By Trey Williams
The finality of sudden death didn’t immediately sink in when wide-eyed Boones Creek junior Monroe Ellis sank a game-winning shot against Oak Ridge in the 1958 state tournament.
Ellis, a 6-foot-5 post, grabbed an offensive rebound and delivered a stick-back that screeched the favored Wildcats’ season to a halt.
The teams had gone to a sudden death format following the first overtime, and after James Gosnell’s Bars got a stop on one end, Ellis ended the suspense on the other.
It’s surreal enough to hit a game-winner during your small school’s first-ever state tournament appearance after struggling most of the game with jitters and the depth perception in Vanderbilt’s cavernous Memorial Gym, but to decide a game for the first time in his life with sudden death made things more bizarre.
“The ball came out to me, oh, about 10 feet out, I guess, and I put it up and that was the ballgame,” Ellis said Monday still chuckling at the absurdity of it. “That’s the only time they ever did the sudden death.”
The game went to sudden death after each team scored three points in the first overtime session.
“That sudden death was the stupidest thing there ever was,” Ellis said. “It wasn’t the way to decide a game.”
Well, that was a matter of opinion. Back home in Boones Creek, Ellis’ great grandmother was in town for a visit and got all but frightened into a sudden death when Ellis’ family erupted after they heard his game-winning shot on the radio.
“Dick Ellis was working at the Johnson City station and they broadcasted our games from the state,” Ellis said. “I remember my mom and dad telling me my great grandmother was up visiting from down toward Newport. And my sister and her friend were there at the house listening to the ballgame. And I reckon they must’ve went crazy.
“They said my great grandmother didn’t know what was going on. She thought the end of the world was coming, I reckon. They liked to have scared her to death with the way they’s carrying on.”
Oak Ridge and Dobyns-Bennett were the state tourney co-favorites. Charlie Leonard, D-B’s two-time All-State guard, was in attendance, and he was momentarily confused after Ellis’ basket.
“I’d never even heard of sudden death,” the late Leonard said in 2018. “Of course, we was pulling for ‘em. Oak Ridge was undefeated and the top-ranked team in the state, probably. They had the state high jump champion (Howie Moss) and they had a picture-perfect team.”
Boones Creek went on to defeat Cohn in the quarterfinals, 47-46.
The Bars had size with Ellis, 6-foot-5 Darrell Range and 6-foot-1 Joe Durham, who could easily dunk.
“Darrell was a legitimate 6-5,” Ellis said, “and Joe Durham was 6-1, but he could jump out of the gym.”
Elvin Little-coached Lenoir City beat Boones Creek in the semifinals and defeated Chattanooga Central in the state championship game. Little coached Science Hill for 20 seasons (1960-79).
“Monroe was an outstanding ballplayer,” the late Littlesaid in 2018. “They had size and a good guard – (Johnny) Crouch, I think, was his name – and they had a big, ole boy named Durham. Range was a fine player. They had an outstanding ball club.”
Ellis started and averaged double figures on the East Tennessee State freshman team for Jack Maxey. He scored a team-high 20 against Lees-McRae, 17 against Carson-Newman and 12 in a two-point loss to Tennessee.
But Ellis didn’t like not being able to play on the varsity and he didn’t like the fact that his buddies all seemed to have jobs and cars.
“I wish he’d stayed over there at State and played. Boy, he could really play,” said Leonard, who turned down a basketball scholarship at Wake Forest to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Ellis, an excellent rebounder and shot blocker, mixed it up with the likes of ETSU Hall of Famer Tom Chilton.
“I felt like I could’ve (started) on varsity,” Ellis said. “I just threw it away. I wanted to get out and raise hell and get a job.
“We’d scrimmage all the time and I always wanted to guard (Chilton). And boy, he would get so damn mad. Every once in a while I’d block his shot, because I knew how quick he got rid of it. I got to noticing that. We had a couple of fights – Chilton and I did. I was kind of hotheaded at the time too, you know.”
A mentor of sorts, Bobby Snyder, had a similar career at ETSU. Ellis had grown up playing basketball at Snyder’s house in Boones Creek. There was a goal on a tree. Snyder would use sand and sawdust to keep the “court” area playable.
Four years younger than Snyder, Ellis said he began going there to play when he was nine or 10 years old.
“I tell you what, Bobby Snyder is a good fella,” Ellis said. “That’s one guy I can say – you know I was over there it seemed like every day when I was young – and we really had some good games and some of us might use a little foul language once in a while – well, a lot of ‘em did. But you never heard Bobby say one word out of the way, buddy. He’s a nice person, a number one person. I always admired him.”
Ellis said he heard from South Carolina and Florida when he decided to leave ETSU, and Tennessee sent him two tickets to attend a football game on a visit.
“So Sherrell Gage and I were headed down and we got to Morristown and we were involved in a car wreck,” Ellis said. “There were about five cars in it. That ended that. The UT coach still called me a couple of times. I guess I was just nuts or something.”
Ellis ended up playing independent league basketball for Red Edens. His teammates included talented, athletic Happy Valley alum Danny Webster.
“Danny Webster was one of the best I’ve ever seen around here,” Ellis said. “You talk about smooth, he was as smooth as he could be. And he was a good teammate.”
Edens’ squad played a team that included Sonny Smith and future NBA coach Del Harris one night at Cranberry High School in North Carolina.
“Sonny played for a team out of Marion, North Carolina,” Ellis said. “It seemed like Pepsi may have sponsored ‘em. The game was a big deal at the time. They had big fliers made up and put around everywhere I reckon, and that place was packed. They had the big boy that played out at Milligan – Tester – about 6-foot-8. He wasn’t that good in high school – he played for Happy Valley, I guess it was – but he got in college at Milligan and turned out to be real good ballplayer. And they had Del Harris that went on and coached (in the NBA). And they had Sonny Smith. That place was packed, buddy. They beat us by three or four points, I think. I had a good game, but that was one of the roughest, toughest games I ever played in.”
Smith amplified the contest’s toughness.
“I wouldn’t call him (Sonny) dirty, but I took some shots,” Ellis said with a chuckle.
Literally and figuratively, Ellis was up for taking big shots.
“Red Edens told me one time,” Ellis said, “I guess it sounds like I’m bragging on myself, which I don’t mean to do – when my son Kevin and me stopped out at his carpet outlet on the Elizabethton Highway one day, he said, ‘Let me tell you something about your daddy. I’ve seen a lot of ballplayers, but as far as I’m concerned he’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen.’”
A deadly shooter, at that, as the Oak Ridge folks could attest.