Tobenna Ezeokeke vividly remembers Duncan Ellis giving him the cold shoulder when the two first met each other in elementary school. Ellis, who is one grade ahead of Ezeokeke, made sure to let Ezeokeke know just how competitive he was.
“He asked me what my career high (in points) was, and I don’t remember what it was, but I gave a number,” said Ezeokeke, Christopher High’s outstanding sophomore guard/forward. “He said something like, ‘Well, my career high is this,’ which I don’t remember what the number was. But it was a significantly higher number than mine.”
Ezeokeke said that exchange is a fond memory now, because the two have developed a close friendship, starting last summer. Ellis, who admits his feelings for Ezeokeke early on was due to some insecurity, has gained a mighty appreciation for Ezeokeke, not just as a player but as a person.
“Besides at school, we always go out and hang together,” said Ellis, a top-flight junior wing. “I want to be a mentor to him just like some of the older guys were mentors to me when I got to the varsity level. He’s like a brother to me.”
Ellis was in the third grade when he first met Ezeokeke, but they didn’t start talking regularly to each other until they got to South Valley Middle School.
“We kind of butted heads at first and didn’t get along,” Ellis said. “He’s always had that naturally defined basketball body, and I was always the skinny awkward kid until recently. We might have been playing 5-on-5 some time, his team beat me and I didn’t like that too much. Until the eighth grade, I was always a little nervous of him and almost jealous because he was the more physically gifted player and me being a young teenager, I might have gotten worried that he would take my spot. But once he got to high school, I realized we were a lot alike, and that’s how we became close.”
The dynamic duo is a big reason why Christopher controls its destiny entering Wednesday night’s showdown with Robert Louis Stevenson. Sole possession of first place is on the line, as both teams have 5-1 records in the Pacific Coast League’s Mission Division. The matchup is the second meeting between the teams, with Stevenson winning the first, 42-37, in a game that saw the Cougars fade at the finish.
The Cougars have a chance to redeem themselves and in the process get one step closer to winning the first league championship in program history. After losing that first game to Stevenson, the Christopher players and coach Tim Von Urff immediately circled Feb. 5 on their calendar.
“At the beginning of the season, we all established winning a league title was our goal,” Von Urff said. “The fact we took that loss on our home floor since then has really motivated these boys. Each and every single day in practice, the guys are locked in and pushing themselves, and guys who see certain things make sure to explain the concepts to the guys who don’t see it. Them (Stevenson) coming in and beating us on our home floor makes us that much more hungry to go to their house and dish it right back at them.
“After they beat us, we circled Feb. 5 on our calendars and said, ‘Yeah, that loss is not happening again.’ Ultimately, our defense is going to keep us in the game, and the game plan is to make sure we put the ball in the hoop a little more. Their starting five is rock solid, and maybe they bring one (player) off the bench that can contribute (in a significant way). We’ll take the army approach and try to get them in four trouble as we go eight or nine guys deep.”
Von Urff was effusive in his praise for Ellis and Ezeokeke, noting their character and aptitude in the classroom (Ellis has a 4.0 GPA and Ezeokeke a 3.4).
“Tobenna’s such a good kid off the court, a great student and always one of the first ones in the gym and one of the last ones to leave,” Von Urff said. “He is actively involved with things on campus, and I really respect him for being that young and juggling that much on his plate and not be overwhelmed. Duncan has been the one who early in the season we talked about being a (potential) league MVP. What I asked of Duncan this season was more of a leadership and facilitator role and to make sure to get everyone involved instead of being a score-first guy (like he was last year). And not at one point in time this season has Duncan complained. He’s an all-out, effort type kid who is passionate about the game and a phenomenal teammate. He’s another coach on the floor and could be our leading scorer, but I’ve asked him to take on a different role for the greater of the team. He’s been a rock through the ups and downs of the whole season.”
Ezeokeke played significant minutes as a reserve last season, but came into this season knowing he would be playing a more prominent role. A rock-solid defender, Ezeokeke prides himself on defense while wanting to improve in other aspects of his game.
“If coach tells me to lock up one player, they are not getting anything on me,” he said. “I want to improve my reads when I get into the lane. I can be better on kicking it out to the corner to the open guy or making a better read off the defense.”
Like Ezeokeke, Ellis possesses explosive playmaking ability. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound Ellis has a versatile game, able to connect from the outside and get to the basket off dribble penetration. While the transition from having a score-first mentality to a distribute-first mentality was tough initially, Ellis has gotten more comfortable with the role, and the Cougars are a better team because of it.
“Last year we had two senior point guards in Travis Romero and Anthony Burns, and I could focus on scoring,” Ellis said. “With them gone I had to be the captain and a floor general. It was difficult at first and shaky in the beginning of the year, but now things are flowing and it showed last night (a 76-40 win over North Monterey County on Jan. 27 in which Ellis scored 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting). I think there was a long learning curve to this new role, but it all worked out for the best. Coach Tim has really shown this new side of basketball to me to help develop my game.”
In addition to being talented on and off the court, Ellis and Ezeokeke also have another thing in common: they’re the youngest of three brothers. Both grew up playing basketball with at least one of their older brothers, which accelerated their development and learning curve for the game. Ellis said he has drawn inspiration from former Lakers great Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
“I cried because to me Kobe Bryant was a larger than life figure,” Ellis said. “I thought he was invincible. He had injuries, but always came back stronger. But the fact that he is gone now, I don’t know what to make of it. I was devastated and feel bad for his family. He affected me a lot, and I never got to meet the guy. I want to play college basketball and hopefully one day in the NBA. I try to work my hardest everyday, and try to follow in what Kobe did (in terms of work ethic). If I can work half as hard as he did, I know I can go great places.”
Ellis developed his competitiveness growing up with his older brothers because they competed at literally everything.
“We could be going on a walk with the dogs, and my brother would take off running,” Ellis said. “Or another competition would be who could finish their food first, who can clean the bathroom quicker, who could read a book the fastest. We just loved competing.”
Ezeokeke saw that firsthand during their South Valley Middle School practices, which incidentally saw the two often paired against each other on opposite teams for practice games.
“We played games in practice quite a lot,” Ezeokeke said. “My team won most of the time, and that’s why he was competitive with me.”
The two attended a camp at St. Mary’s College in Moraga last summer, and stayed in the same dormitory. They started talking more, hanging out and ever since then the two have been building off that, Ezeokeke said. They’ve known each other a long time, and though they didn’t exactly hit it off at first, their chemistry on the court has spearheaded the way for a potential league title. Ellis said several teammates have made an impact, especially junior Owen McCarry, who like Ellis possesses a nice all-around game.