A representative for the team walked out of the tunnel and looked to his right to find Perry Ellis’ mother.
After a short exchange, Ellis’ mother began to cry. She looked to another fan out of earshot and mouthed, “Bad.”
Former Kansas great Perry Ellis injured his right knee 58 seconds into his return to his hometown Wichita and debut in The Basketball Tournament (TBT), playing for Self Made, a KU alumni team that ended up losing the game, its opener in the tournament, to Sideline Cancer 87-63.
TBT is an event held every summer across the country that features many former college basketball players. The winning team takes home $2 million. Each player typically makes about $150,000.
Ellis’ injury came on a post move in the right low block. He lowered his right shoulder into his defender and went up for a layup. The shot was blocked, and when Ellis landed, his right knee buckled beneath him.
His teammates circled around him, and as he left the Koch Arena floor, many of those who watched Ellis become an All-American at Wichita Heights High School cheered for him.
“I absolutely hate to see anyone go down,” TBT Founder Jonathan Mugar said. “We have a really great track record over the past six years, and a lot of it is because of the rules we have put in place and how the refs call the game. Unfortunately, just like when people are playing anywhere, that can happen.
“We’ll do everything we can do to make this as smooth as possible for Perry.”
Since 2017, Ellis has bounced around Europe from Australia to Germany and Turkey. This past season, he played in Istanbul, Turkey, with Buyuksehir Belediyesi. He averaged 13.8 points and 4.8 rebounds a game.
Ellis, 25, spent the 2016-17 season with the Greensboro Swarm, the NBA G League team for the Charlotte Hornets, after going undrafted.
TBT is not designed to attract the best players in the world. Many of the teams are filled with players who compete in Europe, trying to stand out enough to make it to the NBA. Wing Mario Little, who was a Jayhawk from 2008-11, said it made him think about whether playing was worth the risk.
“It’s bigger than basketball,” Little said. “Every time I step out there outside of my actual team, you have the chance of getting hurt. You can win some money in this, but it’s like the casino. You may win, you may not. It’s all about what side of the bed you wake up on.”
Self Made entered TBT regional play as the No. 3 seed, Sideline Cancer the No. 6 seed. Little said when Ellis went down, it took the wind out of the sails.
Self Made’s roster of 11 players entered the 2019 TBT with 10 combined years experience in the event. Forward Kevin Young, who played at KU from 2011-13, played in his first TBT game Thursday night, too. He said though he knows the risk, he plans on playing again next year if given the opportunity.
“Being able to play with these guys in these colors, that’s special,” Young said. “You don’t get that opportunity every day, especially on a big stage like this with the game on ESPN and a lot of fans in here. Who knows, Perry could have played the whole game tonight, and we’d be having a totally different conversation.”
In high school, Ellis drew seatless crowds in Wichita unlike anything the city had seen before. He was a four-time state champion, four-time Gatorade Player of the Year, a four-time All-State selection, a McDonald’s All-American and valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA.
Wednesday, Ellis said he lived, “Down the road,” from the Wichita State campus —- within walking distance. He said he was going to be comfortable playing in Koch Arena; he would have fun with it.
“Man, it’s going to be awesome,” Ellis said Wednesday. “No better place than Wichita.”
For Wichita, a city that has produced several high-profile basketball players, Ellis is perhaps its most accomplished. A buckled knee in Ellis’ hometown felt like a sucker punch, Little said. It put things in perspective.
Little said he wasn’t going to play. He was going to use the summer as his first break from basketball in 22 months to allow his body to heal. He finished with a team-high 21 points.
“I’m definitely questioning this,” Little said. “It’s a great deal. It’s a great chance to play with your teammates. They’re making a lot of money; to be able to give away $2 million, they gotta be making a lot more.”