By Justin A. Rice
BRIGHTON — Sitting in the upper deck bleachers in Brighton High’s bandbox of a gymnasium, Keith Danzy watched Khadijah Ellison play high school basketball for the first time late last month. Danzy, Ellison’s AAU coach for the Albany-based Lady City Rocks, drove all the way from New York to watch his pupil play for the J.E. Burke School.
“I knew she could hold her own when I first saw her dribbling the basketball at the rec center,” says Danzy, recalling the first time he met Ellison at the Tobin Community Center before she transferred from New Mission High to Burke last year.
“When I first saw her she wasn’t even playing, she was just dribbling the basketball and I said ‘I have to have her.’ I took her without even seeing her play. I just took her after seeing her dribble a basketball without even seeing her play.
“She’s a phenomenal talent; still a little raw. Her skill set is amazing. That’s probably why ESPN has recognized her as a top 60 kid in the country. She’s very athletic, has good ball handling skills and is just so quick. She’s just a lovable kid, just great to be around.”
More amazing than the fact that the junior guard is ranked No. 54 in her class nationally by ESPN is that she is only playing her second full season of high school ball. But the fact that she’s a legitimate Division 1 prospect doesn’t faze Ellison; or at least she doesn’t let on to being daunted by her hoop status.
“Somebody told me about the ranking,” she says, after the 61-21 victory against Brighton on Jan. 27. “It was like ‘Oh you’re Top 60.’ I was like ‘Oh, thanks.’
“I can’t get wrapped up. I got a life. If I don’t have school I can’t play. It don’t make no difference if I’m the best in the girls’ [game]. I gotta get my grades.”
Ellison, who is averaging 25 points per game for Burke (11-3) going into next week’s City League Championships, doesn’t even watch basketball or any other sport for that matter, saying, “Unless cartoons count as sports, yeah I watch that all the time.”
The 5-foot-8 guard only started playing organized basketball in eighth grade when she joined an AAU team called the Lady Dolphins, coached by her friend’s mom. Growing up in the South End, she did not even play unorganized ball.
“My older brother he never really let me play with him,” she says. “He told me ‘Girls aren’t meant to play basketball. It’s a boys sport.’ I was like ‘Oh really.’ So ever since he said that, you know …”
But once she finally started playing she says she still didn’t try her hardest.
“I never really liked it enough to try,” she says. “I don’t know, I didn’t think it was fun. I didn’t like the whole sweaty part.
“Everybody told me I was good. I didn’t really believe it because I couldn’t see it.”
Nobody really knows how to explain Ellison’s catapult up the rankings other than to say she finally decided to start using her God-given ability.
“Some kids are just blessed with talent and she’s one of those kids that has been blessed with a phenomenal skill set,” Danzy says. “Of course she works at it as well but she’s just a gifted athlete.”
Toward the end of the Lady Dolphin’s season in eighth grade Ellison started taking the sport more seriously. She entered New Mission High and played varsity as a freshman on a team that was coming off a state championship.
Cory McCarthy, who coached New Mission’s girls at the time and currently coaches the school’s boys’ team, said Ellison was a raw talent when she arrived at his school. She often was overaggressive and got into early foul trouble.
Eventually her teammates Niesha Kelly and Mieshia Reynolds reined her in and taught her how to play team ball.
But even when she was undisciplined, McCarthy said she still had great body control and quick decision making abilities.
“Regardless if it was a bad decision it was still a quick decision,” he said. “And then the elevation; not even touching rim, other girls touch rim.
“It’s her help defense on the block and being able to guard bigger girls. I mean I played her at center when she was here.”
McCarthy said she eventually realized her potential and started taking over games. In the City League Championships she fouled out against Brighton only to return the next game to drop 24 points on Fenway High, he said. She averaged more than 11 points per game her freshman year and played part of the next season with the Titans before transferring to Burke, where she had to sit out the remainder of the season.
Ellison doesn’t like to talk about why she left New Mission other than saying “I needed to go, it was my time to go so I left.”
McCarthy doesn’t know exactly why she left either but said he doesn’t have any hard feelings and wishes her the best. In fact he still forwarded recruiting letters to her after she left and he was the one who helped set her up with the Albany City Rocks.
McCarthy said he was hard on Ellison and suspects she was partially running away from his tough love and partially looking for a challenge.
“She takes unique avenues to make things happen for herself,” McCarthy said. “She takes different avenues. She’s an enigma.
“Her going to Burke highlights how great she is. She can showcase her talent.”
But it’s not like Ellison needs to be in the spotlight alone. It’s not like she can’t play alongside players of her own caliber. Besides the City Rocks, which is one of the most highly regarded AAU programs in the nation, Ellison’s local AAU team, the Showstoppers, is basically a Massachusetts all-star team.
For all her success on the court, however, turning Burke into a winner might be the most impressive feat.
During several stings coaching Burke, head coach John Rice has won 13 city titles and a state championship, but recently returned to rejuvenate the program. He has coached 18 players who have gone on to get basketball scholarships.
“Her numbers are off the charts,” he said. “I never had anyone that highly ranked myself.”
Ellison said at first it was hard to adjust to playing with her Burke teammates.
“Because here not every girl plays like you so you have to know what to do, [when to make] certain passes, certain looks,” Ellison said after blowing out Brighton last month–not counting out the possibility of a state championship. “Most of our team are seniors so we’re trying to bang it out and see how far we can go.
“It’s up there. I’m not saying we can’t get it but it’s going to be a lot harder than this.”