By Paulo Kennedy, Pagemasters
Cody Ellis can’t wait to get home from Sydney Kings training.
It’s not that he doesn’t like his teammates, or Shane Heal’s intense sessions, it’s just his nine-month-old boy Chase has trumped even the sport Cody loves with his ever-present smile.
“He sure has, he crawls straight up to me – it’s great,” Ellis said.
“I live about two minutes from the training centre.”
Apart from the constant grins and adoration, Ellis laughed that having a little one to look after had stopped him “from going out after games, which is a good thing during the season”.
The 23-year-old’s mission is to “make sure I make time for the family, making sure I help out with everything and basically make sure I'm a good guy” – all lessons he learned from the legendary Rick Majerus.
For while Majerus is a legendary basketball teacher, Ellis said he learned just as many life lessons from his St Louis University coach.
“I learned more than I can even tell you about both,” he said.
Majerus is famous for feats such as helping Don Nelson guide the USA to gold at the 1994 FIBA World Championship, leading non-powerhouse teams to 12 NCAA Tournaments and taking Utah to the 1998 championship game.
He did it all with a trademark firebrand style that tested his players’ toughness, but for Ellis his mentor’s personal side was very different.
“On the court he was just all about the little one-percenters, making sure everything was exactly right. If you had your foot a couple of centimetres in the wrong spot he’d tell you about it,” he said.
“Off the court he separated the basketball side of things, which helped because he was really tough coaching-wise and off the court he was a really great person.”
Playing under such an extraordinary leader is something Ellis will never forget, but so is Majerus’ passing in December 2012.
“It sucked, man, it sucked,” he said.
“We were six games into our season and he passed away. We actually played a game and the next day we drove to his funeral and some of us were the pall-bearers.”
Ellis described the pain as “pretty big-time”, but said “it helped us come together as a team”.
“It definitely inspired us, we set out the year in dedication to him and after he passed away we went on a nine or 10-game winning streak,” he said.
Ellis' Kings teammates have certainly noticed the lessons he learned at St Louis, according to skipper Ben Madgen.
“I was chatting to him three weeks after he came and I said, ‘You wouldn’t realise you’ve only played two games and been here a couple of weeks, it feels like you’ve been here the whole season’,” Madgen said.
“He just fit right in and he picks everything up so well. He wants to get better and he’s willing to work.”
One of the traits that makes him so valuable to teams is his high basketball IQ.
Madgen marvels at the fact his new teammate picked up 46 charges in his senior season at St Louis and he loves the way Ellis adds new elements to the Kings.
“He just reads the game so well, he’s willing to make the extra pass but knows when to take his shot, too. He really helps us,” he said.
Ellis credits his game-smarts to father Mike, a legend of Perth basketball.
“He was big-time and my mum was big-time in my development when I was younger,” he said.
“Dad was a really, really smart player and I like to think I got some of that side of his game.”
One area where he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, unexpectedly, was to the Wildcats, the 203cm forward admitting it would be “a little bit strange” seeing the Perth uniforms at the other end of the floor this Sunday.
But just as he helped lead the Australian U19 team to the final four, St Louis to the NCAA Tournament and the Emerging Boomers to a silver medal last year, Ellis is brimming at the prospect of ending the Kings’ losing streak against Perth in his first go.
“It’s going to be awesome, man, I'm really looking forward to it,” he said.
While some may have expected the move to Sydney to split the Ellis clan apart, the day-to-day challenge of raising young Chase away from both their families has done quite the opposite for Cody and fiancé Lauren.
"It’s definitely brought us together, it’s been great for both of us, and moving out here has brought us even closer again," he said.
"I love it, man, absolutely love it."
*Watch Cody Ellis and the Kings take on the Perth Wildcats this Sunday on Ten at 1pm