve gotten to this point, but at the same time if you’re not prepared to take a big risk, you’re not going to get a big reward,” he said.
“And not only that, I think the biggest key for me is that if you wait for the timing to be right, you’ll never do anything. Sometimes you just have to cut that cord and [say] I’m diving in at the deep end here.”
FROM AUSTRALIA TO TORONTO TO ATLANTA
Originally from Sunbury, Australia, Ellis first came to Toronto as a backpacker in 2001 and ended up living in the city for about a year.
“[It] was great because it was the same year the Leafs swept [Ottawa Senators] in the first round, then they had the incredible seven-game series with the New Jersey Devils in the second round, [and] at the same time, the Raptors had their streak with them [Philadelphia 76ers] – Vince Carter and Allen Iverson series,” Ellis said.
“So, my first six to eight weeks in Toronto, I saw the most amazing city light up because their sports team was doing so well — it was incredible. And it was amazing, so I instantly fell in love with Toronto after I moved there .”
Ellis also met his future wife in Toronto, and after a short stint in the UK, he moved back to Canada and got married, eventually taking a job as an intern at The Score.
It was here that he met JE Skeets, Tas Melas and Jason Doyle, Toronto Metropolitan (formerly Ryerson) University graduates and creators of an NBA podcast called ‘The Basketball Jones’, which had been picked up by The Score.
Ellis eventually joined the crew, and prior to the 2013 season, NBA TV asked the group if they would be interested in turning the podcast into a television show, which led to them all relocating to Atlanta, Georgia.
“We did that for six incredible years. [It was a] really great time working there and being on NBA TV and talking basketball with your friends,” Ellis said.
It was during that time that Ellis was able to display his encyclopedic knowledge of the NBA dating back to the 1980s.
He also developed his catch phrase “very solid play”, which he assigned each week to a play made by a player or team that was not particularly flashy, but was effective and fundamentally sound.
After their contract was not renewed with NBA TV in 2019, the group returned to their podcasting roots and started No Dunks, which Skeets and Melas still host with Trey Kerby and Doyle still produces.
In early October last year, when Ellis abruptly announced his departure from the show, Skeets said that while he was disappointed to see Ellis leave, he was impressed by his willingness to try something new.
“This is how you’ve always lived your life,” Skeets said.
‘BASKETBALL IS THE LANGUAGE’
Ellis said one of the things he loves about playing pickup basketball with strangers in other countries is that the game transcends age, culture and language barriers.
“That’s what makes it so cool. There’s no language barrier when you step on the court. Basketball is the language; it’s like, let’s play, let’s pass and share the ball,” Ellis said.
“Instantly, you become a teammate even when you don’t know a single thing about that person, and of course you’re competing to win, but you don’t rub it in anyone’s face, you’re just [trying to] see if we can achieve something here together as two strangers, and that feeling is what I love.”
So far, Ellis’ 20-20-20 tour has taken him to over a dozen countries across the globe, including some in the basketball-mad Balkans, where he shared a meal with NBA star Luka Doncic’s father in Slovenia, and was featured around the Drazen Petrovic Museum of the late Croatian basketball star’s mother.
Ellis said he wishes he had a camera crew with him to capture moments like those, but he would need additional funding to make it happen.
In his farewell episode of No Dunks, Ellis said he hopes his new endeavor is able to make money in the long run, but he understands it may take some time.
“The primary goal here is not to make money, [that said]I’m hoping to generate some revenue, but you know, these things don’t start with making money, you have to spend some time on it,” he said.
For now, Ellis is documenting his 20-20-20 tour on social media, where followers can see videos and photos of pickup runs played on picturesque basketball courts around the world.
“The one thing I love about basketball courts that’s really different than pretty much any other sport is depending on the city you’re in, if it’s an outdoor court, you can have the most amazing view, the most amazing court, beautiful weather and that’s what I love,” Ellis said.
Playing basketball and connecting with people on outdoor courts is something Ellis says he did countless times while living in Toronto.
“I’ve played basketball with guys from literally all over the world in Toronto. I used to run on the Danforth, and those guys actually still run; there were Filipino guys, there were Mexican guys, there was a guy from Greece, so I’ve always felt in Toronto like a Torontonian, even though I’m not Canadian in that sense,” said Ellis.
“And there is so much more passion for basketball [in Toronto] now.”
Ellis says everyone is welcome to show up for a pickup on Thursday, adding that he expects a large turnout, but he wants to make sure everyone gets a chance to play.
“Based on the messages I’ve been getting, it’s going to be a pretty big crowd. And really, all it’s going to be is; show up, we’ll pick some teams and we’ll play. Everyone will get a chance to play and show their stuff,” Ellis said.
“And also, it’s really important to me that girls understand that they’re just as welcome and that they’re going to have just as many opportunities to play because this isn’t just a guy thing.”
Ellis says he hopes the event can connect people and create friendships that go beyond the court.
“It’s been the most meaningful thing for me that people have found friends and connections through basketball, and that’s what I hope will happen in Toronto,” he said.
“And I have obviously lived there and spent a large part of my life, also a very meaningful part of my life; getting married, having my first child, starting my career, I’m coming home in that sense, so I hope and expect a big audience.”
Photos courtesy of Leigh Ellis.