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Bob Lutz: Perry Ellis’ desire to succeed goes beyond basketball excellence

  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011, at 8:30 a.m.

There is a really important "4" in Perry Ellis' life, but it's not what you think.

It's not the pursuit of a fourth state championship with the Heights basketball team this season. Although Ellis wants to do his part to hang a fourth banner in the Falcons' gym, that's not the 4 that has the most meaning to him.

It's his 4.0 grade-point average at Heights, his perfect run through every class he has taken since his freshman year. A senior now, the 6-foot-8 Ellis, whose Falcons open play Friday night at North against Conner Frankamp and the Redskins, is close enough to smell that 4.0. And he has come too far, he says, to let it slip away.

"Since seventh grade, really, it's been academics first with me,'' said Ellis, who is headed for Kansas to play basketball after this season. "And that's what has been in my mind ever since.''

So much so that Ellis left a day late for an Elite 24 camp in California this fall because he didn't want to miss some of his most important classes. There was work to be done in his English class, and also in physics and pre-calculus. He felt better about leaving for the basketball camp after he took care of business in the classroom.

Yes, you read that right — physics and pre-calculus. Ellis hasn't loaded up on drift-off classes to attain his 4.0. He is in honors classes and just plain hard classes like physics. His eyes never get heavy.

"He's attentive and he has good industry,'' said Myron Ruhter, a Heights physics and math teacher for 29 years who speaks in perfect physics vernacular. "Those are fundamental tale-tell signs of a good performer. He's solid with his homework and a good tester. In fact, I just graded a test today and Perry got a 97 percent.''

But as any 4.0 student will tell you, the stress created by the GPA can overwhelm.

Ellis and Heights basketball coach Joe Auer talked during the summer about how important the 4.0 was to Ellis. It can be like a team with a long winning streak; sometimes losing a game takes the pressure off.

Or sometimes getting a B can be a good thing for a straight-A student.

"To be honest with you, Perry's grade-point average causes him more stress and feelings of pressure than basketball does,'' Auer said. "It's on his mind more during a typical day than basketball is.''

So when Ellis was deciding what classes to take this school year, they talked about a lighter load.

"What we agreed to was that it was far better to challenge himself and take the toughest classes he could rather than worry about keeping straight A's,'' Auer said. "He decided he wanted to get as much education as he could before heading off to college. So he's taking this tough load at a time when a lot of seniors are looking to really lighten their load. And Perry's plate is pretty full with a lot of other things, too.''

Ellis' class schedule starts with web page design, then college prep English and government. Then it's pre-calculus and weights, followed by physics.

This is a jock with a brain. But even more than that, Ellis is a determined kid who wants to be successful in everything he does.

Once quiet to a fault, he enrolled in the "Real Men Real Heroes" program and speaks occasionally to middle school and grade school kids. It scares him worse than a physics final.

But Ellis is finally coming out of his shell, helped by the confidence he has gained in the classroom.

"He kind of just likes to blend in,'' said Heights English teacher Monica Talbott, who had Ellis in one of her classes when he was a junior. "Which is hysterical to me. I tell him that if he wanted to just blend in he shouldn't have been born 7-feet tall.

"There were times last year when he was asked to talk in front of the class or display some of his work and he would ask me if he could just stand outside while I showed the class. I don't know how he's going to handle all the adulation he gets at KU next year.''

But she suspects Ellis will find a way.

"He needs handlers now,'' Talbott said. "We were at our first football game this season at Bishop Carroll, just trying to get into the game. And there was this gigantic mob, all people from Carroll who wanted to get their picture taken with Perry or get an autograph.''

Ellis doesn't seek attention and is uncomfortable when it's given.

When he announced in September his intentions of going to KU — the culmination in a long and heavily-publicized recruiting process — it was difficult to hear him when he announced where he was going. Auer had to repeat it for those who didn't hear.

Ellis' parents, Will and Fonda, are to credit for raising a humble yet driven son, one who followed in the footsteps of his older sister, Savannah, who graduated in four years while playing basketball at Memphis and soon will begin work on her MBA.

"Savannah instilled this work ethic in Perry at a very young age,'' Will Ellis, the quiet parent, said. "She told Perry that he needed to focus early in school. I would hear her tell him that: 'Make good grades early and go from there.' "

The vocal parent, Fonda, has been Perry's PR director since he was in middle school at Brooks. If you want to get to Perry you must go through Fonda, who pays close attention to everything that is written and said about her son.

Will and Fonda carefully guided Perry through the recruiting process, with help from Auer. It was smooth and without flair, like Ellis.

And what KU is getting is not only a high-quality basketball player, but a student that Bill Self will never have to worry about when it comes to the classroom.

"Perry is a perfectionist, almost to a fault,'' Auer said. "But he's maturing into a young man who allows himself to enjoy the pursuit and enjoy the outcome. But he is that perfectionist in everything he does, whether it's playing a video game, shooting free throws in practice or even getting dressed for practice. He does it the same way every day.''

Video games are Ellis' escape. He was in line at midnight when the "Call to Duty: Modern Warfare 3" video was released on Nov. 8, then immediately took it home and popped into his Xbox 360. He estimates he has between 30 and 40 games, but he's in that no-man's land of "Modern Warfare" addiction at the moment.

But with a 4.0 grade-point average comes hours and hours of homework and study. You don't get these grades by spending too much time with your hands on the controllers.

"Physics is tough,'' Ellis said.

But Ruhter is impressed with Ellis' classroom performance.

"I have 60 students and maybe 20 to 25 percent will make an 'A' in the class,'' he said. "I know Perry is a busy fella and physics takes time. There's homework involved on a daily basis and it's not the easiest homework, either.''

Ellis always gets it done. He's never caught off guard by a test.

But if you ask him how smart he is, he'll do that Ellis thing he does when you ask him almost anything. He'll hem and he'll haw and he'll downplay.

"I'm going to say I'm average,'' he said, as a group of Heights students filled the hallways at the end of a school day.

He looked to those students and said that any one of them was capable of doing what he was doing in the classroom. He said it's a matter of want-to.

"I just work really hard,'' he said. "You've just got to work.''

And what happens if he gets a B in a class?

Ellis took a moment to consider the ramifications, as if he couldn't quite comprehend what was being asked.

"It would just seem so weird,'' he said. "But I guess if I was trying my hardest in a class and I still got a B, I would still feel good about myself.''

Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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