Never nervous, but always prepared.
"The only time I ever went to bed at 9 p.m. in my entire life," says Washington Bullets center Pervis Ellison, recalling the night before the 1986 NCAA championship game. "I wanted to make sure I got eight hours sleep. I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity I had to play well."
Ellison is still taking advantage of every opportunity. He'll start his 16th straight game tonight when the Bullets face the Atlanta Hawks at the Arena, and he has the blisters to prove he has earned that position.
He didn't appear to be working hard at all on the night he became "Never Nervous Pervis" to a nation of college basketball fans. With this year's NCAA tournament approaching the Final Four, Ellison couldn't resist talking about the 1986 game in which he led Louisville to its second national championship, a 72-69 victory over Duke. Afterward, he was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
He had a game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds. He blocked two shots. And, with time running out on the shot clock, he caught an air ball and went back up for what turned out to be the winning basket.
"Duke didn't have a really big-time scorer at center and all I had to do was defend and rebound," says the 6-foot-10 Ellison. "They said I was never nervous and I wasn't, because none of the pressure was on me.
"I was a freshman," says Ellison, now in his second year as a pro. "I didn't realize how difficult it is to do what we did. It was like taken for granted. I remember what a great feeling it was, and I remember being in the locker room with the guys after that game, and how we all knew we'd be back to the Final Four, to the championship game, again. But it never happened for us again."
When Ellison joined the Bullets last summer in a trade that sent the team's leading scorer, Jeff Malone, to Utah, he came surrounded by questions. "Profound questions," Bullets coach Wes Unseld said when the trade was made. Sacramento made the former Louisville star the overall No. 1 pick in the 1989 NBA draft, but bone spur surgery and other injuries kept him out of all but 34 games his rookie season.
"The biggest question was how much Pervis wanted to be a player," says Unseld. "And if he did want to be a player, was he willing to do those things that good players have to do?
"Would he put in the hours of practice, the hours in the weight room?"
For nearly three months at the start of this season, Ellison didn't take a day off. Unseld had his answer.
"He came every day to work, and I'm not talking about our regular practice time," Unseld says. "A lot of those days he came we didn't have practice . . . He came with toes so blistered, they were the ugliest things I've ever seen."
Ellison and Unseld would go through drills on offense and defense with either Bill Blair or Jeff Bzdelik, the Bullets' assistant coaches.
Ellison would break to the low post, where one of the assistants would pass him the ball. He would then square up, pump fake and put a move on Unseld. Over and over.
Ellison would box out Unseld, get the rebound and turn to make an outlet pass. Over and over. If he brought the ball down on his turn, Unseld would slap it away.
During practices, if Ellison brought the ball low after a rebound, Unseld blew the whistle. Practice would stop. The coaches would show him what he did, what he should have done. Sometimes, it was the great inquisition:
Why did you bring the ball down? Why did you do that? Why didn't you do this? Why, why, why?
During games early in the season, Ellison was getting into foul trouble. He was eager to block shots and he has leaving his feet too quickly, reacting to pump fakes. It was to the point where the Bullets' coaching staff would scream: "Stay down, Pervis! Stay down!"
Now he's staying down. Now he's thinking before he acts.
The drills designed by Unseld -- a Hall of Famer notorious for defense and his lightning-quick, two-handed outlet pass after a rebound -- have made a difference.
"I never thought of not going to those workouts," says Ellison. "Blistered feet? So what. My feeling is if you don't have a stress fracture, you can go. You can't learn anything on the sidelines and I had a lot to learn."
Unseld says Ellison came to the NBA not knowing "what the hell to expect from pro ball." He says Ellison was "lacking in a lot of things a good pro player has to have: Know-how, knowledge of the game."
Unseld said it took those three months for Ellison to realize what he needed to do to be effective. Only then did Ellison earn his first start, Feb. 15.
"He was a 6-10 guy, playing like a 6-footer, which allowed anyone with ability to play him," Unseld says. "That alone took a long time, and he's still not consistently doing it."
"Sometimes, young guys like myself can't grasp what the situation really is," says Ellison, who will be 24 on April 3. "I think everyone wants to be the best. You don't want to sell yourself short. Like the NCAA championship game, I went to bed at 9 p.m., because I wanted to do everything perfect."
Ellison is not perfect, but he is better.
He is averaging 10.3 points and 10.4 rebounds in his 15 starts. In his last six games, his scoring average is up to 17.6 points on 43 percent shooting and he has led the team in rebounding seven straight games.
"Nervous at starting?" says Ellison. "It's not doing open heart surgery. It's just playing a game I've played all my life. My feeling was simply, 'Do the best you can.' To me, it was Coach saying, 'Pervis, you'll be the player of the future. It's time for you to step up.' "