KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Mom’s favorite moment? Oh, that’s easy. The last one. The one she wondered if she’d ever see again before the season melted away for good.
Perry Ellis, walking off the court. Smiling.
“He doesn’t smile a lot,” Fonda Ellis said after her son’s Kansas bunch thumped Iowa State, 88-73, to reach Saturday’s Big 12 Conference Tournament Championship. “And then to see him wave at the crowd and smile was the best.”
It’s not that Ellis, a 6-foot-8 true freshman, isn’t a happy fella. It’s that you’d need a set of jumper cables to get him to show any kind of emotion, let alone in a public forum. As a rule, Perry Ellis is the strong, silent type, accent on the silent. The Quiet Man with the monstrous upside.
“And the thing is, he’s been able to do that all season,” Jayhawks guard Travis Releford said of Ellis, who stunned the Cyclones — and delighted a KU-partisan Sprint Center crowd — by pouring in 23 points. “He just hasn’t been comfortable with doing it. And Coach (Self) has been in his head (saying), ‘You’re a great player. Act like it.’ And (Friday), he did.”
There are breakouts, and there are BREAKOUTS. Ellis, a native of Wichita, gave a packed house the latter: Baseline dunks, short jumpers in the lane, stick-backs. Whenever Iowa State figured it had Ben McLemore accounted for and Jeff Withey sealed off, there would be Ellis, dropping dagger after dagger.
Forced into 28 minutes of action by a leg injury to big man Kevin Young, the young Kansan, by the end of the night, had half the Sprint Center chanting his name, joyously.
PER-RY … PER-RY …
“Now a lot of people are probably going to have to change the way they guard him,” Young said. “But it’s tough to guard Perry. I have to do it every day in practice, and it’s still (tough).”
A half-hour after the game was over, Ellis was even trending nationally on Twitter — even ahead of rapper Lil Wayne, who’d reportedly suffered a seizure. The Quiet Man, well, ruled.
“I had no idea,” Ellis said of the social media love. “That’s pretty cool.”
Let’s see: Ten makes in 12 tries, six boards, two steals, and nearly doubling your single-game scoring high of 15 points?
Yeah. Pretty cool.
“With Perry, our whole deal with him is to be aggressive, be aggressive,” Kansas coach Bill Self allowed. “He’s one of those kids that, as soon as you say ‘run,’ he’ll run faster. As soon as you say ‘jump,’ he’ll jump higher, one of those things.
“So he’s a quick-twitch kid. But you want him to be more aggressive all the time. And (Friday), they played behind him in the post and he was able to get catches. And that’s what he can do.”
It’s the kind of potential that’s left KU faithful drooling with anticipation — and, on occasion, grumbling in disappointment. After winning four straight Gatorade state Player of the Year awards as a prep — the first Kansan to pull off the quadruple crown — Jayhawk fans expected Ellis to, at worst, lock down the vacant starting spot at power forward and, at best, to set the Big 12 on fire.
When Ellis wound up doing neither, the legions groused. The high-school valedictorian often came off looking tentative, almost passive, especially in league play.
Even his loved ones noticed: Ellis was thinking, not reacting.
“He tried so hard,” Fonda said of her son, who’s averaging 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per contest. “He didn’t want to make a mistake and he wanted to do everything right. And sometimes he would think too hard. He would think so hard, it was kind of slowing him down. And sometimes the coaches were saying, ‘Don’t think so hard. Let it come to you.'”
It’s been coming — just slower than most folks had expected. After tossing a goose egg in three of his first six February appearances, Ellis has averaged 10.1 points over his last seven tilts. The Kansas native’s accounted for 43 points over his last three games — including 12 at Baylor last weekend, one of the rare KU bright spots during an otherwise lousy sojourn in Waco.
“I mean, I knew he could do something like this,” said Fonda, an Iowa native who actually had family ties in both camps Friday — two of Perry’s cousins attend Iowa State, and one even plays in the pep band. “He did it in high school all the time. It was just great to see his confidence, and he just took it to another level.”
“It just took a lot of time just to really realize, you know, (that) it doesn’t matter if you mess up,” Perry stressed. “You just have to play hard and be aggressive.
“I try not to put (any) pressure at all. Coach says it’s on the seniors. I’m just on the ride, just trying to help them out.”
In turn, they’ve tried to return the favor in kind. When Ellis was struggling a few months back, still trying to get his bearings, Releford made it a point to pull him aside, massage the ego.
“I told him, ‘Just stay focused, be ready when your name is called,'” the senior recalled. “‘Because it’s going to get called. Something is going to happen. Somebody may get hurt, (even though) we don’t want that to happen, so we’re going to need someone to step up and be the guy for us.’ And (Friday), he was.”
PER-RY … PER-RY …
“I’ll bet they’ve been waiting to chant that,” Releford continued. “It was good for us, (for) our fans, and it was good for him to just let the top off and just go out there and play and have fun. And it looked like he was having a lot of fun.”
Oh, yeah. Mom, too.
“I just love to see him smile,” Fonda said. Then she offered up one of her own. “That was the best.”