Editor’s note: Journalist Michael Kellams wrote and took photos to create this in-depth report on how the ETHS boys basketball team prepared in the days leading up to its Jan. 13 game against Glenbrook South.
8:42 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10 ~ 70 hours to GBS
The full-house crowd that had packed Niles North’s main gym for Evanston’s 79-53 boys basketball win is still filing out when, in the visitors locker room, Evanston Township High School coach Mike Ellis begins the planning for his team’s next challenge: that Friday’s potentially season-deciding game at Glenbrook South. The result could tilt the balance of the Central Suburban League South standings, the team’s sectional seeding for the state tournament and its confidence for the remaining schedule.
Ellis, who maps out every minute of his two-hour-plus practices, wasn’t going to waste a second.
He knew he had about 70 hours to get his players ready for a state-ranked Titans team looking to avenge its 61-59 loss at ETHS earlier this season. The rematch is the first of two monumentally tough games away in Beardsley Gym in the midst of the longest run of non-tournament road games in the team’s regular season.
And as they prepare, the coach and his assistants welcome an outsider, granting unfettered access.
This is that story. Every moment of team practices run – that’s the key word – at a frenetic pace. Frank scouting reports. Philosophical discussions about what coaches owe players and what players owe each other.
While the particulars are specific to the boys basketball program, this story is also about the price of achievement and what is earned when it’s paid – usually far away from prying eyes – in full. At least to some degree, this report stands proxy for all of the teams and activities that strive for something more.
“You’re gonna have to take it, it’s not gonna be given to you,” Ellis tells his team in the visitors locker room at GBS before the tip.
That’s the ideal payoff. But the work? That will be done, either way.
And the final score?
It’s much more than shows on the scoreboard after that last horn sounds.
3:32 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11 ~ 51 hours to GBS
Ellis and assistant Dantea Johnson are working on their game plan when a knock comes at the door to their windowless closet-turned-office. The space measures about one Prince Adams wingspan wide by about 2½ Josh Thomas wingspans long. You know those tiny houses? This is like an office inside one of those. Whatever the actual dimensions, another body seems a certain fire code violation, but Ellis and Johnson pull out another chair for the interloper from the RoundTable and get back to work.
Johnson is pondering a question that neither coach seems certain they’ve found the answer to yet: “How do we get JT [Thomas] to be more effective, more assertive?”
They’ll work on that at practice, which is now about to start in an auxiliary gym. ETHS is a big school and the main court at Beardsley is in high demand, so even the high-profile boys basketball team has to make do with a side gym some days. Fair’s fair.
Ellis is greeted at the door to practice by senior Addison Blough, who has news: The volleyball nets are still up. This is a school and its gyms are used for physical education classes, after all. Ellis takes down the nets. Not his first time.
With volleyball nets out of the way, Ellis is sweeping the entire gym with a wide push broom. Never overestimate the glamorous existence of a high school coach.
Even with all of the technology at their fingertips – video for scouting, iPad play diagramming, conference room projections – players who just spent a full day as students get their blood going the old-fashioned way: jumping rope and shooting around.
“Pre-Practice,” as it’s labeled on the two-sided sheet mapping out the next two-plus hours of exertion, is over.
It’s 4:10 p.m. First drill: “22 in Two.” Players run fast breaks from baseline to baseline, scoring and pushing back the other way as quickly and cleanly as they can. Eleven buckets in 120 seconds sprinting. The time allotted for the full drill is three minutes.
At 4:13 p.m., “Continuous PEN & KICK” for six minutes.
At 4:19 p.m., “20 in 2 Shooting,” where players partner up – one shooting, one rebounding – to score 20 points from various spots (3-pointers and jumpers) around their goal in two minutes. Then they switch. Time allotted: Four minutes. There’s another drill waiting.
The hour is nonstop, filled with running and gunning exercises that reinforce space and pace, ball movement, shot making, agility and endurance. Ellis wants his practices to be harder than games, to take away that “discomfort.” On the side, a player confirms that the practices the RoundTable observes are routine, representative of how they often go: “The energy and overall vibes were what it’s usually like.”
Ellis rarely calls a complete halt. If a player needs attention, no reason to stop the group. But he does now, to emphasize fixes he wants on defense: “We’re going to have a big problem Friday night. You have to keep yourself between the ball and the basket. Keep your butts to the baseline.” And if they don’t on Friday night? “We’ll lose by 15 at their gym.”
