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February 14, 2012

Former Tech hoops player Chris Ellis holds many fond memories of his days at Tech

By: Jimmy Robertson

Long before Chris Ellis – the one whom most younger Tech fans know – accomplished so much on the football field, another Chris Ellis from the same town accomplished quite a bit on the basketball court for the Hokies.

Only those accomplishments came several years before a lot of the current generation of Hokie fans were born.

Veteran Tech fans remember Ellis, a native of Newport News, Va., who actually made a name for himself at the now-defunct Newport News High School, leading that team to an undefeated season, a state championship and a No. 3 national ranking his senior season in 1964. Even with numerous scholarship offers from schools all over the nation, Ellis decided to commit to Tech because he wanted to play for head coach Chuck Noe.

But Noe left before Ellis arrived, and the shooting guard ended up playing for Howie Shannon. Not that playing for Shannon turned out to be a bad experience. On the contrary, Ellis played on an outstanding team his sophomore season after sitting out his freshman year as required by the NCAA at that time. The 1967 Tech team was the first Tech squad ever to make an NCAA Tournament.

“Back in those days, only 32 teams went, so it was a real accomplishment,” Ellis said. “We played Toledo in the first round, and two weeks before, we had played them in the regular season, and they beat us [90-71]. But we beat them [in the NCAA Tournament], and then we went to Evanston, Ill., and beat Indiana. Then we lost to Dayton in overtime, and Dayton lost to UCLA in the national championship game.”

That Tech team, which finished 20-7, turned out to be one of the best ever assembled. It featured Glen Combs, who averaged 18 points per game for his career and is one of the best shooters ever to play at Tech, Ron Perry, Ted Ware and Ken Talley in addition to Ellis, who scored 11 points in that loss to Dayton and averaged nearly 10 points per game that season. Both Combs and Ware have been inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame.

Ellis is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath. Though the next two Tech teams didn’t quite have the success of the 1967 team – Tech went 14-11 in 1967-68 and 14-12 in 1968-69 – Ellis still put up big numbers. As a senior on the 1968-69 squad, he averaged nearly 20 points per game.

His career ended on a winning note. In the regular-season finale, the Hokies took on Houston, a squad that featured high-scoring Ollie Taylor, at Cassell Coliseum. Tech won the game, with Ellis pouring in 27 points.

“We beat them by six,” Ellis said of the 74-68 victory. “We were the underdogs and were able to win. They [his teammates] carried me off the court after that one. That was a great way to finish a career.”

Ellis has other memories as well, including one not-so-fond memory at the time, but one in which he now chuckles about frequently. In a game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he incurred a large cut on his face late in the first half, and the trainer took him to the locker room, where he worked on Ellis throughout halftime. Tech led the Tar Heels at the break.

The team left the locker room to take the court once halftime ended, but Ellis stayed with the trainer for some last-minute treatment. As they attempted to leave the locker room and head back to the court, they found the door locked. They beat on the door and yelled, and finally, someone heard them. An usher unlocked the door, but at that point in the game, Tech trailed and ended up losing.

Ellis graduated from Tech in 1969 with a degree in physical education. After graduating, he played for the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, though he also was drafted by the Chicago Bulls of the NBA.

“The Colonels offered me more money,” he said. “In those days, $20,000 was like $400,000. But I didn’t play long. I had some injuries, and I ended up coming back to Virginia and playing some semi-pro ball.”

Injuries to his knees and ankles derailed his pro career and have given him problems throughout his adulthood. In fact, he’s undergone three knee replacements and an ankle fusion since those days.

Following his brief pro career, Ellis took a job in Richmond as a teacher at the Beaumont School for Boys – a youth correctional facility. He did that while splitting time playing semi-pro basketball.

On one occasion, in 1973, he played in an exhibition game against the Harlem Globetrotters. Shortly after that, Curly Neal, a famous Globetrotter known for his ball handling, asked Ellis to be a part of the team’s exhibition game in Richmond, and Ellis agreed.

“I played one game with them [the Globetrotters],” he said. “That was interesting. I could do some of the stuff they were doing, but they were really good. They could beat an NBA team back then.

“It was fun getting to meet the players. I got to know Curly Neal pretty well, and Meadowlark Lemon was the clown of them all.”

Ellis worked at the Beaumont School for Boys for a couple of years, and then he decided to take a job as an athletics director at the state penitentiary in downtown Richmond.

“That was a funny feeling,” he said. “My secretary was in for 40 years for murder. There was this guy who had played at Wake Forest who was in, and there were players from other colleges who were in, too.

“At the time, I was also helping Coach Noe at VCU. I’d leave prison at lunchtime and then go help coach the team.

“But I just couldn’t get the hang of going through three cell blocks every day. That was a funny feeling. So I ended up going to work for the state highway department as a field inspector.”

Ellis worked as a field inspector for 25 years, overseeing contractors who performed work on bridges and roads for the state. Seven years ago, he retired to spend more time with his family. He and his wife, Joyce, got married while at Tech and have been married for 42 years. They have four children and six grandchildren and still live in Richmond.

He still keeps up with the Hokies, both the football and basketball teams. He admits times have changed, particularly on the basketball front where more teams are emphasizing defense and define players with positions. He’s not sure the changes are for the better.

“They call them ‘shooting guards’ these days, but we didn’t have shooting guards,” he said. “Back then, everyone was shooting.”