Rock Chalk Weekly: Perry Ellis Through Our Eyes
Written by Erica Mings, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
There are nine seconds left on the clock at the 2012 Kansas 6A Boys’ Basketball State Championships. The Wichita Heights Falcons are leading Blue Valley Northwest, 64 to 58. Perry Ellis, the Falcons’ 6-foot, 8-inch power forward, steps up to the free-throw line and scores his 2,231st and final point of his high school basketball career. As the clock winds down to zero, the crowd in Wichita State University’s Charles Koch Arena has come to the realization that the Wichita Heights Falcons have won their fourth-consecutive state championship.
The celebration that ensued once the clock hit zero wasn’t one of epic proportions. There was no jumping in the air. There was no dog pile. There was no pounding on the chest. Heights coach, Joe Auer, left the bench and calmly walked on to the court with his arms stretched open preparing for an embrace. As he passed by several of his players, it was unclear where he was headed. Then it’s obvious; Auer was headed straight for Ellis. They wrapped their arms around each other and embraced in a moment of quiet celebration.
Ellis said one of the goals he and Auer set before he played a single game of high school basketball was to win four state championships. In that moment—in that embrace—Ellis and Auer knew they had accomplished the goal they set four years earlier.
“We did it,” Ellis said.
Fifteen years prior to that moment, Ellis was just a three-year-old little boy living with his parents, Fonda and Will Ellis, and older sister, Savannah, in their three bedroom, two bathroom home in Wichita. The walls of the downstairs living room of their quad-level home were covered with family photos. Normal furniture, like a couch, a La-Z-Boy recliner, and TV occupied the half-wood, half-carpet floor space of the Ellis family’s living room. But something about that living room made it a little different from most. In the center of the room stood an orange and white Little Tikes basketball goal. In that living room—on that basketball goal—is where it all began for the McDonald’s All-American.
“He loved that thing,” Fonda said. “So we decided to put him in basketball.”
Ellis’ first memories of basketball don’t start until several years later, at the age of five or six when he played in a YMCA league. Something that really stands out to Ellis is the memory of him not being so skilled on the court.
“I remember watching tape from when my parents recorded games,” Ellis said. “On the tip, I would just grab the ball instead of hitting it to somebody. That was pretty funny.”
The 2015 Danny Manning Mr. Jayhawk award winner dropped his head and laughed at himself as he reminisced about the days before he was force to be reckoned with on the court.
Ellis wouldn’t truly fall in love with basketball until several years later, in middle school, when he began to realize that he was pretty good at the game. By this time Ellis had crossed paths with Terrence Moore, who is currently a senior guard for Emporia State University. The two would compete against each other in Biddy Basketball, all the way through middle school until they came together at Wichita Heights. Moore looks back on his four years playing with Ellis and remembers the quiet leadership Ellis brought to the team.
“His mentality was totally different from what people would expect,” Moore said. “He was very quiet and [kept] to himself. He was a leader, but he could show you with his actions better than he could tell you. It was amazing to be able to play with a great unselfish guy like that.”
Basketball wasn’t Ellis’ only success in high school. The 2014-15 Big 12 Conference Men’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year boasted a 4.0 Grade Point Average (GPA) and graduated as valedictorian of his class at Wichita Heights. This is an honor most parents would love to take credit for, but Fonda unselfishly credits her daughter, Savannah, with giving Ellis the guidance and motivation needed to make academics a priority.
“I give Savannah credit for that,” Fonda said. “She told him, ‘You better start working on your academics right away when you get to high school.’ She told him how important it was and he took it to heart.”
Savannah, Ellis’s only sister, said that while they were close, of the four siblings, she and Ellis fought the most. As kids they would play basketball together, but she remembers it always ending with one of them getting mad.
Four years older than Ellis, Savannah knew her little brother was going to be gifted on the court long before he knew himself. Her freshman year in high school was the last time she played Ellis one-on-one, and it’s a game that she won’t ever forget—nor will she let Ellis forget. Why? Because she won.
“I beat him,” Savannah said. “It was really hard that time. I knew if I played him again I would probably lose and I wanted the last time I played him to be me winning.”
As Ellis began to grow physically, academically and in skill on the court, his parents made sure he was growing in other ways as well. Fonda and Will wanted to make sure there was more to Ellis than basketball. They instilled in him at an early age the importance of giving back. Ellis would spend time at the Wichita Children’s Home, where both of his parents still work, watching them give their time to the children that came through the home. Ellis grew especially close to his father and used him as an example of what it means to give back and to be a good person.