For these Wildkits, the road to basketball hell has often been paved in the good intentions of over rotating on defense. Ellis wants them to be more disciplined: “We’re helping where we don’t need to help.”
His last thought before the cacophony of bouncing balls and squeaking shoes replaces the quiet:
“Are you out here trying to play or trying to win? There’s a difference.”
The only break comes at 5:04 p.m. for four minutes, with a catch. Players only leave the floor for a drink after making three straight shots.
At 5:08 p.m., Part 2 begins. As a sequel, it picks right up where the first hour left off.
“It’s not for everybody,” Ellis says. “You really have to love the game. And these kids do.”
The gym portion of practice ends at 6:10 p.m., right on schedule.
Johnson has been breaking down video from their first GBS game. The team heads downstairs to classroom G180, next door to the basketball office, for a short review.
The film session is entirely focused on breakdowns in defense. Examples touch most of the roster, including the starters. Played back, the errors are strikingly obvious, even to the untrained eye.
From the back of the room, assistant coach Necus Mayne, sitting near assistant coach Rudy Meo, reinforces another point. Simply put: The Wildkits don’t talk enough on the court. Talking “has to be that important to us to win. We have to talk,” Ellis says, bringing the session to a close. It’s 6:39 p.m. Players huddle one last time. They’re finally free to be normal high school kids again, with homework and friends and all that entails.
“I’m cognizant of not overdoing it with their time,” Ellis says. “You saw how much time they put in by 6:30 already. I don’t want to monopolize their life and make it just about Evanston basketball.”
And Ellis? “Going home to watch more basketball.”
3:26 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12 ~ 26 hours to GBS
Ellis and Johnson. Same office. Same chairs. Same questions they’ve worked to answer for the last day and, really, all season.
Players received Johnson’s scouting report, delivered digitally, Thursday morning.
Coaches can see who opens the reports and who reads them the deepest, making it all the way through. Coaches share that Thomas is perhaps the most studious and fastidious.
While the focus remains on Glenbrook South, a very stout Rolling Meadows team will be waiting – a matchup that feels like it’s coming just a 30-second timeout after the buzzer at GBS.
Coaches re-emphasize the need to talk more during games. “The girls’ team is really good about it,” Ellis says of Brittanny Johnson’s squad. “They talk a lot.”
Today, the boys’ team is in Beardsley for their final prep. And Ellis, who proudly shows off his new scoreboard design to Dantea Johnson when they reach the gym, is back out there, pushing that broom. It’s meditative.
Thursday, they begin at center court with a passing drill in a star pattern, rotating clockwise. Some bounce passes, some chest passes. Players rotate to each spot on the star. And it is, to be kind, a hot mess.
Seniors Hunter Duncan and Prince Adams chastise their teammates. “Let’s go!”
They clean it up and move on to the next drill, a schedule that waits for no one. Players, coaches, the half-dozen or more student managers are like the clock: always moving.
Ellis says his practices are not like football, “where they go for seven seconds and then stand there for two minutes.” He says that as a former fourth-string college quarterback at Northern Iowa who returned to his first love – basketball – when he realized he was never going to replace Bernie Kosar as the starter for his beloved Browns.
Assistant coach Johnson, who played football at ETHS and is soon to graduate from Loyola-Chicago, agrees.
Blue and Orange, as the players are organized, wrap the next drill. Ellis calls over to the scorers table, where student managers are busy with clipboards and pens. “That’s a loss for Blue.” Each section is scored, tracked and tallied. Just as there are winners and losers on game night, there are the same in practices. Weekly tally sheets show each player’s performance in specific categories.
Beyond box scores and the eye test, Johnson says coaches use those in-practice accountings to work with players on individual shortcomings.
Coaches don’t always like what they see. And what they hear. Or don’t hear. The team still isn’t communicating enough on the floor.
Ellis takes one of his rare breaks to address the whole gym. “This is a sectional game,” the coach says of GBS. “Not just a six-team league game, but a 16-team sectional game.”
A deep run in March’s playoffs could be in deep jeopardy in January.
With the Beardsley workout complete, the team heads down the hallway back to G180. Ellis quickly reviews the scouting report. Players are expected to digest it in full on their own time. One more team huddle. They’re out the door at 6:34 p.m.
It’s 24 hours to tipoff.
Are they ready?
