With just seconds remaining in the 2014 Class 1A Section 4 championship boys basketball game, Minneapolis North High School junior Jamil Jackson drove the length of the court and put up the tying layup against Maranatha Christian Academy. Except the ball didn’t go in. It rolled off the front edge, setting off polar opposite reactions: Maranatha celebrated a trip to the state tournament and North players wept over such a heartbreaking defeat.
In 2015 a rematch of those same teams ended in a tie after regulation, and in overtime North again found itself down 2 points in the final seconds. And again, a shot clanked off the rim to seal another loss.
They were brutal back-to-back finishes to the season, but after both games assistant coach George Ellis ’04 noted the interactions between his players and the community there to support them.
“As our guys were crying and dealing with that heartbreak, their fans and siblings and friends stood with them during the medal ceremony. That was a really cool moment; I hadn’t seen that before in high school sports,” Ellis said. “In a community where there’s a lot of tough issues people are facing, that they can come together as an extended school family and cope with that situation together was amazing to see.”
In 2016 that support was rewarded with a different result in the section championship game, as well as with a state championship for Minneapolis North, a school that in recent years had faced such suffering enrollment the district considered closing it.
“It was fun to see them grow over the last three years. We like to correlate that situation to life,” Ellis said. “Sometimes you continuously get knocked down, but if you continue to stay in the process and stay focused, you’ll get to where you want to go and be successful. [Losing two section finals] made the championship that much sweeter.”
It’s a path that mirrors Ellis’ own basketball experiences, a winding road from the lows of a promising career cut short by injury to the highs of that state championship and traveling the world to teach the game he loves.
Coming back to the game
Ellis grew up in North Minneapolis with two Baptist ministers for parents, who helped develop the spirituality and faith that have stayed with him. He came to St. Thomas to study business and entrepreneurship and to play basketball, but after playing junior varsity his freshman year he tore his meniscus skiing. That meant his entire sophomore season was replaced with working to get back for his junior year, which wasn’t meant to be: Ellis developed stress fractures in both feet at the beginning of the season, effectively bringing an end to his playing opportunities and his goals of playing overseas.
“I never wanted to play after that,” Ellis said. “I was trying to figure out, ‘Why me?’ I had worked so hard.”
Ellis dove into his studies and, after graduating, jumped around various sales jobs and “a number of different career paths in the corporate world.” In 2010 he had “an epiphany” and wanted to get back to working with people in the community, something he had grown up doing. After he started working at an after-school program in North Minneapolis there came an opportunity he wouldn’t have considered for years after giving up on basketball: coaching.
“It was a good time for me to be open to that,” Ellis said.
After coaching a middle school group Ellis and a friend started an Amateur Athletic Union basketball program, Real Athletics, in 2010, which emphasized its leaders’ faith and desire to cultivate leadership in youth.
“We had structured time every week where we had a speaker come in and talk about life skills,” Ellis said. “We developed a 10-lesson curriculum that covered those life skills. … It was like class, really, but about real-life skills.”
One of those speakers was Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Larry McKenzie, who was coaching at Academy of Holy Angels at the time.
“I thought, ‘If I want to get into coaching this is the guy I need to be around,’” Ellis said.
Armed with a notebook, Ellis has tapped into McKenzie’s mentorship ever since, joining him at coaches clinics around the country, including Final Four camps with legendary Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“He has truly been like a sponge,” McKenzie said. “There are people who tell you they want to coach and go through the motions looking to be handed something, and George doesn’t approach it that way. He truly wants to learn and constantly wants to know how he can be better.
“His passion and love for helping the lives of young people is evident,” McKenzie added. “I can see that in him and it’s a matter of sharing it and sowing into that as well.”
As Ellis has climbed the ladder to be McKenzie’s top assistant at North Minneapolis (and the only person McKenzie has allowed to coach defense on his teams over 30 years, McKenzie said), Ellis has expanded how basketball can help him impact the common good: by transitioning his former dream of playing overseas into coaching overseas. Several years ago he traveled to Turkey to host basketball camps, and in April 2015 and again this September he brought much-needed equipment and hosted camps in Tanzania, Africa.
“The biggest thing is to inspire them to work harder, challenge them, show them something they’ve never seen before and build a relationship where they feel they can ask questions, that I can be a resource to help them get to where they want to go. That’s what is really important,” Ellis said. “My goal is to do a basketball mission trip every year. Go somewhere every year, whether back to Africa, back to Turkey; I’ve got a list of places I want to go. No matter where I go, though, I stay true to my core of coaching, developing, teaching and inspiring.”
As Ellis furthers his education and helps lead young people in his own community and across the world, his desire to grow has people like McKenzie excited for his future.
“It’s his spirituality and faith, just having the kind of belief that he does,” McKenzie said. “I feel he has potential to be not a good coach, but a great coach. I see all the signs of that in him.”