Day 7: Coach Jim Ellis

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(Note: Coach Jim Ellis was my junior high basketball coach in the eighth and ninth grades. In that freshman year, he led us through an incredible championship season. Years later when he was the junior high principal where two of my children attended school he told me we were the best junior high team he’s seen in a lifetime of coaching and teaching. I love him so much.)

Dear Coach Ellis:

You may actually be the first person who saw something more in me, and demanded that it come out.

When the buzzer sounded and the clock showed 0:00 on the February evening in 1981 it was glorious. How do I not recall what I had for lunch yesterday, yet recall so much, so vividly from that magical year?

A year earlier, I watched as you strolled into the gym and down the sideline that first time. There was a certain swagger to your stride that immediately told a bunch of crazy talented but completely undisciplined young junior high kids, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

And my lord how the sheriff ruled his territory.

1981 - Our championship year. That's Coach Ellis at center and I'm #34, second from his right. I love the people in this photo.

1981 – Our championship year. That’s Coach Ellis at center and I’m #34, second from his right. I love the people in this photo. Together, we lived a miracle.

I wonder if another junior high team was ever worked so hard. Two-a-days nearly every day. Scrimmages against the senior high team several times a week. Secret bus trips to nearby towns (where we’d literally hide the bus) in violation of the athletic association’s rules just to get in some early practice games. You knew what you had with us. We all knew it. How we’d execute and stand up to the real tests … that was the question on your mind, and even ours.

What a year. 14-0 until we finally lost our first game when I honestly thought you might beat us with a whip. You were so angry. 29-6 going into that final championship game where we stood 1-2 for the season against the mighty Brookland Bearcats. But you made a big move calling off our signature press from the tip that night, and off our game we found ourselves down 10 at the half. Had you blown it with such a bold move Did you make a mistake?

“Now let’s get’em,” you said at the half. “Full-court press after every field goal and free throw. Don’t try to get it all back at once. One possession at a time.”

That second half was something else. Slowly, gradually we crawled our way back in. We were slaying the giant.

Buffalos 43, Bearcats 41. That’s what the clock said at expiration. We were district champs, 30-6, beat every team on the schedule at least once, and went as far as you could go. If I live to a hundred, I shall never forget that magical year, and that glorious feeling of becoming a champion. Thank you for helping me know what it feels like to be a winner. Once you taste that, it never goes away.

You pulled some things out of me that year I didn’t even know I had, Coach Ellis. It was the first time I really understood that you never know how much you can do until you try something that’s more. How can you place a measure of value on a lesson like that?

It was such a kind gesture a few years ago when you showed up to see my dad in the hospital. He loved you almost as much as I do because he knew what you did for us all. And as he sat watching on the sidelines, and near that door in the gym every practice, every game – well, you gave him some of the thrills of a lifetime coaching us through it all.

Thank you for being such a great role model for me way back then, and for your friendship today. Mostly thank you for just being such a good man who I know I could count on in a second.

You will always be my coach.

Very sincerely yours,

#34 Steve Watkins

 

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