“I can tell you the same answer for every game. No matter how practice goes – good or bad – one of the things I feel like is complacency is my enemy,” Ellis says. “So I always tell myself we’re not ready. And that makes me get into the office. And do the work. And the time. Always tell myself, ‘We’re not ready, we’re not ready.’ What if this happens? What if that happens? If I go into a game feeling good, like ‘OK, I feel good about this game,’ nine times out of 10 we lose it. And I don’t know if that’s coincidence. So I’ve just learned to expect the worst and hope for the best and be prepared. It’s all about being prepared.”
Players, coaches, managers: They’ve invested the time.
The return on that investment? They’ll all see that shortly.
5:34 A.M. Friday, Jan. 13 ~ 13 hours to GBS
It’s a brisk 33 degrees and dark as night as Ellis opens Door 3 to begin his day at ETHS. The school is eerily quiet before the energy of the school day that’s just a few hours away.
He’s still waking up. Who wouldn’t be at this ungodly hour, outside of morning sportscasters like Mike “Mully” Mulligan and David Haugh?
Be that as it may, it’s his usual start time.
And it’s starting in the usual way. Coffee – black, as standard and reliable as man-to-man defense – and a load of laundry.
Ellis, a state runner-up multiple times from his time at Peoria-Richwoods and Evanston, rolls a basket full of sweat-soaked practice jerseys and shorts to the school’s makeshift laundromat under the south stands of Beardsley.
“I know that laundry cycle takes 42 minutes,” he says.
Trust him on this. He runs a load of the team’s practice and game jerseys and shorts just about every day during the season. There’s that glamorous lifestyle again. Like his sweeping of the courts, it’s quiet time that allows his mind to clear, to focus on what he needs to get done that day to prepare his team for its game that night.
Ellis, 52, has been at ETHS for 13 years, drawn in part to the area’s reservoir of basketball talent and in part by the opportunity for his children to graduate from a place that reflects so much of the larger society around it.
“This building is the real world, with its mix of race, socio-economics and communities,” he says. “It’s a school which can prepare you for the Ivy League or community college or anything else.”
He left Northern Iowa and football behind in 1989, transferring to University of Iowa to finish his degree and get started as an assistant basketball coach at Iowa City West High School. He arrived in Illinois just as Peoria-Manual was winning four straight state titles from 1994 to 1997.
“Coaching [at ETHS] is like coaching [collegiate] D-III talent,” Ellis says, which is why his program is modeled so much like a college operation. He’s a particular admirer of coach Tom Izzo and Michigan State.
“One of our goals we strive for is to give these players a college basketball experience. Two or three of them [seniors] may play after this year, so that’s why we do the pictures in the office and everything,” Ellis says, referring to a wall of fame above his desk showing players he coached in high school who played in college and, crucially, graduated. “And that’s why, when we do have kids going to college, a lot of our freshmen play right away because they’re used to this. We have a preseason conditioning program that’s the same at the college level. Strength-training program, the scouting, the practices, the skill development. They walk into college and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve done this before.’ … So now it will just come down to talent. Are you good enough to get on that floor?”
Ellis is a physical education and wellness teacher at ETHS and is compensated for his time coaching. His assistants are as well, except for Johnson, 23, who volunteers. Still, their hourly rate – if they ever had time to do that math – would make the waitstaff at your local pub blush.
Yeah, you’d have to love the work, the process, the discipline, the demands – the game – to do it all for pennies, if not for free.
“Common thread among those really good teams: It starts with the love for the game. Everybody on that team,” he says, referring to the state runners-up in 2019, “even like a [Ben] Tarpey, loved basketball. He was great at football but he loved basketball.”
It should be noted that Tarpey was the renowned leader of the bench mob/energy plant known as the Litty Committee and is now a college quarterback at Miami of Ohio. Back to Ellis.
“And the second piece that separated those teams is their commitment to each other. They played for each other. They didn’t play for themselves. They played as a family. And that really strengthened the parts of that group and the whole by playing as a family. And it showed, on and off the court.”
Ellis has moved the wash to the dryer and is now starting his final prep for GBS.
That includes picking the right kicks. Whatever the clinical definition of “sneaker head,” you have to figure Ellis fits the profile. His office is not so small that he doesn’t have room for more than a dozen game-issue pairs in their original boxes, clean as the day Nike shipped them. And make no mistake: He’s a Nike man. Air Force 1s. Jordans. LeBrons. He makes his choice, out of the box and straight into a travel bag. Wear them to the game? That’s amateur stuff.
At the same moment, still dark outside, five players are on the court at Beardsley with more teammates soon to join them. Between free throws and 3s, Ellis says they’re expected to make 1,000 shots a week outside of practice on their own time. Ellis gets to the gym early to make sure the baskets are down for players to shoot before the school’s a.m. academic support, before the first bell and a full school day, before practice after school, before homework, before the next day starts it all over again.
