We all know who the most celebrated image – and personality — of the Nuggets’ upset of top-seeded Seattle in the first round of the 1994 playoffs was: Dikembe Mutombo. But do you know who the actual leading scorer was for the Nuggets in that series?
If you answered LaPhonso Ellis, you are correct.
He averaged 16.0 points and 8.0 rebounds (second-highest on the team) during that series. His best game? A 27-point, 17-rebound outburst in Game 4. It was a dominating performance that allowed the Nuggets to push the series back to that famous Game 5 in Seattle. And he did all of that on his 24th birthday. Yes, it was icing on the cake of a fun night, complete with lingering fans at McNichols Arena serenading him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” as he did an on-court interview after the game.
It was good to be The Fonz. Still is.
His performance in that series, in a nutshell, shed light on just how important Ellis was to the Nuggets – and how important he could have been for many years had a knee injury not put some serious brakes on his basketball party. “I think, in a way, my knee injury threw everything into a tailspin,” Ellis said in a 2014 interview with the Denver Post.
And yet, he was not known as The Fonz for nothing. Ellis was a dual personality player. Side One: A fresh-faced, wide-smiling power forward with loads of personality. Side Two: A relentless, explosive rim attacker. When Ellis drove the lane to dunk the smile faded, replaced with a determined, scowl-esque face. Ellis went up to rip the basket off of its support. Defenders in the way? Best just to step aside or most certainly be posterized.
All of this is what attracted the Nuggets to him in the first place. That passion, combined with talent. They drafted Ellis with the fifth pick in the 1992 NBA Draft out of Notre Dame. He quickly paid dividends, being named first-team all-rookie with averages of 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds.
He bumped the scoring average up to 15.4 points in his sophomore season, which featured that stellar playoff performance against the Sonics. But the knee injury cost him the majority of the next two seasons. He did bounce back, however, and had his best individual season in 1996-97 with averages of 21.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists. In his career with the Nuggets, six seasons (343 games) he averaged 15.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 45.9 percent from the field.
Ellis talks about basketball now with the same eloquence with which he played the game, as college analyst at ESPN. But it is the passion on the court with the Nuggets that has left an indelible mark in team history.