Tellis Frank

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If you’re a fan of sports names, today’s Quaz Q&A is for you.

After being selected by Golden State in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft, Tellis Frank spent five years knocking around, averaging 6.5 points and 3.9 rebounds as a forward for three franchises before going on to a stellar decade of  European stardom. He was, in the NBA, good and solid, but seldom spectacular. A nice guy to have as your 10th or 11th man, but rarely considered a potential All-Star. Why? “Because,” he admits, “I didn’t work hard enough.”

Be that as it may, Frank boasts an all-time, all-time, all-time great NBA name. Hell, there have been multiple Michaels, multiple Larrys, multiple Scotties and Johns and Karls. But in the history of American professional sports, Tellis Frank is the lone Tellis.

He also happens to be a great guy with a phenomenal plight—a rise from Gary, Indiana, unlikely stardom at Western Kentucky, NBA hardship followed by international glory. These days, Tellis serves as an assistant coach with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. Which is appropriate, because the 225th Quaz insists, after myriad ups and downs, he’s living his dream.

Tellis Frank, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So several years ago I visited your hometown, Gary, Indiana, for an piece about Lyman Bostock, the ballplayer who had been murdered there in the late 1970s. And I walked around, explored—and it just broke my heart. Boarded buildings, dead businesses, crappy schools. You ask where to eat, and they shrug. And whenever I hear politicians say, “we all have an even shot,” I always think, “Try going to a public school in Gary, compared to where my kids live …”

TELLIS FRANK: It’s hell and heaven.

J.P.: Exactly. So how does one make it out of Gary, and if you’re talking to a kid today in Gary, “You have to go to college and do this …” maybe you, having grown there, have a better understanding. How do you tell a kid how to get out of Gary, Indiana?

T.F.: Well, Jeff, first thing. When I was coming up out of Gary, Indiana, it was a totally different city compared to where it is now. We had a thriving school system, our main source of income was the steel mills, so everybody had good jobs. It was a good, middleclass city. As time went on, things started moving. The steel mill closed down to where 75 percent of the jobs were gone. So kids kind of went … the school system went in another direction and they started closing schools. So the opportunity to get out was kind of shrinking. So kids, where there used to be sports and neighborhood associations to turn to, now they started turning to drugs and gangs. So my advice to kids today, when you come to that fork in the road, you’ve gotta make decisions. You have to grow up early when you’re in an environment like Gary, Indiana, because there are a lot of negative things around. You have to choose to do the right thing. And I know you’re thinking, “Well, how can a kid choose to do the right thing?” In this day and age, kids are much smarter and they knew right from wrong. I tell the kids, keep it simple. First thing you’ve gotta do is get up and go to school every day. And every day you’ve gotta do something positive to help your life—whether it be sports, getting your education and trying to move out. That’s my advice—start from the basic and everything else will come with you. If you do right, good’s gonna go. You do wrong, wrong’s gonna come.

J.P.: Does it break your heart?

T.F.: It breaks my heart because I’m from there, and I know there are still good people there. I go back there and I know what the city was and I see where the city is at now. And, of course, it’s not a good feeling for myself. But it’s where I’m from. I still claim Gary, Indiana. And any time I have a chance to talk to kids or talk to the newspapers, I always try to stay positive about the city, and I insist there’s a way out. I made it, you can make it.

J.P.: Western Kentucky seems like a very random place for a kid from Gary, Indiana to go to college. How’d you end up going there, of all places?

T.F.: Well, I liked Coach (Clem) Haskins. I got offers from a lot of different schools. I took my five visits. I visited Iowa State, I visited Bradley, I visited Purdue, I visited Illinois. I went to Minnesota. And I visited Western Kentucky, and Coach Haskins was what I was looking for. If I went Big 10 I had to gain weight, they wanted me to play the center position. I felt like I wasn’t a center. I felt like I was a power forward/small forward. I could face up, I could shoot it. I didn’t want to go to a setup position. I wanted to be a racehorse up and down the court. So it was either him or I was gonna go to Tulsa with Coach Nolan Richardson.

