Perry Ellis got to celebrate another state basketball championship Saturday night after he and his Heights teammates beat Blue Valley Northwest, 67-60, in the Class 6A title game at Koch Arena.
Now it’s time for us to celebrate Ellis, a kid in a man’s body who has grown into someone to rally around.
He’s not only one of the best handful of basketball players to play in Kansas, but one of the finest citizens. There isn’t anyone who knows Ellis who has an unkind thing to say about him. He’s a 4.0 student who has so many reasons to stick his nose in the air, but never does.
Ellis capped the best state tournament of his storied career with a 29-point, seven-rebound game. He had his moment to hold Heights’ fourth consecutive state championship trophy, then passed it along to his teammates.
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The inclination is to envy Ellis for all of his high school basketball riches. But then you realize how humble he is and to what lengths he would go to never rub his success in anyone’s face.
“I love him,’’ said Heights coach Joe Auer, who embraced Ellis just as the game ended and had a difficult time letting go. “He’s like a son to me. You spend that much time together and you set that many goals together.… He sat in my living room before this journey and the first thing I asked him is, ‘What are your goals?’ And he said he wanted to win four state championships. But not in a boastful way. Never.’’
Ellis finishes his Heights career — and yes, Heights fans, it’s finished — with a City League-record 2,231 points. He’s in the discussion of all-time greats with Darnell Valentine, Ricky Ross, Antoine Carr, Aubrey Sherrod and Greg Dreiling. He came to Heights four years ago with a reputation and he cleared every obstacle put in his way.
Ellis will tell you, rightly so, that it was always a team effort. And he’s right about that. This Heights team, for instance, is loaded with players such as Gavin Thurman, Terrence Moore, Gabe Lynch and sophomore Ealy Bell.
But Ellis has been the lead horse for all of his four seasons. He has played virtually every minute of every game for four seasons. He’s answered double teams and triple teams. And he has helped produce one of the greatest runs of success in the state’s history.
“It was emotional,’’ Ellis confessed, though the emotion, outside of some smiles and slaps on the back, was difficult to see. “At the first of the year we came in and this was our goal, to win our fourth straight championship. And we did it, it finally paid off.’’
Ellis will finish the school year with his head in the clouds as he turns his attention toward maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average. He’ll play in the McDonald’s All-America game March 28 in Chicago as his path continues toward Kansas, where he is Bill Self’s prize recruit for next season.
He is living a dream-come-true life that basketball has made possible, and he’s one who takes the time to appreciate his good fortune.
“I’m doing something I love by playing basketball,’’ Ellis said. “And I’m having so much fun doing it. These four years just went by so fast. But this is something I can celebrate for the rest of my life. I’m never going to be back here now.’’
Ellis undoubtedly will become the first four-time All-State player in history; no other player has been chosen more than twice.
“He’s a great player,’’ said North coach Gary Squires, one of about 5,000 people inside Koch Arena to watch Ellis and Heights win another championship. “Every year he’s gotten better and better, bigger and stronger. He’s everything you want in a player and in a student-athlete. I’m ready for him to move on, though.’’
I think Ellis is ready to move on, too. He’ll always have these four state championships and the memories that go with them, but there is a new challenge coming. And after the high school career he has put together, a new challenge is warranted.
“That’s the next thing for me,’’ he said of his soon-to-be basketball career at KU. “That’s the next step. This season is over now and I’ve got to get ready for college.’’
Auer, who has coached at Heights since the 1995-96 season, made two state appearances during his first 13 years. The Falcons had one second-place finish and finished fourth another time.
Coaching a player like Ellis, he realizes, is a career-changer. The Falcons are 95-5 during their state-championship run.
“Perry’s accomplishments speak for themselves,’’ Auer said. “But whatever those accomplishments are, he’s a far better person. I feel so blessed that I’ve been able to spend four years with him and what I feel best about now is that I get to spend the rest of my life being his No. 1 fan.’’
Coaching Ellis has not been without challenges, though. Expectations have been heavy. But Auer and Ellis have formed a great coach-player tandem.
“I don’t ever have to yell at him again,’’ Auer said. “I don’t ever have to get on his case. I just get to sit in the stands and cheer and clap.’’
Yell? At Ellis? Why would anyone yell at Ellis?
“You’d be surprised,’’ Auer said. “He’s just a kid, like all these other guys. The thing about Perry is that sometimes all of his humility needs a kick in the pants. There have been many moments in games where he’s just a young kid trying to figure it out.’’
Four state championships later, the solution is in the hardware.