Life as a college freshman is never easy. There is a new academic workload, new people, a new distance from family, new distractions pulling you in all directions, and a new-found freedom that can make the responsibility tough to deal with. And if you happen to be good enough to play basketball for the University of Kansas, add to it the challenge of tackling the competition in the Big XII and chasing national championships, going toe-to-toe with the best college talent the country has to offer.
For Perry Ellis, the challenge in front of him at KU is lofty, but setting and achieving big goals as a freshman is nothing new.
“I’m low on the totem pole coming in,” said Ellis. “A freshman. So I’ve just got to work my way through and keep playing hard. It’s just like my freshman year going into (Wichita) Heights because there was a lot of older kids I was playing against. Just keep playing hard and good things will happen.”
While the average freshman would be elated just to make a varsity roster, Ellis had bigger aspirations, for both himself and the Falcons. The goal seemed unlikely, if not impossible; win four straight state championships. But with a strong emphasis on team play, and four different Heights teams working together for the common goal, the seemingly impossible became reality.
The team picked up its fourth championship trophy in a row last March; a feat more meaningful to Ellis than the new City League record 2231 career points, the 984 career rebounds, the four Gatorade Player of the Year awards, the McDonald’s All-American selection, or any of the multitudes of individual achievements he has piled up throughout the course of his high-school career.
“That doesn’t really happen often,” said Ellis. “It was just a great feeling because my freshman year coming in, I made that goal, to get four. It’s really something. You can really do it if you put your mind to it.”
At times it appeared from the outside that the road to the fourth championship was merely a countdown to inevitability. Having won the last three titles, and breaking Moundridge’s state record with 60 wins in a row, it didn’t appear the Falcons would ever lose again. Then, with the winning streak at 62 and the amount of eyes and attention growing, the regular season ended on a very different tone.
Wichita East put an end to the record winning streak with a 57-51 win, and Wichita North made it two losses in a row with a 47-38 win at Heights. With a team inexperienced on the losing side of a competition, the sudden bout with adversity paired with the microscope the Falcons were under, could have been devastating, especially with the losses coming in the final two games of the regular season. However, a deep-rooted sense of team, within the program and within Ellis, turned the losses into a positive.
“Last year’s team, there was a lot of young players and a lot of people didn’t know what to expect,” said Ellis. “You know, I don’t like to lose, but I mean, those two losses toward the end of the season, I think they really helped as a team. We had those young players and they really didn’t know what it felt like to lose. I felt like they really didn’t like that feeling so they really pushed more to win that championship. After those losses, we really didn’t get disconnected. We lost, and we all went as a team to go watch another team play. I felt that was good for us, not disconnecting and everybody going their own way.”
With all the trophies, awards, and national recognition for his work on the court, it would stand to reason that basketball is the driving force in Ellis’ life, with all other endeavors taking a back seat. But assuming his grades are just good enough to stay eligible is a gross miscalculation of a set of priorities that place the books above the game.
As good as Ellis is, and the teams he played on were, he did lose five times in high school. Five losses over a four-year varsity career is a miniscule amount, but by comparison, Ellis was perfect through four years of academics, graduating with a 4.0 GPA.
“It means a lot,” said Ellis of his academic success. “I worry about academics more than basketball. I started with my seventh-grade year, middle school. That’s when I really just decided to focus on that. My sister just told me what I needed to do and she really helped me achieve that. I took advice from her.”
Just as on the basketball court, Ellis’ success does not come without making the people around him better. There is a, we all win or we all lose mentality, as present in the classroom as it is the basketball court.
And Ellis tends not to lose.
“It is just something that I can do,” said Ellis. “If somebody is struggling, I am going to try to help them. I’m not just going to leave them hanging. I don’t know why I am like that, but I just have a lot of feelings for other people if they need help.”
The generosity is not limited to immediate peers. Put in a position where an unbelievable talent for basketball has led to a high national profile that would go straight to the heads of many teenagers too immature to handle it (and many adults too immature to handle it), Ellis views his celebrity as not only a responsibility, but an opportunity. Through giving back to the community, Ellis has found a joy that goes deeper than simply using his stature for personal indulgences. Volunteering in programs like Real Men Real Heroes has provided the chance to extend the reach of his kindness. In Real Men Real Heroes, Ellis has gone into middle and elementary schools to share the value of academics over athletics.
“(Real Men Real Heroes) was great,” said Ellis. “A lot of those kids grow up, I mean, they don’t really have a mom and a dad together so they might not have people that are telling them to do that stuff. It was just really good to get in there and just kind of share with them what they can do and what they can really accomplish if they put their minds to it. But it is a good feeling, doing those things.”
His work in the classroom alone would have provided Ellis with the opportunity to attend his college of choice. With pure ability on the basketball court, schools had to compete to bring in a talent that can help win ball games, as well as a student a university can be proud of.
Lawrence provided a location far enough from Wichita to get away, but close enough to allow for family support. The opportunity to be able to play in front of family was a must. On top of giving Ellis the opportunity to play in front of his family, KU also provides the opportunity to play in front of national television audiences in one of the most storied buildings in all of basketball for one of the premier programs in the nation.
But aside from the obvious draw a basketball program like Kansas’ provides a young player, there is more to the team itself that appeals to Ellis. Given his selfless, team-first style, the chance to come in and be the star is not as appealing as finding a unit to fit into. With the Jayhawks, Ellis believes he has found that unit, a team that works together for the glory of the whole, while individual accolades fall where they may.
“When I was watching them play…that’s kind of how it is,” said Ellis. “Not really just stroking it, but everybody is looking for their teammates. That is something that I was really looking at and the type of style that I play, so I feel I fit in really well.”
Life as a college freshman is never easy. For all the high school success, the slate is now clean, and the challenge of becoming the best team in the state of Kansas pales in comparison to the new mission of becoming the best team in the country. But with the talent, combined with the will of mind to guide it, challenge accepted.
Setting and achieving big goals as a freshman is nothing new to Perry Ellis.