Aja Ellison writing her own script
To be or not to be … an athlete or a thespian?
Sure, her father played in the NBA and her mother was an All-ACC sprinter at Maryland, but Aja Ellison had different dreams. Going to modeling and acting camps in Philadelphia and New York was her version of fun.
Basketball? From time to time in middle school she would join a pickup game -- taking the court in whatever shoes she was wearing or borrowing a pair of sneakers from one of her brother's friends -- but that was the long and short of it.
"They were six sizes too big," she said of the shoes. "But I made it work."
It wasn't until the summer after her eighth-grade year, when she joined the Philadelphia Belles AAU team, that Aja finally got bit by the basketball bug.
By that fall, she had received her first scholarship offer, from Louisville, where her father, 6-foot-9 Pervis Ellison, had starred. He was the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player as a freshman in 1986, when the Cardinals won the national title.
After starting high school at Shipley (Bryn Mawr, Pa.), Aja transferred to national power Life Center Academy (Burlington, N.J.) for her junior year and averaged 10.9 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks a game.
Now a 6-3 forward, Aja committed to Maryland last month.
"It was very exciting when she got the Louisville offer, and I just assumed she would go there," said Timi Ellison, Aja's mother, who swears she never pushed the Terrapins on her daughter. "It would have been a great story."
Instead, Aja is prepared to write her own script, and she's convinced that Maryland coach Brenda Frese is the director she needs.
"I obviously started playing late, and I admit I have a long way to go," Aja said. "But I'm a quick learner, and I think Maryland understands my situation. The coaches are willing to work with me, and they are good at developing players that did not come in that highly rated."
Virtually everything seems to be going well for Aja lately. She has a 4.0 GPA and is interested in becoming a sports broadcaster, putting the theatrical ability she honed at acting camp to good use.
Her older sister, Seattle, is a sprinter like her mother and recently earned a track scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she will be about 15 minutes away from Aja's college.
Younger brother Malik, a 6-3 rising junior, is an emerging basketball star at Life Center, and Aja has great love for both siblings.
"Aja's parents have done a great job raising her," Life Center coach Ron Kessler said. "Her personality is a coach's dream. She's outgoing, she picks up her teammates when they're upset, and she challenges herself to be better.
"The only thing with Aja is that she is forgetful. There have been numerous times when we've had to call her mom because Aja forgot her shoes or her jersey."
Cellphones have been an even bigger problem. In the span of a year, Aja lost or broke 10 of them, including one that dropped in a bucket of ice that she was using to treat a sprained ankle.
"I'm the ultimate phone breaker," Aja admitted sheepishly.
Her current phone has survived nearly three months, a hopeful sign for Aja.
"This might be a record for her," Timi said. "She's cracked it, but she hasn't broken it."
Pervis said the phone issue really isn't a big deal.
"I don't know of too many teenagers who don't lose phones," he said. "She gives me a big smile and a hug, and all is forgotten."
Timi said all three of the Ellison children were allowed to pursue their own interests.
"It's hard when you have a father who has gone pro," Timi said. "We didn't want the kids to feel obligated to play any sport, especially basketball."
As it turns out, though, Aja is a bit of a natural, and Kessler was thrilled when she transferred to his school.
"In 14 years of coaching, she is one of the top two players I've had in terms of athletic ability," said Kessler, who said point guard Crystal Simmons of Spain is the other player. "With Aja, it was just a question of her basketball skills catching up to her athleticism, and she's almost there."
Her personality is a coach's dream. She's outgoing, she picks up her teammates when they're upset, and she challenges herself to be better.Life Center coach Ron Kessler
Pervis Ellison said his daughter can look awkward when she walks.
"But once she starts running and jumping," he said, "her athleticism comes to the forefront."
Kessler made a major adjustment with Aja last year, switching her from the center position she played at Shipley to a forward spot, where she's capable of playing on the perimeter or on the block.
"She was playing with her back to basket [at Shipley]," Kessler said. "We felt it was better for her development if she learned how to put the ball on the floor and hit a 15- to 18-foot jumper.
"Now she's comfortable hitting 3-pointers, and she has improved her foul shooting from 50 percent last December to about 70 percent toward the end of the season."
Aja's year, however, was disrupted before it even started. She rolled her ankle in the layup line for the season opener and missed six games.
Once she got onto the court, she had a tendency to get overanxious and foul. Kessler said that will be a point of emphasis this season.
Another issue was her nervousness when her father -- nicknamed "Never Nervous" Pervis in college -- showed up to games.
Aja, who lives with her mother but calls herself a "daddy's girl," explained that most of Pervis' family time has been spent working with Malik. After all, Pervis is the boys' coach at Life Center.
"Most of the time, [Pervis] couldn't get to my games, and he just assumed I did certain things," Aja said. "But I would say, 'No, Dad, I did it right.'
"So when he did get to one of my games, I felt pressure to do everything perfectly."
Aja said she no longer feels that pressure, especially now that she and her father are spending more time together talking basketball during the AAU season.
"We will watch tape of my games, and Dad will hit the pause button every other play," Aja said. "When we get on the practice floor, he will have every mistake memorized."
With what she has learned from her father and Kessler, there's no doubt that basketball no longer plays a cameo role in her life -- it's the main attraction.