When I joined Pounding The Rock, I pitched a project that would cover every player who ever wore a Spurs jersey. Not equally, by any means, but each jersey would be identified numerically by the players who wore it.
There is a significance to the numbers of jerseys as it pertains to the five NBA Championships that have been won by the San Antonio Spurs.
There is only one jersey number associated with all five San Antonio Spurs NBA Championships- #21. Tim Duncan. He is coincidentally also the only player to be involved in all five titles.
The next set of jersey numbers are those associated with three of the Spurs NBA titles.
One silver lining to the lack of basketball this year has been the airing of old games. I have seen all four Spurs 1999 Finals victories as well as Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, and the “Memorial Day Miracle” on Fox Sports Southwest and NBATV.
It really is an opportunity to reminisce about that era of Spurs ball. And as we dip into that 1999 championship, the name Mario Elie becomes relevant.
The starting five for that 1999 Championship team were David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Mario Elie. Robinson, Elliott, and Duncan were all Spurs draft picks who spent their entire careers (sans Elliot’s lone season in Detroit) in San Antonio. Avery Johnson fought his entire career to earn the respect of a starting point guard.
Mario Elie was the only player on that starting squad to be brought in specifically because he had won an NBA title previously. But the road for Elie was not always paved in gold.
Mario started his career being drafted 160th in the 7th and final round of the 1985 NBA Draft by Milwaukee. He never played for the Bucks and instead played overseas in Ireland where he won an Irish National Cup Championship in 1987. He also played in Argentina and Portugal (where he won a Portuguese League Championship) as well as for minor leagues in Miami, Albany, and Youngstown.
In 1990, the Philadelphia 76ers put Elie on a 10-day contract and his career in the NBA got started. After his 3 games with Philly, Mario headed out west to finish the 1990-1991 season with the Golden State Warriors where he would spend the following season as well.
A lone year in Portland saw a continuation of Elie’s minutes and points per game which was enough for him to find a home with the Houston Rockets winning back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. In the latter championship, Elie was in the starting line-up with Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, Clyde “The Slide” Drexler, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, and Robert Horry. In the spirit of nicknaming, Elie became known as “The Junkyard Dog”.
“I do a lot of howling on the court, getting on my teammates if they don’t play hard, fighting with officials to get a call,” explained Elie to Sports Illustrated. His toughness during Houston’s two championship seasons was imperative to the team’s success.
Junkyard Dog wasn’t the only nickname Elie would pick up during his stint with the Rockets. During Game 7 of the 1995 Western Conference Finals, he hit a 3-pointer against the Phoenix Suns. He then turned to the Phoenix bench and blew them a kiss, earning him the nickname “Kiss of Death”.
Anyone recognize that SportsCenter anchor?
The 6’5” swingman spent five seasons in Houston before PATFO decided to bring some of that championship pedigree and “nasty” out west on I-10. In 1998, Mario Elie joined the reigning Rookie of the Year, the 1995 MVP, a two time All-Star, and the reigning NBA Sportsmanship Award recipient in the quest for San Antonio’s first NBA title.
Elie, who’d been known for his clutch shooting, fierce defensive playing, and competitiveness brought it all with him.
Mario Elie was the first player in the history of the Spurs organization to wear #17. He’d worn the number in Portland as well as Houston. In his first season, he helped the Spurs win the NBA Championship. Quite a good omen for the number.
He averaged 9.7 points in his 37 games during the shortened lockout season, which ended in the Spurs hoisting the Larry O’Brien.
Elie stayed with the Spurs for a second season and started in every game he played. He did see a seven point dip in his field goal percentage which had been declining over his last four seasons.
“It was one of best times of my career. It’s one of the best organizations in sports. It reminds me of the New England Patriots. It all starts at the top from Greg Popovich and R.C. Buford. I was part of the first team to win a NBA Championship here; it’s one of the special memories in my playing career.”
At the end of the 1999-2000 season he moved to Phoenix and played his final season with the Suns before retiring.
His first NBA assistant coaching job brought him back to the Alamo City under Gregg Popovich.
Mario would also return to Golden State as an assistant before moving through Dallas and Sacramento. Eventually, Elie reunited with teammate Avery Johnson while Johnson was head coach of the Nets, serving as his assistant. His most recent position was with the Orlando Magic.
Elie was inducted into the New York Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. He was also named one of the top ten in the Houston Rockets franchise.
Next Up: Charlie Ward
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