J.P.: So you’re this 18-year-old kid and all of a sudden you’re moving to Kentucky. Is that weird?

T.F.: Well, your life is about to change. You’re 18, you’re leaving your family and you’re going off to a whole new environment. And you’re just hoping in your heart that you can survive.

J.P.: Was survival hard?

T.F.: It was an easy transition for me. Because I knew what I wanted, I knew what I had to do, I knew what I wanted to do. So I just put my head down and stayed focused, and Coach Haskins was a good mentor.

J.P.: When you were drafted … you’re drafted, first round, great college career. Do you assume you’re going to go to the NBA and be a star, or is the goal to survive?

T.F.: Well, as the 14th pick I kind of assumed I’d be a star. That’s a lottery pick. I assumed I had the pro game. But I really can’t blame anybody but myself, because I really think I got lazy. I didn’t put the work into it to be a starter in the NBA. Looking back at my career. Now that I have a son, I can kind of relay to him what it takes if you’re really trying to sustain and get to that star/superstar level.

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J.P.: What does that mean? You’re Tellis Frank, you’re 22 … 23, you’re in the NBA, you’re living the dream, big money, good city. What’s the difference between the way you were working and the way someone worked who wanted to reach a higher level?

T.F.: I’m just gonna give you Chris Mullin as an example. That’s who I was around. He went to a rehab center my rookie year, and when he came out he was just a total workout, basketball, gym junkie. Mullie would go to the gym and spend eight hours in the gym. Getting up thousands and thousands of shots, running sprints. Even before he started playing. Then he would go play for two, three hours. There’s a correlation between somebody trying to be an NBA star and work ethic, versus someone just wanting to be in the NBA.

J.P.: So why didn’t you have that same drive?

T.F.: Well, you know, like I said, it was all on me. I thought I was having a good rookie year, and I just seemed like when Coach (Don) Nelson took over he wanted me to be a rookie again, instead of me working hard to do what I need to do to be better. Instead of me taking his words and actions as someone trying to push me, I took it as someone trying to push me out by not giving me playing time. Because I thought I was doing what I needed to do to be a good player. He would try to make me be a great player, and I was rebelling against that. It was all on me. And I just think a successful person has to check themselves, and that’s what I did as I moved on. It wasn’t Coach Nelson, it was all me. Instead of having an attitude I should have worked harder, I should have dedicated myself more. Because like they say, when a coach stops talking to you it means he doesn’t care about you anymore. And Coach Nelson was constantly talking to me, but I just felt like I had played for George Karl, I went through my rookie year. Check the numbers—I averaged eight points and five or six rebounds. Coming back into my second year it was a shock to me when, even after a good training camp, he wasn’t giving me any playing time. But he would say, “You’re a rook to me,” and I didn’t understand that. It was all on me.

J.P.: Do you look back with regret, or is it merely a life learning experience?

T.F.: I look back with regret, because I really felt I had the game where I could have been a 10-, 15-year NBA player. And it’s regret because what Coach Nelson was telling me was true. “Keep your weight right, understand the game, be true to yourself, look yourself in the mirror and check yourself and challenge yourself and tell yourself what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong.” I didn’t take what he was telling me to heart. So I look back with regret, but I also look back at it as a great time in my life. Because I had the opportunity to play basketball at a place a lot of people dream about. I was there and I lived that dream. And I lived that dream where I went overseas and played. So I’m not mad at the situation, but like I said, I can pass my knowledge on to other kids.

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J.P.: You play 5 ½ seasons in the NBA—above average. Then you play in Europe for years in some cools cities and countries, you win a title. Can the argument be made that, from a life standpoint, you were better off having the NBA taste and then playing in Europe? That you’ve experienced more by having that? Or no? Would you rather have the 15 years in the NBA.

