The newspaper clipping sits on a living-room table, a treasure amidst the clutter of trophies, plaques and family photos. They mean something, each one of them, but Fonda Ellis wants to show you this piece of fading newsprint.
She stands up and moves across the room, a basketball in the corner, a video-game console on the floor, her husband, Will, sitting on the couch. It’s a Sunday afternoon in October, and the sun is shining through the windows of this beige house on North Battin Street.
Fonda finds what she’s looking for and holds it in the air — a copy of the Rock Valley Bee, her hometown newspaper in Iowa. It’s a funny story, she says. Her parents still lived there, and her father, Floyd Terpstra, had kept calling the paper’s editors.
You have to do a story about my grandson, he would say. You have to.
No matter that Perry Ellis grew up 460 miles south in Wichita. Or that he had signed to play basketball at Kansas, a world away from the bucolic fields of northwest Iowa. Or that he shuns the spotlight despite being a 6-foot-8 power forward who became a high school legend at Heights and one of the nation’s top college recruits.
“It’s how I was raised,” he says.
Finally, the paper had relented. And the end result was in Fonda Ellis’ hands, a cover photo of her son, dressed in KU gear, flanked by two doting grandparents. Now you look back at the photo, at Perry Ellis’ expression: barely a half-smile, his shoulders slacked, almost uncomfortable. Then again, Ellis has always hated photos.
“He’s always the one that stands in the back,” Fonda says.
• • •
Ellis is standing at the free-throw line on a late October afternoon, his coach’s voice echoing through Allen Fieldhouse. Another practice is winding down, and Kansas coach Bill Self is running a series of inbounds plays.
On this day, the Jayhawks’ regular routine has been slightly altered. In nearly 30 minutes, Self will begin his annual clinic for area high school coaches. The bleachers are speckled with men holding clipboards: a captive audience for the Education of Perry Ellis.
“You know what you’re doing, Perry?” Self says, his voice raising an octave.
Ellis stands still, the whole team waiting on a freshman.
“Then don’t be out here if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Self continues.
Senior center Jeff Withey walks out to the free-throw line to take his spot, and Ellis retreats to the baseline, his eyes on Withey as the play begins.
“We don’t need blenders,” Self will say later. “We need guys to take charge.”
In almost a decade at Kansas, Self has landed higher-ranked recruits. He has won big: two Final Fours and a NCAA title. But he has never had a player like Ellis. A McDonald’s All-American who was one of the top 25 recruits in the country. A high school valedictorian who never brought home a B in high school. A native Kansan, born and raised in Wichita.
To some, Ellis represents the ideal KU recruit, a blend of talent and determination, a product of a loving Kansas family. But now he stands inside Allen Fieldhouse, joined by six scholarship freshmen, and Self is counting on Ellis to be the bridge to the future.
After winning an eighth straight Big 12 title and appearing in the NCAA title game last season, Kansas lost All-America power forward Thomas Robinson and all-Big 12 guard Tyshawn Taylor. But expectations remain high. So much of the Jayhawks’ potential rests with Ellis and the development of KU’s freshmen — both mentally and physically.
“We have nice kids,” Self says. “Nice kids are great. But we certainly need that aggressiveness.”
So how does one go against their nature? How does one maintain their humility — their desire to be in the background — and find a way to take charge? How does a freshman become something more?
• • •
Sitting alone in Allen Fieldhouse, Ellis says he’s working on it. Back home in Wichita, his family taught him what it meant to be humble and disciplined. But they also showed him how to go to work each day.
They met amidst the energy and life of a college basketball gym. Will Ellis was a lanky center from Columbia, S.C., searching for another chance to play. Fonda Terpstra was working a job in her first year out of high school. It was 1980.
On the night Will arrived at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, Fonda was there, too.
“A friend went to all the games and asked if I wanted to come with her,” Fonda says. “I just loved basketball.”
She’d grown up with it, a fair-skinned blonde in Rock Valley, a little town not far from Sioux City. Her father had always made a point of having his daughter play everything. So there was tennis … and softball … and basketball … and track. Track was her specialty. But when Fonda hurt her knee, she gave up sports and began her career.
The different paths brought them together in Sioux City. For Will, a role in the Briar Cliff program would never materialize. But he found something better. One year later, Fonda left for a new job in Wichita. Will, with a brother stationed at McConnell Air Force Base, followed along.
Will was a quiet soul, humble and caring. Fonda was the talker, the voice in the relationship.
Two years later, in 1983, they were married. And a few more after that, their first daughter, Savannah, arrived. By the time Savannah was a toddler, up and walking around, Fonda was pregnant again with their first son. They named him Perry.
• • •
He never seemed to stop competing, whether it was on the goal in the driveway or the summer track circuit. Fonda Ellis had given her son a Fisher Price basketball set when he was a baby, assuming the family’s genes would rub off. But when Perry led a group of Wichita boys to an eighth-place finish at a national tournament in the third grade, the Ellis parents began to know.
Everything came so natural. The size. The fluidity. The way the kid carried himself.
“We could tell that that was his sport,” Fonda says.
By this time, Fonda had settled into a job keeping the books at the Wichita Children’s Home, and the Ellis’ three-bedroom home began to fill up. Two more sons, Brae and Cameron; two more bodies for the driveway basketball sessions.
