After battling the NBA’s best centers, LeRoy Ellis fights cancer

LeRoy Ellis once blocked Wilt Chamberlain’s shot.

“I was sorry I did and would never do it again,” the former Lakers center says, laughing. “He must have dunked on me the next five times down. He just went bang, bang, bang.

“I said to myself, ‘Dang, you should have let a sleeping giant lie,’ because he just went to town on me.”

For the affable Ellis, this qualifies as a sweet memory.

Cancer has ravaged his body.

“It’s kind of a terminal deal,” the father of five says from his home in Columbia City, Ore., about 30 miles north of Portland. “The doctor is very candid. He said the only thing I really have to look forward to is getting worse.”

But Ellis is hardly morose.

At 69 -- “And looking for 70,” he says, eyeing the milestone he would reach in March -- the former first-round draft pick from St. John’s looks back on a life full of highs and lows.

A high: Ellis played on four Lakers teams that reached the NBA Finals, finally earning a championship ring as a backup to Chamberlain on the 1971-72 team that strung together a 33-game winning streak and compiled a then-NBA record mark of 69-13.


A low: Six months after dousing himself in champagne, Ellis was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, whose 9-73 record in the 1972-73 season is the worst in NBA history.

A high: His son LeRon, a former Santa Ana Mater Dei High and Kentucky star, was a first-round NBA draft pick.

A low: His son Lee was shot to death on a Los Angeles street.

Ellis, a 6-foot-10 veteran of 14 NBA seasons, was sufficiently fit and motivated to continue playing organized basketball in adult leagues and masters championships into his 60s, then got waylaid by cancer, which spread from his prostate into his bones.

“I don’t think my life is any different than anybody else’s,” Ellis says. “I think we all have ups and downs.

“It’s just the nature of living.”

Ellis, who averaged career highs of 15.9 points and 12.3 rebounds for the Portland Trail Blazers during their inaugural 1970-71 season, moved back to Oregon from Los Angeles after Lee, the youngest of his three sons, was slain 11 years ago.

His wife, Vera, says a positive outlook keeps him engaged.

“He’s the most awesome person I’ve ever met or known,” she says. “He’s very thankful for everything and every day, so he’s been an inspiration to me. At first, this devastating news was like somebody trying to knock me down, but LeRoy handles it so well that you’ve got to hang in there and keep going.”

The sixth pick in the 1962 NBA draft -- Ohio State’s John Havlicek was the seventh -- Ellis joined Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in Los Angeles and helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals in 1963, 1965 and 1966.

Each time, they lost to the Boston Celtics.

“It was great playing with the superstars,” Ellis says. “Jerry West was my very first roommate. The Lakers had a system where every road trip you had to change roommates, and they usually put blacks and whites together at the start, so my first roommate was Jerry. He was a super guy. He helped me a lot in my career.”

West calls Ellis “the nicest kid you’d ever want to meet. He had a pleasant demeanor that lent itself to being a great teammate but, more importantly, somebody who was just fun to be around.”

The lanky Ellis, West adds, “was kind of a forerunner to some of the kinds of players we have today. He wasn’t really a back-to-the-basket player, but he could play inside because he was very quick and very active. And yet, he could step outside and make a 12- to 15-foot shot -- and he could really run.”

It was a golden age for NBA big men, but Ellis says Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood apart from the rest.

“They were the best because they were so impossible to stop -- and they could stop you if they wanted to,” he says.

Lakers nemesis Bill Russell, Ellis says, was “the greatest defensive player I ever played against, but on offense he wasn’t impossible to stop like those other two.”

Ellis, a Brooklyn native who rang up career averages of 9.7 points and 8.3 rebounds, says he was “a supporting actor.”

Traded to the Baltimore Bullets in 1966, he was reacquired by the Lakers five years later -- in time for their first championship season in Los Angeles. Then, in November 1972, Ellis was shipped to the woeful 76ers, who were 0-10 on the day that he and John Q. Trapp were traded for Bill Bridges and Mel Counts.

“They could have been 20-0 and I wouldn’t have wanted to go to Philly,” Ellis says. “I just didn’t like Philadelphia.”

In retirement, Ellis returned to the Southland and managed a tire store for years. In Oregon, he worked in property management until a few months ago, when his failing health forced him to stop.

One morning, he awoke and realized he couldn’t stand. A bone scan revealed that cancer had spread across his pelvis. His doctor, he notes, “said it could be two months or two years.”

He’ll try to make the most of it.

“Rather than stay at home or lay in bed -- even though I’m in there most of the time -- I try to get up and go someplace,” Ellis says. “I’ve made a big list of things I’d like to do before anything happens. I don’t care if I have to struggle to do them.

“I take it one day at a time.”