Seattle's Dale Ellis stood 15 feet and two free throws away from sweet and utter requital last Saturday night at Reunion Arena in Dallas. Two seconds left and the game tied 110-110. The team that for three years had treated him like a museum piece—something to be admired from time to time, though usually left to gather dust—was now at Ellis's mercy.
Ellis stared into a wild-eyed Dallas Maverick crowd that, not long ago, had cheered for him—when they happened to notice he was around. Tonight, he found it easy to shut them out.
"I'd been waiting all year for this opportunity," said Ellis, whom the Mavs traded to the Sonics last July. "There was no way I was going to blow it." Swish went the first free throw. The crowd then went quiet, as if conceding the second shot. It, too, swished through, giving Seattle a 112-110 upset victory over the Midwest Division champion Mavericks and knotting their best-of-five NBA Western Conference playoff series at 1-1.
"It's the happiest day of my life," said Ellis. "It's a moment I had dreamed about."
Ellis would have settled for any kind of a victory over the Mavs, because until Saturday night that was the only thing missing from his Lazarus-like season. Upon joining the Sonics, Ellis had gone out and raised his scoring average by an astonishing 17.8 points per game over the previous year, believed to be an NBA record for a one-year jump. That 24.9 average was good enough to be eighth in the NBA, second only to Michael Jordan among guards. And he helped a team that had appeared pathetic in preseason to gain an unexpected playoff berth.
"I feel I was treated wrongly by [ Dallas coach Dick] Motta," said Ellis. "This was my opportunity to slap him and slap him hard. That's what I did with my free throws." Overall, he rudely tweaked Motta's nose with a game-high 32 points.
To say that Ellis rather resents Motta is to say that Iran rather resents Iraq. He spent three long years in Big D as a Big Nothing before the Mavs finally exchanged him for guard Al Wood, a deal that brought Ellis a sigh of relief without exactly massaging his ego. "Motta told me I couldn't play two-guard in this league," said Ellis. "Well, I'm playing two-guard, aren't I, so how much does he know?"
Motta knows enough to have coached the Mavs (55-27) to the fourth-best record in the NBA. Enough to have traded Ellis, who this year scored 30 or more points in 23 games, and Jay Vincent, who averaged 13.3 points for Washington, yet still to have improved over last year's record by 11 wins. Enough, in short, that Motta can shrug his shoulders at Ellis's success.
"It wasn't something I spent a lot of time thinking about," said Motta before Saturday's game. "I said when Dale left that he would come back and play in the NBA. I had no doubt about that. But there was not a negative remark on our team about the trade. We had a logjam at his spot. We got rid of Dale and Jay, and now the logs are floating better."
Until Saturday, they had floated particularly well against the woodsmen from the Northwest. Dallas won all five regular-season games with Seattle by an average margin of 18.6 points, then took the playoff opener by the cruel score of 151-129. Like the Laker-Nugget series, this one seemed capable of being played by Mailgram.