 T.F.: You know, I’d say I’d rather have the 15 years in the NBA because it’s America and that’s every kid’s dream to be in the NBA. And you lose out on a lot of things when you leave your country. But on the other hand, I went to a whole different world. I became a major star. My nickname they gave me in Europle was “Professore.” That meant, “The professor.” So i had a great time. I played in great cities. I was in Italy, I was in Spain, I played a year in France, I made great money, I lived in nice homes, I drove nice Italian cars, I met nice people. It was, for me, I didn’t appreciate it because i really wanted to NBA. When you’re young, you don’t know until you’re out of it and you look back over your career. But I’ve gotta say, damn, Europle was great for me. It was basketball … I just got to go places I’d have never been were it not for the orange pill.

J.P.: What’s your craziest outside-the-U.S. basketball story? 

T.F.: When I won the Italian championship. We beat Milan and we got on the plane, and we flew back down to Napoli. The whole city was sitting outside the airport. I’m talking as far as you could see—people. And they were just cheering our names, they were trying to get a piece of us. That was my wildest experience. And when i won the championship in Spain—we won the King’s Cup, which was like winning the Spanish Cup. We beat Barcelona. And I get on the plane, people everywhere, and we get to the city and the bus could hardly move. There were people just everywhere. So, I have to say, it was a hell of an experience just to stand atop the hill, and nobody is better than you on that day.

J.P.: Am I wrong in thinking that you played for the Harlem Globetrotters? 

T.F.: I never played for the Globetrotters. I toured with them, then I came back to coach. Because Mr. (Manny) Jackson told me they were gonna try and turn the Globetrotters toward a serious team. So I coached a year with them. And it was a great experience. You grow up watching the Harlem Globetrotters, and now you’re a part of the Harlem Globetrotters. It was just amazing seeing old people, young people … we’d go from the Boston Garden to a high school in Utah to Madison Square Garden to a gym in North Dakota. We were just all over the world every day doing that show.

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J.P.: So you didn’t play? 

T.F.: I played … I played five or six games where they called me and they were like, “We need some players” and I got up off my couch and went and just sat on the bench. I did like six games with them, made a little money, they paid me like $1,000 a game. I don’t consideri t playing, because i went from my couch to their bench. I enjoyed it more when i came back as a coach.

J.P.: Did you learn any tricks? Like, can you do anything funky with the ball because of your time with the Globetrotters? 

T.F.: I can do a few things with the basketball. Yeah.

J.P.: If you Google your name there’s a quote that comes up all the time—“The worst thing about playing in Europe is you can’t go out in the middle of the night and get a Slurpee.” Um, when you said that was it a serious quote? 

T.F.: That was a serious quote. But you have to understand i was in Italy in 1990. As we know, everything has changed and i was just using it as, “Man, in America any time of day or night i can walk outside and get a Slurpee.” Europe, can’t do it. They close three hours for lunch. Eight, nine o’clock comes, it’s closed. There’s nothing to do. So that was the toughest thing.

J.P.: Do you really love Slurpees

T.F.: Yeah, I like Slurpees a lot. I live in Sherman Oaks, Cal., and it gets real hot there. It’s nothing but sugar, so I really try to drink them in the summertime.

J.P.: What’s your flavor? The Coke one? 

T.F.: Nah. I like banana.

J.P.: Yeah, that is good. 

T.F.: The Coke—good.

Frank (right), with Dream head coach Michael Cooper and assistant Karleen Thompson.
Frank (right), with Dream coach Michael Cooper and assistant Karleen Thompson.

J.P.: You coached high school at Harlem Westlake High. You were the freshman coach for two years, then the varsity coach for a bunch more. Is it hard, being you, and coaching some kid with no athleticism, no instincts? Can you relate? When you were an NBA player … 

