When Bryan Ellis graduated from high school, he couldn’t perform division.
This summer he’ll receive a doctorate in sociology from Howard University.
It’s difficult to appreciate where the former Montana Grizzly basketball player is today without knowing his history.
His biological parents were intravenous drug users on Detroit’s tough Eastside who both died from AIDS by the time Ellis was in third grade.
Raised by his aunt and uncle, Rosie and Morris Franklin, and later mentored by his college professor grandfather Clemmont Vontress, Ellis excelled in sports at Denby Tech. Academics were another story.
But his basketball ability landed him at Butler Community College in Kansas, where he was able to take remedial classes while sitting out a year with a broken hand. Two years at Butler followed by a year at Salt Lake Community College landed him a scholarship from the Griz.
Ellis went from taking remedial classes at Butler to the Dean’s List at Montana, not to mention scoring five points in the Grizzlies’ 87-79 win over Nevada in the first round of the 2006 NCAA tournament.
Several days after his graduation from Montana in 2007, Ellis was on his way to Washington, D.C., where he went to live with his grandfather. That fall he was enrolled as a graduate student at Howard.
If not for the solid values imparted by his aunt and uncle and timely guidance from his grandfather, Ellis could have easily ended up as another statistic in crime- and violence-riddled Detroit.
“I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that and the reason why, I guess, is in my mind I always saw something for me,” Ellis says now. “I always saw myself moving toward something, even though I didn’t know what it was.
“I think that I’ve been open to opportunities, even when I have not had the skill set at the time to execute at the level I should have. Some of my friends would say, ‘I’m not good at school, I’m not going to go to school.’ Now maybe I wasn’t good at school either, but I wasn’t buying the perception that I couldn’t be good at school.
“It was the same thing with playing Division I ball. People for years told me that you can’t play Division I ball, you’re too short, you’re too this or that, you don’t have athleticism. I never bought into that idea. I felt if I didn’t have it, I could still acquire it. If someone can teach it, I can learn it.”
Ellis completed his master’s degree in 2009 and went straight into the doctorate program at Howard. His grandfather, the first African-American professor emeritus at George Washington University, had steered Ellis toward studying the sociology of sport.
“My thesis is on African-Americans in professional sports, in particular trying to understand their over-representation in five sports,” Ellis said. “I’m really trying to understand how they went from being not included to being over-represented.”
It’s a timely topic with the recent release of the movie “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson.
“I was doing some historical research because my dissertation is historical as well as statistical,” said Ellis, who is now 29. “Because my dissertation is trying to track African-Americans’ representation in each of these sports from when they entered, I had to know exactly how many blacks played in 1947. I kept researching and researching and found out that there were five African-Americans who played in 1947, Jackie Robinson, of course, the most famous and rightfully so because he played basically the entire season. He played 151 games; the next to him was Larry Doby, who broke in with the Cleveland Indians in the American League. I think he played something like 29 games. Others had shorter stints.
“Roy Campanella was actually approached first, according to one historian. He misunderstood what was being offered to him and he turned it down, only later to kick himself. Jackie Robinson got the opportunity to sign the contract, then Roy Campanella was the second to sign.”
The discipline and work ethic Ellis learned while playing basketball – at just 5-foot-8, he needed every edge he could get – translated well to academia.
“When I was very small playing basketball – of course I had a height disadvantage – everyone would say practice, practice, practice,” Ellis said. “So I would practice for hours and hours and hours. In graduate school I transferred that same skill set which was this notion of dedication, determination and practice.
“A second way is my father taught me when growing up that when you go on the court, don’t check the weakest player, go after the best player, that’s the guy you want to play against.
“When I got to graduate school they gave me these textbooks. When I started to learn about these individuals who were supposed to be the biggest thinkers in the field or in history, I started to get their works. That’s how I was taught in basketball – go after the best and don’t settle for anything less than that. Those skills and qualities have been directly transferable.”
His thirst for knowledge hasn’t come without frustrations, his grandfather said.
“He’s sometimes out-thinking his professors and because of that they will get annoyed with him,” Vontress said. “I always delighted in having a graduate student like that in my classes. Apparently some professors are different. They don’t like a student to overshadow them. He’s told me that he’s had encounters with coaches over the years where he would stand his ground and they would bench him for a long time until he came around.
“That’s just the way he is. That has caused frustrations as he’s moved through graduate school, but he’s managed to spring back and never let the frustrations get him down.
“I’ve told him about the great thinkers in history that have encountered the same type of problem. I cite Socrates, who encountered that kind of push-back from his peers. They killed him because he didn’t come around to their way of thinking. He’s read Socrates since I told him about it. He’s a very mature thinker, I think. He’ll be able to do whatever he wants to do in life.”
