Ella Collier is Denmark’s 6-foot-3 middle blocker.
To her opponents, she’s a mismatch before she even steps foot on the volleyball court. To Dominique Wilkins, she’s Jason’s daughter. To her mother, Katie Collier, she’s a reminder of everything she loved about her late husband and once-emerging NBA star, Jason Collier.
Ella keeps her father’s memory close.
She wears No. 40 for the Danes, which is the same number Jason wore during his two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks.
Even Ella’s demeanor on the court bears resemblance to Jason.
There’s a picture on Jason’s Fleer rookie card that shows him attempting a hook shot with his left hand, with his right arm suspended in the air for balance. Switch hands and you’ve got Ella going up to spike the ball into the opposing defense.
“She’s very, very similar, which is kind of awesome, because he’s gone, but I can see him through her every day,” Katie said. “So, it’s pretty special.”
Jason died in 2005 at 28 years old, four months before Ella’s second birthday. Jason, whose 7-foot frame allowed him to go toe-to-toe with NBA greats such as Shaquille O’Neal and Ben Wallace, died of an enlarged heart.
“I would have been 2 that January,” Ella said. “I was young, so I don’t remember anything, but I have my whole family to tell me memories and stuff.”
Off the court, it is even more obvious to Ella’s family that she is Jason’s daughter.
There is Jason’s knack for quoting movies, his unique sense of humor, his youthful grin — all characteristics that others point out in Ella.
“We’re the spitting image of each other. We’re the exact same person,” Ella said with a laugh. “We have the exact same sense of humor and we have the same exact characteristics toward people, because he was not only really good on the court, but he was also a really good person in general. He did a lot of stuff for charities for child foundations and stuff like that outside of sports. I want to be like that.”
The Atlanta Hawks award the Jason Collier Memorial Trophy each year to a player who “most closely exemplifies the characteristics of a community ambassador displayed by Collier.”
Jason was a McDonald’s All-American in 1996 out of Catholic Central in Springfield, Ohio, where he was the state’s Mr. Basketball. He became a two-time All-ACC selection at Georgia Tech after transferring from Indiana, then was drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2000 NBA Draft.
He was entering the prime of his career with Atlanta, averaging more than 11 points and five rebounds per game in his first season, then playing a career-high 70 games during the 2004-05 season.
Of course, Ella grew up shooting hoops in her driveway, but she preferred swimming as a child and ultimately gravitated toward volleyball.
She never warmed up to basketball’s physical demands.
“I still to this day go out there and shoot, because all my cousins play basketball,” Ella said. “They’re like, ‘Well, Uncle Jason played basketball.’ My youngest cousin that’s in middle school, he’s about 14 and he’s already, like, 6-foot-5.”
Ella visited Jason’s old high school last November, where Kelly green letters spell out “Jason Collier Gymnasium” outside the entrance and his No. 40 jersey hangs from the rafters.
Now in high school, she felt a connection with her father as the Catholic Central boys basketball team practiced in the same gym where Jason spent countless minutes, running sprints and practicing free throws.
“The gym was locked,” Katie remembered, “and they came and opened the door and Ella’s grandfather said, ‘This is Jason’s daughter,’ because everybody in Springfield, Ohio, and at that high school knows Jason.”
Ella, 16, appreciates those glimpses into Jason’s high school life, especially now as she’s coming into her own as a volleyball player.
As a sophomore last year, her 132 blocks led all Class 4A teams and was third in the entire state, regardless of classification. Through 28 matches this season, she leads Denmark with 57 total blocks.
Ella and the Danes are playing in a Forsyth-heavy Region 6-7A this season, which features a handful of the state’s top Class 7A teams.
Like Ella, some of Jason’s best games came against the NBA’s most fierce competition.
“He played against Shaq, too. He shut Shaq down,” Ella brags.
In fact, in just the fourth game of his rookie season, Jason drew the difficult assignment of defending the 7-foot-1, 325-pound Shaquille O’Neal. But he and Hakeem Olajuwon combined to hold Shaq to 8-of-19 shooting from the floor and beat the Lakers 84-74.
It was one of Shaq’s worst nights during a season where the Lakers won their second straight championship and Shaq earned a Finals MVP.
Collier played 12 minutes, scoring 10 points and pulling down four rebounds, sinking all but two shots.
“There was one game where Shaq stole his jersey out of his locker, and he was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He was going to do something with it. Shaq was so jealous of my dad for some reason. They were good friends – they were like ‘frenemies,’ because they were on different teams,” Ella said.
“He was great friends with Dominique Wilkins. If I go to any game, Dominique always says hi.”
Ella’s recruitment is beginning to pick up now in her junior year.
She’s not sure what college she wants to attend, but she knows two things: she wants to play Division I volleyball and she wants to continue wearing her father’s number.
“I want to be able to wear it in college, too. That’s a big deal,” Ella said. “It’s going to be really hard to decide which college to go to, too. His dad and my dad both went to Georgia Tech and both wore 52. That was their college number. Forty was their professional number. If I went to Georgia Tech, that’d be the third Collier that went to Georgia Tech.”
For now, she’ll continue putting up shots in her spare time — not for any sort of practice, but to connect with a part of her past, one that everybody who knew Jason sees when they look at her.