Dear Jayhawks Nation,
It was a sea of blue, red, yellow and white. As my father and I stepped onto Allen Fieldhouse Drive, all I could see was Jayhawks gear and smeared face paint. We walked side by side back to our car, both of us already reminiscing about things that happened only minutes prior. It was the first time I had seen University of Kansas basketball in person. The game itself had been great, but as a 12-year-old, something more spectacular had caught my attention.
It was the excitement in Allen Fieldhouse. No one forgets their first time watching a basketball game in the Phog. The fans … they’re just electric, man.
My scrawny six-foot-one sixth-grade self couldn’t stop looking on in amazement at what was going on all around me. I stared up, mouth open, and saw 13 Final Four banners. I looked down and saw the court dedicated to James Naismith. I looked to my left and to my right and saw the swarms of students behind each basket. And I looked next to me and saw all the locals — well, let’s be real, I heard them — who were going just as crazy as everyone in the student sections. You could tell how much basketball meant to these people. And, man, I loved that.
When my father and I returned to Wichita that evening, I didn’t go to bed with visions of spending four years with those fans. Nah, not at all.
I had dreams of playing for those fans. How could I not? What football is to Alabama, basketball is to Kansas. It’s everything. But, if I were lucky enough to represent the University of Kansas one day, that meant I would have to leave my hometown behind, which wouldn’t be easy.
I’d say that people started noticing my basketball skill around the time I was in the sixth or seventh grade. I won’t lie, man — at first, especially for a young kid, I found the attention overwhelming. I’ve always been a quiet dude, so when scouts were asking me questions about where I’d want to go to college in five or so years, I told them I hadn’t even thought about what I was gonna have for breakfast the next morning. Over time, with the guidance of my parents and coaches, I learned how to deal with the pressure that comes along with playing at a high level.
Things changed dramatically when I was in eighth grade. It all happened so fast, too. Since so many people were trying to watch me and my team play, they moved our games to the gym at Wichita Heights High.
The buzz in that place was nuts. It brought back memories of when I had seen the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse for the first time. And as I continued to develop as a player, people suddenly started labeling me as the best player to ever come out of Kansas.
Hold up, now. I had to think about that for a second.
Me, the kid who spent more time on my bike than on the court growing up? The best player to come out of a basketball crazy state? What?
Let me reiterate that I was an incredibly shy kid. I didn’t necessarily hate the spotlight. But seeking it out just wasn’t how my parents raised me and my three siblings. In the Ellis household, my parents preached about the importance of helping others. Suddenly, the roles were reversed: Everybody wanted to advise me on what college to attend. And all before I even got into high school. Crazy stuff.
But all of the outside input was meaningless. I knew what school was right for me. I’d known since the first time I stepped on campus. I was born to be a Jayhawk.
It was definitely a transition leaving Wichita. When my parents left after helping me unpack my things in Lawrence, I had the same realization that most freshmen have: I’m on my own now. Honestly, I don’t think I made my bed those first few weeks. But there was a silver lining to all of this — I realized that I had a hidden talent. Y’all may know me as Perry Ellis the basketball player, but I bet you don’t think of me as Perry Ellis the chef. Come to think of it, chef Perry Ellis has a nice ring to it. When I first moved in as a freshman, I realized I had to cook for myself, too. No more Momma’s home-cooked. I cooked up some shrimp jambalaya that would make anyone from Louisiana proud. But my repertoire didn’t extend much beyond that. Thankfully, my mom realized I needed some variety, so she sent me some recipes that reminded me of life back home. It wasn’t Mom’s cooking of course, but I tried my best.
For the majority of my freshman year, I was still the kid who kept to himself. Off the court, I confided in Evan Manning, who I had balled with one summer before we both committed to Kansas. As the son of Jayhawks great Danny Manning, Evan knew how much pressure I was facing as Kansas’s No. 1 high school player. I didn’t ask for the buzz that surrounded me when I arrived on campus, but it was there. Fortunately, Evan always stuck by my side.
Here’s a shocker for you: Shy guys get pretty nervous. So when I found out that coach Self had put me, a freshman, into the starting lineup for our first regular season game of 2012, I couldn’t control my heart rate at all. I’ll never forget seeing that lineup sheet, and how my stomach just jumped. That was the most nervous I’ve ever been.