Perry was developing into one of the best young players in Wichita. But there was one battle he couldn’t win: His older sister claimed the second bedroom for herself, while Perry shared with his brothers, often sleeping on the couch. The confines made the family closer — and there was always somebody to play with or a lesson to be learned.
Will became a social worker at the Children’s Home. He started work at 10 p.m., a member of the street outreach team that looked for runaways and kids that needed help. Sometimes, the stories made their way home to Savannah and Perry. Will couldn’t provide specific details, but the larger message washed over the children. Life is a blessing. Be thankful for what you have. Never let an opportunity pass.
“Just go about your business and do what you gotta do,” Perry says, “And you don’t really have to speak about it.”
For Perry, everything could become a competition. When Savannah brought home a report card with nearly all As, Perry bugged his sister with questions: How do you get straight As? What classes do I need?
When Savannah helped Heights to two state titles in basketball, Perry thought about winning three.
And when he felt like he still needed to do more, that his school practices weren’t enough, he would make his dad drive him to the North YMCA at 6 a.m. on weekdays. Perry played pickup basketball with the morning crowd, mostly young professionals in their 20s and 30s, until Fonda came and got him to school on time.
Perry used to tell people that academics were his fallback plan, that he knew there would eventually be life after basketball. That’s true, Perry says now, but he also just didn’t want to imagine what it would feel like to get a B.
“Why try to achieve something lesser than what you can,” Perry says, “when you can work a little harder and get to the top?”
• • •
Ellis stood in a hallway inside Koch Arena, breathing deeply. It was Dec. 6, 2008. His first high school game.
More than 6,000 fans packed into the building as East, the state’s top-ranked team, was about to face Wichita Heights and its most anticipated freshman in years.
Joe Auer, Heights’ coach, saw Perry nearly hyperventilating. So moments later, two senior captains huddled with Perry in the hallway and delivered the only message they could: Relax. Your time will come. Tonight, we need double figures in rebounds and need you to make free throws late in the game.
Nearly four years later, Auer can still recite Perry’s line from that night: Nine points, 12 rebounds.
“And he was perfect from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter,” Auer says. “I think all of us really started to understand how special he was.”
At one point the Ellis family looked toward the front row and spotted a college coach. Bill Self’s Jayhawks had played at Allen Fieldhouse earlier that afternoon. But here he was hours later watching their son play his first high school game.
“That meant a lot to me,” Perry says.
Still just a freshman, Perry was recruited by nearly every big-time school in the country. Memphis coach Josh Pastner, then an assistant at Arizona, recruited Perry in the eighth grade. When Savannah went to play at Memphis the next year, John Calipari asked about her brother. But Kansas was always there. Summer camps. Trips to Late Night. A relationship built over years.
“He always was changing the order of his list around,” Fonda says, “but I felt like KU was always No. 1.”
Still, the attention could be suffocating. And if Perry was an introvert before, he was now ducking into the shadows at any opportunity. He spent weekend nights playing video games with friends, forgetting about whatever else was happening in town.
“You go out and they’ll think. ‘Oh, he’s cocky,’ ” Ellis says. “I wasn’t like that. And I really didn’t even like going out.”
But on he went, setting more goals, winning more games. When he was a freshman, Ellis told Auer that he wanted to win four state titles, earn a 4.0 GPA and become a McDonald’s All-American.
“When you talk to him,” Auer says, “you might not expect him to say something that brash.”
But then last March, six months after he made his commitment to KU official, Ellis finished off his high school career by scoring 29 points as Heights won its fourth straight 6A championship.
“That’s what my mind was set to,” Ellis says. “And we did it.”
• • •
The phone rang on Sept. 14. Ellis’ grandfather wanted to talk basketball and wish his grandson a happy 19th birthday. Floyd Terpstra said he’d be there Nov. 9 when Kansas opened the regular season against Southeast Missouri State.
A few hours after they hung up the phone, Floyd suffered a massive heart attack. He died three days later.
“Every time we would talk,” Ellis says, “he was so excited just to come see me play here. First game, he’d be here. And life took him away. But he’s in a better place.”
Back in Wichita, Fonda clutches the newspaper clipping, trying to explain how much basketball has meant to their family. But maybe it’s better to see it.
Last Tuesday night, Ellis stepped onto the floor of Allen Fieldhouse for an exhibition game against Emporia State, his first game since losing his grandfather. The rest of the family sat in the stands, together for the next step.
Ellis finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. In the moments after the game, Self said it wasn’t enough.
“I just think he’s got so much more to give in impacting the game,” he said.
Moments later, Ellis emerged from the locker room and signed autographs for a line of KU fans. You look back at the scene, at Ellis’ expression: barely a half-smile, shoulders slacked, quiet and focused.
From across the hallway, at a safe distance, Fonda Ellis watches her son.
“He’s got that poker face,” she says.
So now the education continues. The coaches want more aggression. And Ellis is thinking about the next goal.
“I’m really working on it,” Perry says. “I just gotta keep going; just keep going. I just can’t have any letdowns. I just gotta keep playing. That’s something that I’m still working on.”