The orange ball bounces over the blue Danube. Belgrade Fortress dominates the Serbian capital. The tall grass and old walls straight out of a Zelda video game, the tanks of the military museum… Perfect for photos. Leigh Ellis has nothing against the panorama but he came for the pitches and the baskets, placed there, at the foot of a site with 2,000 years of history, in the heart of these basketball-crazed Balkans.

In the fall, he launched his “International Pickup Tour”, a journey around the world centered on his passion. This former host of the NBATV Starters and then of the No Dunks podcast, two cult shows among NBA fans, carries his 1.80 m, his glasses and his Australian accent on the playgrounds of the planet. He travels alone but they are 70,000 to follow him on Twitter, 30,000 on Instagram and a few dozen more to join him in the racket every step of the way. THE washington postCNN and all the specialized basketball media are interested in the adventure.

“Since I was little, I have had two loves: playing basketball and travelling”, summarizes Ellis. This kind of “I will play at your place” took shape last summer. The Australian never resists the pleasure of a “pick-up game”, an improvised match. In Berlin, Barcelona, ​​his son films and publishes the video on social networks. In the process, invitations from his subscribers quickly fall into his DMs, from Greece, Pakistan, Zambia.

“If it doesn’t work, I tell myself that at least I would have tried. Many don’t have my luck. Travel is the only experience that cannot be taught”

He discusses with his wife, Roxana, the consequences of the project, financial and family. “I am first a father and a husband. I can’t leave for eight months all at once. But my wife has seen people recognize me and tell me they love the show”, he tells us from Atlanta, where he lives. The deal is two weeks and back home before the next stage.

Ellis starts with the Balkans, although technically it all starts in Frankfurt, during a longer than expected stopover between Atlanta and Ljubljana. “K-Leigh Thompson”, as one fan dubbed him after the gesture of Golden State Warriors gunner Klay Thompson, stops on this incredible piece of land wedged between the old buildings of Dubrovnik, then heads to Slovenia and in Athens. Had to give up No Dunks. “If it doesn’t work, I tell myself that at least I would have tried. Many don’t have my luck. Travel is the only experience that cannot be taught”a philosopher who left his native Australia twenty years ago for London, then Toronto and Atlanta.

Leigh Ellis in Belgrade at the foot of the fortress.  (DR)

Leigh Ellis in Belgrade at the foot of the fortress. (DR)

And Ellis does not hide it, the kid who had used the VHS of the 1987 All-Star Game on the VCR of the family home near Melbourne was starting to get a kick out of the NBA. “Leigh has a pure love of basketball”comments Matt Osten, one of its former producers.

“When your passion becomes your profession, it can wear out. I understand that it tired him” The load management – the rest of the players during the season – and the laments of the modern stars irritate him. Anthony Davis, the interior of the Lakers, for example. “You play where you wanted to be, with LeBron James. You signed for five years and $250 million. And behind, you always ask for more love? »laments Ellis.

The outrageous free throws of James Harden or the shenanigans of Kevin Durant to leave Brooklyn last summer are beyond him. After 2,500 recorded shows, he especially wants, at 46, to have fun. “Like when, as a kid, I played with my friends in the street. »

He spent five hours having lunch with Luka Doncic’s father in Slovenia. The mother of Drazen Petrovic (European NBA star, died in a car accident in 1993) gave him a private visit to the museum dedicated to his son. “I want it to be discovery, meetings where basketball serves as a connection and a language”.

Ellis on a playground in Athens.  (DR)

Ellis on a playground in Athens. (DR)

From late February to mid-March, from Nairobi to Lusaka to Cape Town, Ellis performed in front of hundreds of people and handed out T-shirts donated by the NBA and WNBA franchises he contacted. Istanbul followed in April. China, where a fan asked him to help with the design of a construction site, could be added to the list.

The operation remains amateur. It’s Ellis who sets up his flights, his hotels and the rest. For now, it is accumulating content. By dint of getting noticed, a streaming platform or a production company may offer him to take charge of his concept. “A start-up mentality”he says, citing the example of his former employer, The Athletic, a site created in 2016 and bought 550 million dollars by the New York Times five years later.

Until then, the Australian has planned a stopover in Paris in mid-June. To tread the parquet floor of the YMCA rue de Trévise, the oldest ground in the world? “I don’t want to play indoors. There’s something special about being outside with the elements. » He heard about the colorful Duperré playground in Pigalle and he can’t wait to be there.