The scoreboard confirms the time: 6:49 a.m. Just 12 hours before the tip at GBS.
He’s asked again: Is his team ready for tonight?
“I’m still preparing to this day,” Ellis says.
4:11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13 ~ 3 hours to GBS
Across the hall from G180 and the basketball office, gyms are full of bouncing balls for a pre-bus ride shoot around. Players have been sitting most of the day in class. It’s time to wake up their bodies.
The atmosphere is loose. But the time between now and the game will blur, like their practices.
“It’s up to the players now,” assistant coach Johnson says as he steps into the cool start of the evening toward the warm bus for the half-hour ride to GBS. “Players win games. Coaches help get them ready, but the games are won or lost by players.”
In the visitors locker room – one floor below the court – players sit on benches spread in a V in front of lockers. Ellis makes his final pitch:
“Let’s steal one.”
“Play defense the right way every time down.”
“One or none and done. No second shots.”
“I don’t care if RJ [Rodell Davis Jr.] scores 30. We can’t let their other guys get 18.”
“Walk out of this gym with a W.”
Ellis’ goal is to hold GBS to 48 – 12 points per 8-minute quarter. They were on pace for that in the first game at Beardsley, holding them under 24 in the first half. But they gave up more than that in the fourth quarter of that game before holding on. So it’s a mystery.
GBS leads 22-13 after the first quarter, 38-28 at the half and Johnson’s message to the team about their inability to execute the game plan could be heard clearly in the hallway outside the locker room. GBS continues to lead 53-41 after the third and wins 65-58.
It’s a game ETHS was never really in. And never really out of.
“[GBS] came ready to play,” Ellis says afterward. “They got a lead and never lost it.”
The loss answers a few questions.
On the upside, Thomas was as effective and assertive as he’d been all season in scoring 21 points.
On the downside, it figures to be costly for the Wildkits in both the CSL and sectional pairings.
But Ellis’ mantra – one of many; he’s a coach, after all – is, “Nobody is above the program, including me.” That’s evident in the sweeping and the laundry. It also reveals itself when players who surely would have played a role in the outcome – including Prince Adams, Ephraim Chase and Ray Catuy – do not play against GBS, nor the next night at state-ranked Rolling Meadows, for what the coach terms a “family matter.”
Jonah Ross also left the GBS game with a knee injury and did not return. Starting guard Hunter Duncan fouled out.
If they’d had them all at full speed, would that have made the difference? It’s impossible to know. But sitting players does put action behind Ellis’ words that nobody is above the program. He wants his players to learn how to “take care of their business,” as he describes it, to succeed in the world beyond basketball.
Back from Glenveiw, coaches debrief the team in their locker room before sending them home.
It’s time for the laundry.
1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14 ~ 16 hours since GBS, six hours to Rolling Meadows
There’s no time for a GBS coda.
Players arrive at school for shoot around before the bus leaves for a 5:30 p.m. tip at Rolling Meadows. They received their scouting reports on the Mustangs – including Cameron Christie, who’s committed to play in the Big Ten at Minnesota and whose brother Max plays for the NBA’s Lakers – and know the tall task in front of them.
Ellis can chuckle at the gallows humor of scheduling road games at GBS and Rolling Meadows on back-to-back nights. Who does that?
“It’s good for us,” Ellis says before the Wildkits’ 82-46 blowout loss. “Year in and year out, we build a schedule to test and grow. We want to be sure we’re playing the better teams. We want to make sure we’re playing multiple styles. Because you come to March and we don’t want it to be a situation where we wish we would’ve done more. So we want to put all of the prep work into what’s ahead of us in March. So everything we do is designed for that next step in finishing the season playing our best basketball.”
On one hand, they are decidedly not doing that now. On the other, it’s not the end of the season.
They’ll continue to work. To put up thousands of shots. To run the finish off the hardwood. And Ellis will keep the laundry clean and the floors clear. He – and Johnson and Mayne and Meo and sophomore coach Stacey Moragne and freshmen coaches Jetter Gibson and Tre Marshall, all ETHS grads except Ellis and Gibson – will get them ready. And the players will play. And, like Ellis, they will all “expect the worst and hope for the best and be prepared. It’s all about being prepared.”
The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching. Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden said that. Mike Ellis’ program lives it. As do many teams and activities full of high achievers at the school, at many schools.
All for 32 minutes of our entertainment.