LaPhonso Ellis remembers well walking up that the Pit ramp in the thin Albuquerque air as a 17-year-old basketball star in April 1988.
But the Lincoln High School star from East St. Louis, Illinois, who went on to college and NBA stardom remembers something else even more about his trip to Albuquerque as one of the headliners of the nationally televised McDonald’s All-American basketball game.
“I just remember the people there,” Ellis told the Journal this week. “The locals were just really, really nice and supportive and receptive of us, and I thank them for that.”
Now, 36 years later, the ESPN college basketball analyst looks forward to a return visit to the Pit, this time as the coach of Team Heartfire, the No. 1 seed in the July 18-21 New Mexico Regional round of the $1 million, winner-take-all TBT (The Basketball Tournament).
Heartfire is one of eight teams playing in the New Mexico Regional, a field that includes The Enchantment, a team of former UNM Lobos, and The Panamaniacs, a team of former NMSU Aggies, who will square off on the opening night of action July 18.
On the same side of the bracket is Ellis’ Heartfire team – a roster that earned the No. 1 seed. Last year it went 1-1 in the TBT with a five-point loss in the second round to eventual champion Boeheim’s Army, which beat Team 23 in the championship game. Several of the Team 23 players are now on Heartfire, earning the squad a No. 1 seed.
“I’m really excited to get back there (to Albuquerque) and to coach this team again,” said Ellis, who coached last year in the TBT. “It was such an awesome experience with those young men and I’m just excited to have an opportunity to be able to do it again this year.
“It’s a little different, obviously, because we’re the number 1 seed this time and we were the 11 seed last year, so I know there’ll be a greater level of expectation, but I’ll have a chance again to coach quality young men who are men of character.”
Ellis, who also called a UNM game for ESPN in a recent year in the Pit but has not been back otherwise since that 1988 McDonald’s All-American Game, said he knows Albuquerque is a strong basketball community and is happy it gets to host an event like TBT in the offseason.
His memories of that 1988 game are more about other players than his own performance. He scored just two points in the game.
“I don’t remember playing that much nor do I remember doing that much because the stars of stars were in that game,” Ellis said. “I know Shawn Kemp played well. Billy Owens played well. I know Alonzo Mourning did, too.”
The East roster, which included Ellis, was coached by Bob Hurley, the nationally known head coach of St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. The West roster was coached by Albuquerque High’s Jim Hulsman.
Shawn Kemp led all scorers with 18 points, including one of the top in-game highlight reel dunks in McDonald’s All-American Game history, and was named co-MVP along with the Syracuse-bound Owens, who had 10 points and 14 rebounds.
Ellis, and UNM as the host of the regional, hope the TBT games can bring out big crowds for a group of former NBA and college stars just like that 1988 game. An announced Pit crowd of 12,815 turned out to watch a collection of high school players they weren’t all that familiar with.
“There’s a lot … of great, former collegiate ball players that were elite level players at their respective colleges,” Ellis said. “Fans will recognize plenty of them, and they’re all still playing at a really high level.”
ON THE AIR: In addition to all seven New Mexico Regional games being broadcast or streamed on one of the ESPN family of networks, all seven games and between-game coverage can be heard locally on 101.7 KQTM-FM, ESPN radio.
The Team plans to have Scott Galetti, a current play-by-play announcer for the station and former Lobos play-by-play radio announcer, call the TBT’s first four games on Day 1 (July 18) of the regional with current UNM radio announcer Robert Portnoy taking over for the two games played July 19 and the regional championship game on July 21.