T.F.: Well, I look at it like this: My whole mindset changed when I decided to become a coach. My mindset is I’m trying to coach each kid the same way no matter what your ability is. I’m looking at your heart and your effort. Give me all the effort, all your heart, all your passion—I’m gonna try to help you. Basketball, or anything you do, you have to have passion for it. You can’t be a successful writer if you don’t work at the craft. The same with basketball. It has to be a passion. I really wanna be a great coach. I don’t turn down jobs. I started a team, the California Cobras, in 2010. I coached 8U, 9U teams. I just worked on my craft, because the only way you get better at anything is repetition. You have to do stuff over and over and articulate it to the kids. I always try to bring the game down as if I’m talking to a 4-year old or 5-year old. Simple, we’re gonna do the simple stuff. And if you have passion and you’re willing to listen and understand what you’re doing and work hard, it’s no problem for me. I always try to stay humble. If you stay humble, you get blessings. I was never flashy. I work on humility. You want people to say, “Tellis Frank, maybe he wasn’t the best NBA player. But he’s a good person.” I think, at the end of the day, I want to be a great person more than a great basketball player.

J.P.: When you meet with a team of kids for the first time, do you introduce yourself and tell them your resume? 

T.F.: A lot of kids, when I was coaching high school I didn’t put it out there. But they’d find it on the Internet and say, “I saw when you were drafted.” The computer makes this world small. You can’t lie to them, because they’ll just Google you. “Hey coach, they called you ‘The Professore’ in Europe. Does that mean you’re a professor?” Yes, that means when I tell you something you should listen, because I know what I’m talking about. I don’t boast, but I’ll tell them a little fat kid from Gary, Indiana because the 14th pick in the NBA Draft—and if that can happen, you can accomplish anything.

J.P.: How’d you end up in the WNBA with Atlanta

TF.: Coach Cooper—I saw Coach Cooper at a travel ball tournament, we were talking, he said he was looking for a coach, I said, “Lemme throw my name in the hat … my resume.” He said he was gonna take his time making his decision. I think that was November, and he said he’d be making it in December. The person I am, the personality, I have, I sent my resume, called every couple of days. I just pursued the job. That’s who I am, that’s what I do. I come from Gary, Indiana. I’m a grinder. I can get in there and get out. I stayed on it, and he gave me the opportunity.

J.P.: Did you know anything about the WNBA?: 

T.F.: I watch basketball, so I watched it. I didn’t know the ins and outs, but I knew it was good basketball. They’re pros—they’re the top of their game. The highest form of ladies basketball. So it was easy to adapt to.

J.P.: Is there a difference, coaching women vs. men? 

T.F.: Well, the only difference is women play below the rim, men play above. The IQ is just as good. You have some players smarter than others, some faster. It’s all the same. The execution, the passing, the understanding is all the same. It’s basketball.

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• How’d you get the name Tellis?: From my mom and dad. My dad’s name is Tellis. I’m Tellis, Jr.

• Five best basketball players you faced: Michael Jordan, Magic, Bird, Shaq, Scottie Pippen.

• Nicest and ugliest uniforms in the NBA: The nicest are Golden State. The ugliest uniforms are the Milwaukee Bucks.

• How good is Elena Della Donne?: On a 1 to 10, she’s a 10. She scores, she’s a grinder, she gets it done. She defends, she rebounds, she puts it in the hoop. She’s a winner.

• Best place to eat in Atlanta: Mary Mac’s Tea Room. They have the Southern cuisine. Great fried chicken, great mac and cheese. Nice cornbread, good vegetables. Mary Mac’s. Yes.

• Grossest injury you ever had as a player?: When I got my shoulder snatched out of place. It was painful. I was playing at Western Kentucky, Clarence Martin—bless his soul, he’s passed away now—we were both went up for a rebound and he was about 260, I was about 215. He just pulled my shoulder straight out of the socket.

• What do you remember from your high school senior prom?: I didn’t go to my senior prom. I went to the movies. I took my girlfriend to the movies.

• Your greatest moment from the NBA: Getting drafted into the NBA. When they called my name, I was sitting there thinking I was gonna go before the 14th pick. I wasn’t nervous that day, on the way to the arena, but then my heart started beating fast, hands sweating. Then the names starting going and I turned to my agent and said, “Was it a mistake coming here?” He said, “Calm down.” When they called my name, I can’t explain the feeling. A kid from Gary, Indiana is the 14th pick in the NBA Draft. And now I’m about to make good money.