Feb. 25, 2013
One of the most productive scorers in Army history, Ella Ellis’s Army career was almost over before it started. As the only child of parents who came to the United States from Jamaica, a career in the military wasn’t exactly what Vivia Beckford had in mind for her son.
“I remember getting the call at my house,” Ellis recalled. “My mom answered and told them I wasn’t interested in coming to West Point. From the get go she told them no, but they were very persistent. Once I came on my visit here, I knew I was going to come, and my mom was convinced after she visited. I’m a first generation American so we don’t have a military background. My aunt had told her it was a good school, but my mom was still hesitant. She didn’t want to send her only child away so the visit was a big part of the decision. By the end of the visit, she wanted me to come here more than I wanted to come.”
That brief trip from Houston to West Point has had lasting implications on the Army record book. Ellis played in 29 games as a reserve during his plebe season before bursting onto the scene as a sophomore. He started all 30 games that season and scored 14.6 points per game, jumpstarting his ascent up the Black Knights’ scoring ledger. In 2011-12, he improved to 17.5 points per game and became the first Army player since Randy Cozzens (1982-85) to have multiple 400-point, 100-rebound and 50-assist seasons and the first Black Knight since Cozzens (1984-85) to score 500 points, grab 130 rebounds and hand out 50 assists in the same season. Once again one of the top scorers in the Patriot League as a senior, Ellis has ascended into Army’s all-time top 10 in points and three-pointers.
Even before his arrival at West Point, Ellis exhibited one of the many character traits valued at the Academy. As word spread of the Eisenhower High School star’s exploits, Ellis stayed true to the school that was able to ease his mother’s initial doubts.
“I felt a certain amount of loyalty to them because they never wavered,” he said. “Toward the end of my senior year I had a couple of other schools looking at me, but I really wasn’t interested.”
After the culture shock of basic training at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School and going through the first two months of his plebe year at West Point, Ellis exhibited more Academy values – perseverance and adaptability. Just two weeks before the start of practice, the Black Knights underwent a coaching change when current mentor Zach Spiker took the reins of the program.
“It was rough because I didn’t know where I stood,” Ellis remembered. “I was getting looked at a little bit by Cornell so Coach Spiker knew a little bit about me, but he wasn’t the coach who was recruiting me. We still kept our assistant coaches my first year so that eased the transition. Even when I was a freshman and not playing a lot, Coach Spiker has been very consistent with me.”
A major factor in Ellis’s ability to transition from unsure plebe to first-team All-Patriot League performer was the group of upperclassmen that welcomed him to the program. The group included seven seniors who comprised one of the most successful classes in recent West Point basketball history. Not only were they among the more decorated players on the court, but they represented some of the best the United States Corps of Cadets has to offer.
“All of those guys had played a lot so Jason (Pancoe), Jordan (Springer) and I had a good opportunity to follow them around and be mentored about how to carry yourself as a cadet and as a West Point basketball player,” Ellis said. “Looking back at it now, I really appreciate those guys taking me under their wing. At the time, I thought of them as guys I had to compete with for time on the court. When I reflect on it, those guys put in extra effort to make sure we succeeded academically and militarily, and that has played a very big role in our careers here.”
As Ellis established his playing credentials, he has also had to hone the leadership skills the older players demonstrated during his younger years. Now one of only three seniors in the Army program, Ellis has come full circle. A large contingent of underclassmen that includes seven rookies playing more than nine minutes per game is looking for the same guidance that allowed Ellis to flourish.
“I’m definitely very cognizant of the impact those seniors had on me so I try to interact with our freshmen as much as possible,” Ellis said. “We understand what they’re going through. We’re only three years removed from that. We try to communicate with them every day to make sure they’re doing okay, and I think that makes a difference when they come to the court. I’ve been through some tough times off the court, and seeing how the coaches have helped me through it has made me a very well-rounded person. The younger guys tend to come to me when they have some trouble because they know I’ve been there.”
As his final season comes down the home stretch, there are many things that Ellis can look back on with pride. However, those moments of reflection will have to wait.
“I don’t think there is any time to pause and look back right now. There is only one goal for our team, and that is to be Patriot League champions. We just take everything one day at a time, one practice at a time. Nobody on our team sits back and talks about any of that. There will be time after the season for that.”