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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mario Elie on the "Kiss of Death" Shot and His Long Road to the NBA

Mario Elie took the long road to the NBA after averaging 17.8 ppg and 8.4 rpg at American International College. Elie was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985 but the Bucks cut him before the season began, sending him on a five year journey through various minor leagues and foreign countries. The tremendous work that Elie did to improve his game and transform himself into an NBA player is another great example of the importance of what Philip Ross called "effortful study" in the Scientific American article that I cited in my July 27 post Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II.

When Elie received a second chance to play in the NBA in 1990-91, he made the most of it, enjoying an 11-year career while winning two championships in Houston (1994-95) and one in San Antonio (1999). After retiring in 2001, Elie spent one season as a Spurs assistant coach. Since 2004-05 he has been an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors. Elie never averaged more than 11.7 ppg in a season but he often took (and made) the big shot -- and perhaps none were ever bigger than his oft-replayed “Kiss of Death” shot, so that was a natural place to begin my interview with him.

Friedman: "What are your memories of your famous ‘Kiss of Death’ shot in the 1995 playoffs against the Suns? Was that gesture something that you thought of in advance?"

Elie: "It was just a spur of the moment thing. That’s me growing up in New York shooting and thinking that I’m Sidney Moncrief or Magic Johnson. That’s every kid’s dream. I remember Danny Ainge doubling off of me, so I got to the open spot. Robert (Horry) did a great job of spotting me. Kenny (Smith) did a great job of hitting Robert when he got doubled in the backcourt. Robert spotted me in the corner; the pass was sort of high and I remember thinking, 'Let me make sure I catch it.' I caught it and I saw Danny Schayes guarding 'Dream,' and he’s like, 'Mario Elie or Hakeem Olajuwon?' so I thought that was the easiest decision—he stayed with 'Dream.' Once I got set and let it go, he then tried to break out to contest my shot but it was too late. As soon as it left my hand it felt so good. I’m glad it didn’t bounce around; it went all net and the first person I looked at was Joe Kleine and I blew him the 'Kiss of Death.' We were sort of just messing around during the series blowing kisses to each other but I got the last kiss. It was just a great moment in front of everybody—game seven on the road and I think that shot helped us to win the second title."

Friedman: "What you bring out in your description of that play is how much of that really involved teamwork. You mentioned how many others contributed to that moment. A lot of people don’t understand that it’s not just one guy doing it."

Elie: "No, it’s not just one guy; it’s just being ready to deliver. The good thing about our team is that it could have been Sam (Cassell) or Robert (Horry). We had guys who were not scared to take those shots. That is what made our team special. We had a dominant big man who demanded a lot of attention and that is what enabled me to get that shot. Danny Schayes was like, 'I don’t want to leave 'Dream' but should I give Mario Elie the open shot?' He decided to leave me open. Fortunately, he made the wrong decision and I made the shot. It was just a great moment for me and I’ll always cherish that. I watch that game now and then but I always fast forward to the last two minutes. It’s just a great feeling every time I see it. When the Suns play the Rockets they always show that game on 'Classic,' so I’m always watching that game."

Friedman: "That’s the thing with that moment: you live forever--you’re forever in that moment of being young and hitting that shot, that championship moment. Talk about the long road you took to get to the NBA. There were about five years between when you were drafted and when you actually played in the NBA."

Elie: "First and foremost, coming from a small college I was not really prepared for what was going on at the next level. I got drafted and I thought that I was just going to go out there and play. I had not seen how these guys work out and train. I didn’t do any working out. I just expected to go out and play and got a rude awakening—two a days and after the first day I was dead tired. That is probably the only time in my career that I hoped to get cut. I felt that I wasn’t ready. I was a small forward but I was the second shortest guy in camp! I just felt that I wasn’t ready and I went back home and regrouped. A guy named Lou from New Jersey put me on a college tour team. We played against other colleges. I was dominating and a team from Ireland was looking for some talent. They looked at me and said they’d like to bring me over. I figured, 'Why not play ball, go see the world and make a little money?' So that’s how the odyssey began—I went to Ireland, had a great time over there, averaged about 39 ppg and the scores were like 141-140. There was no defense over there. Then I came back home, relaxed a little bit before going to Argentina. Then I played in a 6-5 and under league."

Friedman: "Was that the World League?"

Elie: "Yeah, the World League."

Friedman: "Which team were you on in that league?"

Elie: "Youngstown. We won the championship that year (1990). We had a very good team—Fred Cofield, Mark Wade. Then I went to Portugal for two years. I had a great experience over there and got a chance to play with one of my buddies, Dwayne Johnson, who went to Marquette. We had two great seasons over there and after that I felt like I should make my move and give the CBA a try, so I played in the CBA for one year. I felt that I should have gotten called up (to the NBA) that year but the next year I was on a real mission. George Karl came in (as coach of the CBA’s Albany Patroons), which was a blessing. He saw something in me that nobody else saw. He and Terry Stotts really worked with me to help me get to the next level. Then I got the call from Philly that Christmas. Philly was my first call up. I really didn’t get a chance to play, which was unfortunate. (Coach) Jim Lynam was great. The first two games I sat on the bench and just played in garbage time. Then Lynam came to me before the Utah game and said that he was going to give me a shot and throw me out there for 20-25 minutes. I was so excited that afternoon I really couldn’t sleep. Then I got to the arena and was told that Philly had made a trade and they would have to cut me. I had to just hop on a plane. I felt that during practices I held my own against those guys, so when I went back to the CBA I really, really took my game to another level. George brought me off of the bench my first two games back but I still had 30 and 36. My confidence level was so high that I just felt that it was a matter of time. (Sarunas) Marciulionis went down, I got picked up by the Warriors and the rest is history."

Friedman: "You said that when you got drafted that you found out pretty quickly that you weren’t ready for the NBA. What was the difference between the NBA and college that you didn’t understand until you got to the NBA?"

Elie: "The level of conditioning, the physical nature of the game and, at my size, having to learn how to dribble and shoot better."

Friedman: "You were playing inside more in college?"

Elie: "Yeah. I was a 3-4 in college, going to a Division II school. I was dominating and that’s how I was in high school; I was always a 4 man. So when I got to camp I realized that I had to develop a jumper and my ball handling. So I took my experience overseas. These guys work out twice a day, so in the morning I would dribble/shoot, dribble/shoot religiously. Then when I came to the CBA after my travels I was a 2 guard and I shot the ball very well and I dribbled it very well and I thought that really helped me out. Eleven years later, three championships later, I came out of it with a great career. I credit the hard work and my persistence and my family support for hanging in there with me."

Friedman: "Earlier you mentioned that one of the players you admired growing up was Sidney Moncrief."

Elie: "My prototype players were Moncrief and Magic because they did everything—they rebounded, they assisted, they guarded, they scored. That was the type of player that I liked, even though I think that Michael Jordan is a great talent. Those two guys excelled in all facets of the game and they were who I really wanted to pattern my game after. When you play in this league, sometimes you are not going to be a scorer, so you have to do the other things—rebound, defend, pass, be unselfish. I tried to pattern my game after those two guys."

Friedman: "People don’t know about Moncrief anymore because he had the injuries, didn’t win a championship and played in a small market. All those things conspire against him in terms of being well known to people today but he was a great, great player."

Elie: "Yeah. I was a big NBA fan and I really enjoyed watching Sidney Moncrief and also Paul Pressey, a guy who could guard bigger guys and handle the ball at 6-6, 6-7, making great decisions. Moncrief was just hard. I was a big defensive guy and Moncrief would play both ends of the court. I really wanted to be a complete player."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM

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