Elie back where he belongs
After taking time off from NBA to focus on family, veteran excited about opportunity given to him by Scott Skiles in Orlando
BY FRAN BLINEBURY
Don't tell Mario Elie that it was an out-of-the-way practice gym tucked away in a downstairs corner of Orlando's Amway Center.
Elie knows all about out-of-the-way. He played in Ireland, Argentina and Portugal, not to mention the minor league backwoods of the USBL (Miami Tropics) and CBA (Albany Patroons) before he ever got a sniff at the NBA.
So to be back on the sidelines barking out orders as summer league coach and member of Scott Skiles' new staff with the Magic feels better than silk sheets.
"You can't possibly know how much I missed it," said the 11-year veteran swingman who earned three championship rings during his playing career.
"I've been doing this all my life. I can't be a lawyer or a doctor. Basketball is in my blood. I love everything about the game. I played overseas. I played in all the farm leagues. And I made it to the NBA. I appreciate it. That's why when I took the floor in the NBA I didn't take it for granted. I played hard every night."
That hard edge eventually chiseled out a reputation as one of the game's top defenders and made Elie an integral part of the back-to-back championships by the Rockets in 1994 and '95 and another with the Spurs in '99. It's that fiery personality that the equally intense Skiles hopes will rub off on his young Magic roster. Two years away from the game has only lit Elie's fire hotter.
After nine seasons as an assistant coach for four different teams, Elie had been away from the NBA for the past two years. The break helped him spend more quality time with his wife Gina Gaston, a highly-regarded TV anchor and journalist in Houston, and reconnect with his triplets -- 12-year-olds Gaston, Glenn and Lauren. The two boys play basketball and his daughter volleyball.
"It's been hard," Elie said. "I drive my wife crazy. Instead of watching the kids and helping them with homework, I'm watching basketball all day. Dissecting the game, watching my buddies play on TV, wishing I was out there.
"But family comes first. I was on the road my first nine years coaching and not being around my kids. It's been fantastic taking my kids to school, being psycho-sports Dad yelling at the coach on the sidelines. 'Get my son the ball!' My daughter at her volleyball games. It's been fantastic. It was just fun being a dad.
"I've been part of the NBA as a player and coach for over 20 years. I love everything about it. The trouble is, once you get out of the game, it's tough to get back in. You've got a lot of new guys coming in. You've got a lot of different GMs with the analytical stuff. You really don't have basketball people. You've got people who do numbers and stats and stuff like that. "
Elie has always been an in-your-face people person, whether it's as a lock-down defender or making the legendary "Kiss of Death" 3-pointer from out of the left corner to win Game 7 and clinch the series for the Rockets at Phoenix in 1995.
"I'm gonna be 52. I'm an old man," Elie said. "I always tell these kids to Google me. All these guys want to shoot against me. I don't want to take their lunch money, but they need to see. I won three championships. The road I took. If you look at our coaching staff -- Adrian Griffin, CBA; Connor Henry, CBA; Mario Elie, CBA. The work we had to put in and we all had pretty good NBA careers. I played 11 years and made the playoffs every year. I played with some of the top 50 greatest. People wonder why they know me. I just hit a little shot down in the corner against Phoenix. I just go out there and do my job. I guarded Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic (Johnson). Man, I loved competing."
Elie's final stop in his NBA playing career was at Phoenix in 2000-01, where Skiles was the coach and appreciated the no-nonsense attitude of the ultimate overachiever.
"I was a veteran presence there," Elie said. "I was sort of the bridge between the players and him. We built a great bond together. When I started coaching, Scott would call me about free agents. Me and him kept in touch. When I saw that he was up for this job, I just texted him and wished him good luck. He got it and he called me and said, 'Mario, you're on the radar. Are you interested?' I said, 'Yes, indeed.' "
"You can't possibly know how much I missed it."
Less than two weeks after that phone call, Elie was back in the gym, back on the sidelines at the Orlando Pro Summer League, barking out plays for the offense, calling defensive assignments, riding referees and doing anything he could to get inside the heads of his young players.
"This is what I love to do," Elie said. "I've been part of the NBA as a player and coach for over 20 years. I love everything about it. I love watching film. I love working with kids. I love being in the coaches' office arguing, us going back and forth, and coach Skiles allows you to be a coach. He gives you a voice on the floor."
Now that voice is back in the game where it belongs.