“There’s so many people who know him, and say how good of a person he is,” Ellis said. “It goes a long way.”
Fonda remembers all too clearly a specific occasion when Ellis was in high school and noticed another student who had been wearing the same pair of shoes every single day. Ellis’ selfless and giving nature kicked in. He wanted to do what he could to help.
“He said, ‘Mom, I think he only has one pair of shoes,'” Fonda said. “So, he boxed up some of his own shoes and took them to the kid’s house.”
Moments like that one, as well as the accomplishment of maintaining a 4.0 GPA, led to Ellis being honored as a Teen Hero by the Real Men Real Heroes program in Wichita, and he would later be chosen as an Honorary Hero. While all the honors and accolades Ellis has earned are nothing short of impressive, it’s selfless moments like that one that truly make Ellis’ parents proud.
Making the people who love him well up with pride is something the 2014-15 Karl Malone Power Forward finalist does all too often. Auer has been able to experience that sense of pride. Outside of winning four state championships, Auer says Ellis has had a lasting impact on the kids at Wichita Heights and left the school and the basketball program in better shape than he found it.
“Perry continues to be a shining example of how you should conduct yourself as a student-athlete,” Auer said. “Everything that’s come his way has been a product of his unselfish nature, and it’s been a real blessing to get to coach a young man like that.”
Auer’s most memorable moment with Ellis goes back to that final state championship game. The normally quiet and reticent Ellis, stepped up vocally in a big way that day. The Falcons called a timeout in the final minutes of the state championship game in front of a packed house. Auer distinctly remembers Ellis saying, “Give me the ball”—vocal leadership that surprised his teammates. Moore, one of those teammates on the court alongside him, knew if Ellis was stepping up vocally, something special was about to happen.
“When someone like that calls for the ball, you have to give it to him,” Moore said.
Auer, who said Ellis let his actions do all the talking, was also pleasantly surprised by the verbal leadership Ellis showed that day. Auer said it’s a moment he will never forget.
“It caught all of us off guard,” Auer said. “For his teammates it was a real focusing moment. Here’s our best player being very vocal—that wasn’t his nature. Then he goes out and makes the game-winning play for us. For him to end his career in that fashion for us—I’ll never forget that.”
As far as speaking up goes, Ellis says he knows there’s a time and a place when he needs to be more vocal.
“There are times when I know I have to say something,” Ellis said. “When those opportunities come, I try to take advantage of them.”
Auer said he knew Ellis’ calm demeanor wasn’t going to take away from his talents on the court. Auer explained that when Ellis was being recruited, and even in his time at KU, he’s been misunderstood. Auer said people would ask why doesn’t he pound his chest and show aggression on the court.
“Well, here he is after three years of not pounding his chest and he’s closing in on being one of the greatest players in the history of the program,” Auer said.
Seeing Ellis seek out the spotlight may be something that doesn’t happen too often, but getting him to speak up when it’s time to talk to young kids is something that comes easy for Ellis. Ellis spends a lot of his free time mentoring to youth in Wichita. Buddy Shannon, who played an integral part in Ellis’s nomination for the Teen Hero and Honorary Hero awards, says if you want to get Ellis to speak up, “Stick him in front of some kids.”
Ellis said the idea of being able to make a difference in a kid’s life and being able to motivate them to succeed is what allows him to open up.
“You may not be able to help everybody,” Ellis said. “But helping one is what counts.”
Brae Ellis says one of his most memorable moments of his older brother wasn’t when he won his first, second, third or fourth state championship. It was watching him give his acceptance speech for his Honorary Hero award.
“It was inspirational,” Brae said.
Ellis’ selfless attitude and work ethic inspire all who come in contact with him, but what inspires Ellis? If any one of his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers goes to his page, they will see what and who inspires Ellis to be the man he is today. His cover photo on his Twitter account reads: “He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I trust Him.”
Ellis said his sophomore year in high school he accepted Christ into his life. The power forward says his relationship with Christ is a huge part of his life and it is important to him to incorporate his faith into his life both on-and-off the court.
“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to know that there is more than basketball,” Ellis said. “Ever since the day I accepted Christ, it was so much better after that. I knew I was playing for Him, and not for people. It just meant so much more.”