A good portion of the credit for Ellis’ success has to go to Vontress, who took Ellis under his wing.
“My grandfather has been – for these last six years – my father,” Ellis said. “He’s helped me with just about every aspect of graduate school because many obstacles and challenges do come.
“I think his primary importance in terms of my academic pursuits is that I got a chance to watch what a scholar was like. For me growing up, I didn’t get an opportunity to see that. My parents were working class and I saw how to go to work, which is a valuable skill as well. But that was my first time up close watching a scholar.
“He didn’t have to say too much to me as much as I modeled what I saw. My grandfather is in his study studying for hours. Still today he studies rigorously. I saw that kind of dedication and I was able to meet with him on a day-to-day basis and ponder ideas and talk about ideas. That really helped me grow personally, but also academically.”
Ellis has also traveled to Africa twice thanks to his grandfather’s generosity. His visits to Senegal left a lasting impression.
On one of his visits, Ellis went to the island of Gorée.
“That was the most heart-wrenching experience,” Ellis said. “That’s where the slaves were shipped from. There’s a door there called the ‘Door of No Return.’ When you go through the door it’s like you’re on the edge of the little island and when you look out, all you see is blue ocean. That was where the slave ship docked. That was a very emotional experience, eye-opening and revealing.”
Now Ellis is faced with the prospect of finding an outlet for the knowledge he’s gained. When he was a senior at Montana, he said he wanted to return to Detroit and work with some of the troubled youth. That hasn’t changed.
“Me and my girlfriend have been talking – she’s very close to me and we plan to have our future together – and she’s willing to move to Detroit with me,” Ellis said of Nicole Branch, who is originally from Barbados. “We’ve discussed opening a center that focuses on education as well as doing social scientific research and also focusing on arts and culture.
“Those are my ideas in an ideal world. Such things cost money and take time to develop. Me being a graduate assistant and making barely above the poverty line, it hasn’t really afforded me any capital to start such a venture from ground zero, so I’ve considered other options as well.”
Among those other options is the one his grandfather prefers – becoming a professor.
“He’ll probably eventually wind up in a university teaching after he has tried other things that he is expressing interest in,” Vontress said. “He probably needs to try that out to see if it’s his fit. I see, having been a university professor for many years, we don’t have enough outstanding professors in the profession and he is certainly one the profession needs. That’s my perspective and I’ve told him so, but he always pushes back on that view.”
Although sports provided Ellis with a vehicle out of Detroit, it’s a path too few can take and too many aspire to. That’s a lesson Ellis would like to take back to Detroit.
Ellis says he recently saw a trailer for a documentary on the life of Lenny Cooke. Cooke was a high school basketball phenom who attended the same camps as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Some felt he was the most talented of the bunch.
“Of course he’s never played an NBA game in his life,” Ellis said. “The movie tracks him from high school to where he is now. In the trailer of the movie, he looked to be 200-300 pounds. You still see those ‘Hoop Dreams’ stories out there.
“I’ve been taught that sport is a way out and I’ve seen other people believe it. I wanted somehow to debunk that for youth and to be able to speak to that reality. So that’s why I took sport (for my dissertation) and that’s why I went to over-representation. Let me try to understand this more coherently and maybe if I can, maybe I can find some truth that I can impart to a generation that might be on that sport-as-a-way-out path.
“It’s even prevalant in sociological literature that this is a problem with some African-American kids. It’s focusing on sports and the erosion of other assets and skills, like academics. We know there are a whole host of problems as well, such as dysfunctional schools, overcrowding of schools, problems of employment in certain areas, the breakdown of the family. You have a lot of other things operating as well.”
Listening to Ellis speak so passionately about his studies and his future, it’s easy to forget where he was just a short time ago when he arrived at Butler Community College. The learning curve has been steep.
“From where he was when he began graduate school here and where he is today, it’s 100 percent different,” Vontress said. “I remember when he wrote his first papers for his graduate courses when he was pursuing the master’s degree, he was having trouble using the language properly. Even speaking, he was making some mistakes. Now he has overcome both of those deficiencies.”
Ellis, though, doesn’t spend much time looking back; he’s too busy looking forward.
“I think I’ve had those moments but I try to stay mindful … you don’t want to pat yourself on the back too much like you’ve done something great or you’ve reached an end,” Ellis said. “On the one hand I can look at myself relative to where I was and say, ‘Yeah, that is growth.’
“But on the other hand I’m still trying to grow. I’m still only 29. Hopefully I still have a long life ahead. Where I want to be and what I want to achieve is still yet to be determined. I’m always thinking, ‘How do I manifest those dreams?’ ”
There’s little doubt Ellis is on the path to making them a reality.