She used to sit there on her mother's lap and watch her daddy run up and down the court, going up against the best players in the world. Aja Ellison
would gape starry-eyed at everything, take a minute of a child's attention span to absorb it, then the real priority took over: Popcorn and candy.
She knew her father played basketball. The athletic 6-foot-3 sophomore from
Shipley (Bryn Mawr, Pa.)
, the middle of Pervis Ellison's three children, just didn't know how good her father was.
People would always approach young Aja with "Your pop could ball in his day." She found out on her own that "Never Nervous Pervis" led Louisville to the 1986 NCAA national championship and was the first overall pick in the 1989 NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings. She found out on her own just how good dad was from dusting off old VHS tapes of his Louisville games and throughout his 12-year NBA career.
Now she's setting out on her own
to make her own name
— though it does come with a powerful surname.
Aja is one of the top sophomores in the country, and what's more fascinating is that she's still learning the game and the skill sets that go along with it. As a freshman, Aja led the Gators to a 16-7 record last year and the Friends Schools League championship (a private-school league that is not Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association affiliated).
Expect more from Aja this season. She's bigger, stronger, knows what she's doing and above everything else yearns to learn more and is pushing herself even harder. She certainly comes from the right genes, with her father Pervis and mother Timi, a former track star at Maryland.
"It's track that the kids first gravitated towards because of their mother," said Pervis, who lives in Voorhees, N.J. "Aja never really thought about basketball until very recently. And the interesting thing is, she's the one who approached me about it. She played in middle school, but you could say at the recreational level, nothing serious. I thought eventually my son Malik would get into basketball, but the girls, to be honest, the thought never crossed my mind."
It never really crossed Aja's mind, either, until the summer before she was ready to attend Shipley, a high-academic school with strong sports programs. She did well at Voorhees Middle School, but much of that success stemmed from being bigger and more athletic than the other girls on the court. An AAU coach approached Pervis about getting Aja more involved with the summer AAU circuit and Aja jumped at the chance.
"The funny thing is I really thought I was good, then I got into AAU with girls my age, and I remember that first practice, I was really nervous, I found out I wasn't as good as I thought," admitted Aja, laughing. "This was something structured, at a higher level I was used to playing, and I never really pushed myself before so it was a little frustrating at first. All my skill sets were down. They had to show me the proper way to shoot. I'd get frustrated on the court, because I wasn't as advanced as the other girls."
Aja caught up — and fast.
"I liked playing. Now I love playing. After academics, basketball is my life now," said Aja, who possesses a radiant, self-effacing personality that lights up a room and at 6-foot-3, supermodel height and looks. "My father never pushed me into it, and I have to give him credit for that. I discovered basketball on my own. But I will say this, through time, once he found out I liked it, he started to say things like, ‘I'm not pushing you into this, but if you want to do this, you need to put more work into it.' Now he tells me things I might not always want to hear, but in the long run, I know what he says will be good for me. He went all the way, and he tells me all of the time that playing major college basketball is not easy. But my father realizes I like basketball."
And many schools are lining up that like Aja. Her father's alma mater Louisville has already put out an offer, so has St. Joseph's, and Notre Dame is very interested, as are a number of other schools.
"Aja is so good now, and she's only going to get better," Shipley coach Sean Costello said. "I remember the first time putting her through drills here last year and she was a mess. She was very raw. Her skills were nowhere near the other girls — at that time, I have to stress. Since then, she's been amazing. She's bringing her game out more, she's making that switch. Her athleticism is so much better than everyone else; she can almost dunk right now."
But there is a star quality about Aja that transcends the court, Costello needed to convey. In her second major AAU tournament, a teammate got knocked to the floor, and with Aja barely knowing her teammates, she was the first that came to her teammate's defense. The first time Aja traveled with Costello's AAU team, he was wondering where all the singing was coming from. Here, it was Aja who stood atop a table in a crowded hotel lobby and announced it was a teammate's birthday, prompting everyone in the lobby to sing "Happy Birthday."
"Aja's a real credit to her parents," Costello said. "She understands the level where her father was. Aja is more interested in being Aja, and she's an amazing kid. Her basketball ability will go as far as she wants it to go, because I can absolutely see her as one of the top five players in the country by the time she's a senior. It's a matter of putting in the time and keeping her passion for the game alive. She does have star quality. Aja is something special, on and off the court."
Aja confesses that there is some pressure carrying the "Ellison name," the daughter of a former college star and NBA veteran. She's comfortable in her own skin, though, and isn't afraid to express that, either.
"I know what I'm doing now, and am way more confident on the court, but I think the most important thing is that I love the game on my own terms." Aja said. "I'm happy with the way my father introduced me to basketball. He didn't force anything on me. I know the pressures and expectations with being ‘Pervis Ellison's daughter' and it is a little nerve-racking sometimes with so much expected of me. But I want to live up to the expectations. I come from great genes. I come from great parents. I like being an Ellison."