But, when I dressed and laced up my kicks, I knew I was gonna be alright. This was what I’d been working for. I’ll never forget the roar of the crowd as I ran through the tunnel, past the bench and onto that big, colorful Jayhawk at midcourt. And I saw the same blue-and-yellow-and-red-and-white sea of fans that I had once been a part of way back in the sixth grade.
This was it, I thought.
I’m a Kansas Jayhawk. This is my home. This is where I belong.
Right before the game started, a video montage played on the jumbotron to get everyone pumped up. To this very day, I get chills thinking about it. I caught glimpses of past players, current players and our crazy fans. In that moment, I realized that was why I was playing — for our history, my teammates and my school.
Once the video was over, my teammates made a human tunnel next to our bench. It was time to call out the starting lineups.
Here I am, a quiet freshman, about to fulfill my dream of running onto the floor as a Kansas Jayhawks starter.
Are … you … kidding … me?
“At forward, a freshman from Wichita, Kans., number 34, Perry Ellis!”
I’ll never forget how loud it was. The fans knew. That’s how great they are. They knew how much it meant for a kid from Wichita to choose the University of Kansas. I wanted to make them proud. For a long time I was one of them, and now I was playing for them. Now I was playing for something bigger than myself. I was playing for the kid who was sitting with his dad in the stands, hoping to one day be in my shoes. I was representing Kansas. This was my state. These were my people.
Finally, as the ball went up for the opening tip, all my pregame nerves floated away.
As the first student-led chants began, I exhaled and thought, once again, I’m home.
As you can tell, now that I’m set to graduate, I’m getting pretty sentimental. It’s difficult to put into words what the last four years have meant to me, but I’m going to try.
To Coach Self: Thank you for teaching me the importance of every possession. Thank you for pushing to get the most out of myself. If a player ever made a bad mistake or took a play off, you always said, “I’m gonna blow a gasket! I’m gonna blow a gasket!” Coach, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you actually blow a gasket. I don’t even know what that would look like, to be honest. But it showed how you, like the fans, took the game so seriously, and I respected that so much.
You always knew how to lighten the mood when the team needed it, though. I’ll never forget how you would impersonate some of your players. I specifically think of the time when Andrew Wiggins was on our team, and how much pressure there was on both him and our squad. You would mimic Andrew by saying, “Oh pardon me, excuse me,” in this high-pitched Canadian voice because he was so polite. It was hilarious. Whether the spotlight was on myself, Andrew or anyone on the team, you always knew how to make us feel comfortable. You could put a smile on anyone’s face, Coach, and that meant so much.
To the University of Kansas and my fellow students: Thank you. Just thank you. Thank you for embracing me as a player. Thank you for putting your trust in me. Thank you for understanding me and cheering me on when I needed it the most. Wichita is where I was born, but now I will always consider Lawrence home. You’ve helped me so much as a player and as a person.
I’m going to miss walking around campus hearing, “Rock Chalk!”
I’m going to miss the tough camps and workouts with my teammates.
I’m going to miss the feeling of accomplishing things with this amazing team.
I’m going to miss having KANSAS stitched across my chest.
Heck, I’ll even miss some of the jokes about how old I look.
(Nah, probably not. Although it was an honor to have been able to play with Wilt Chamberlain.)
Looking ahead, my family and I are excited about the next steps. My two younger brothers, my older sister and my parents are the ones who really deserve all the credit for where I am today. When I was younger, I looked up to my father as a role model. To this day, I still do. We are both pretty quiet individuals who have a deep faith.
Both my father and my mother work at a children’s home in Wichita to help kids without parents. That’s what it’s all about, man. Helping others. I love visiting where they work and seeing how excited the kids get. It makes me smile from ear to ear.
Maybe one day, if I’m lucky enough to play in the NBA, I’ll be able to inspire one of those kids. Maybe, one day, I’ll watch them become the face of Kansas basketball. And, maybe one day, I’ll be the one to cheer them along the way to college basketball glory.
I can’t imagine anything better than that.
Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!