Ellis says his favorite scripture is Proverbs chapter three, verses five and six (Proverbs 3:5-6): “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. Acknowledge him in all your ways, and he will make your paths straight.” Ellis said he receives scriptures like this one from friends and family before games, which he uses as a reminder that he’s playing for Christ, not himself.
Ellis’ faith helped him cope with what Fonda said was one of the greatest losses in his life. On September 14, 2012, Ellis received a normal call from his grandfather, Floyd Terpstra, wishing him a happy birthday. In that moment Ellis didn’t know that it would be the last time he ever spoke with his grandfather.
“It’s something that I had to take with me,” Ellis said. “I just had to say he’s always going to be watching over me. He was a great guy. He meant a lot to me.”
Ellis’s mom said his grandfather, her dad, was so excited to watch his grandson play his first college basketball game in Allen Fieldhouse. He and Ellis’ grandmother had made plans to come down from Iowa and watch him play in his first basketball game, but Ellis’ grandfather never got the chance.
“My dad was so excited to see Perry play,” Fonda said. “He was so glad Perry chose KU. He was so proud.”
Although his freshman year Ellis had to deal with the loss of his grandfather, he also experienced one of his most memorable moments that year as well. This particular moment is one that Ellis said gave him the confidence he needed to push through.
“My freshman year at the Sprint Center when I started playing real well, the fans started chanting my name,” Ellis said. “I thought it was pretty awesome. It just pushed me forward and really gave me a boost of confidence.”
Ellis says he is grateful to the Jayhawk faithful for moments like that one, but the fans are even more appreciative of his commitment and dedication to Kansas basketball. Kansas senior Paige Stingley, who came to KU as a football fan, said Ellis was one of the reasons she was quickly converted to a being basketball fan. Stingley camps out for home games, a ritual that has become as much a part of the student experience as actually watching a basketball game in Allen Fieldhouse. Stingley, who has had classes with Ellis, believes it’s admirable how dedicated he is not only to basketball, but to his academics.
“It really reflects positively on his character,” Stingley said. “It has been a treat to see him stay and grow all four years, and really commit himself to this school and his education. I think it’s incredible.”
Fonda says Ellis shows his gratitude to the fans the best way he knows how.
“He always takes the time to stop and talk to people,” Fonda said. “He’ll stop and take a photo and sign an autograph. He’ll take that two to three minutes just to make somebody’s day.”
Not only are fans grateful for his time here at KU, Ellis’ teammates and coaches have enjoyed the experience as well. Teammates Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas have spent four years at KU with Ellis. Traylor, who was Ellis’ roommate for a year, said the team gets to see a side of Ellis that most people don’t—they get to see him laugh.
“He sneaks little jokes in here and there,” Traylor said. “That’s something most people don’t know about him. He can be funny.”
Lucas reiterated Traylor’s statement about Ellis when he said, “He’s a funny guy when he wants to be. When you hear him chime in with a joke, everybody hears it because you rarely see those moments. So it’s a funny time when he has something to say.”
Traylor said Ellis can be a jokester and loves teasing his teammates here and there, especially Svi Mykhailiuk. He heard what Traylor had to say about him and there it was. That smile that is rarely seen by strangers.
“Yea, I like to mess with Svi a little bit,” Ellis laughed. “But my teammates get me to laugh all the time.”
No one has been able to witness Ellis’ growth through the years at Kansas like head coach Bill Self has. Self always believed Ellis had the capability of being a great college player, and has no doubts about his future in basketball.
“After coaching him for three years, there is no doubt in my mind that Perry has a chance—an opportunity to be an All-American,” Self said. “He has a chance to be player of the year in our league, and he will play in the NBA.”
Self says he’s never been disappointed in Ellis from a responsibility standpoint, and said he has been a great ambassador for the program.
“He never calls attention to himself but he’s our most popular player,” Self said. “He never talks about anything other than ‘We’, yet everybody wants to interview him. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t seek out attention, but he’s on the cover of every magazine. The more he deflects [attention from himself], and gives praise to others—it’s amazing how it comes back to him.”
Self continued, “I think it’s a perfect way for everyone to look at him and see that you don’t have to be arrogant. You don’t have to be selfish. You don’t have to be anything other than a good person and great things will happen to you in this sport.”
Ellis’ humble and reserved nature, despite all the reasons he has to celebrate and gloat, might leave one wondering if he sees himself the way everyone else does. If not, the positive and indisputable adulation given to Ellis by those closest to him, and even those who have never met him, will give Ellis the opportunity to take a glimpse at himself through the eyes of all the people he’s touched.
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