18/04/2024
Despite a rollercoaster journey so far, Abbey Ellis is making waves over in the United States in the basketball world.

The bus trip from California to Las Vegas usually takes around six and a half hours.

For eager college basketball players waiting to take part in a play-off tournament, it feels like a lifetime.

Traveling through the American desert, Abbey Ellis wakes from a long nap to the sound of her phone buzzing with missed calls and notifications.

Disorientated, the flood of well-wishes is a welcome surprise – Ellis, in only her second year of playing US college basketball, has been named in the North West Collegiate Conference first team of the year in her preferred point guard position. The accolade is a huge reward for years of hard work.

“It was pretty epic,” Ellis said.

“A teammate of mine made the all-conference side in my first year, and it became my goal to make that team in my second year.”

“I normally sleep for around four hours on a bus trip. Waking up to the news made the rest of the bus trip to Vegas a lot easier to handle.”

Being named in the starting line-up was a culmination of nearly 15 years of playing basketball. It all traces back to the other side of the globe, where Ellis first began dribbling and shooting in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs.

Her first memory of the sport she grew to love is crystal clear. When Ellis was only six years old, her family installed a basketball hoop at home.

During the Christmas and summer holiday period, Ellis took to it like a duck in water. By the time school started, she was enlisted in her primary school’s team and infatuated with the game.

“I remember quite strongly the basketball hoop at Christmas that year and the connection I had with it,” Ellis reminisced.

“I then played with my primary school team for a year and went on from there.”

It was a humble beginning for Ellis, who just last week was playing in large Las Vegas stadiums as a part of the Big West Conference playoffs.

Off the back of a season where Ellis averaged 13.8 points per game and had the best free throw percentage (0.854) in the entire conference, her Australian dreams have evolved into grand results on the other side of the world.

Ellis’ speed and agility has always helped her score heavily as a point guard

Ellis’ rise through the US college ranks may be blistering, but Abbey always seemed destined to excel at basketball. The sport runs in Ellis’ family – her mother was an accomplished player who immediately took to honing her daughter’s rapidly improving game.

“Mum was a point guard as well,” Ellis laughed.

“I was taller than her when I was 16, so she was a very little point guard.”

It was Ellis’ mother who guided her through the Australian facet of her basketball career.

After a year of playing with friends at the local Darebin Sports Centre, Ellis moved to St Marys Parish Primary School in the nearby suburb of Greensborough to play under a coach her mother knew from her playing days.

From there, Ellis played her junior domestic basketball days at St Marys before transitioning with her coach to the larger Bulleen Templestowe Basketball Club.

“I think all of the changes helped,” Ellis said.

“I would say Bulleen Templestowe felt more like a home for me, I felt like myself there. My little sisters and I had more connections at the club.

“Transitioning to a new school prepared me well – everyone was young and accepting of me. I was lucky because I felt like I was a little social butterfly back then and could make friends wherever I went.”

Despite grinding through years of hard work, Ellis feels like her junior basketball days “were all a blur”.

The constant dedication to improving her skills coincided with playing netball for over a decade. It created a hectic schedule of two time-demanding sports, and a tough decision for Ellis when she turned 18.

Netball and basketball competed for Ellis’ interests, with the two sports complimenting each other well for many years.

Playing as a goal attack in netball, Ellis could maintain her dead-eye accuracy on a basketball court.

The ball control skills and intricate footwork required to excel in basketball only made her netball abilities flourish.

But the two sports could never co-exist for long – the need to choose a winning sport began when Ellis was only 11 and playing basketball on a random Friday night in Melbourne.

Ellis was playing representative matches for Bulleen Templestowe when a coach spectating her game decided to talk to her and her mother.

The idea was planted in Ellis’ mind to try out for Victorian state teams and take her game to the next level.

“At that point I didn’t realise how serious it was, but when I heard what the coach said it made me stop and think,” Ellis said.

“It felt good to hear it and be noticed, but I knew it was all on me to go further, and I wanted to. It was that sporty instinct that my mum had, that instinct to get better, to push yourself and make big teams.”

The try outs soon crystallised into tangible rewards.

By the age of 14, Ellis was a reserve member of the Under 16 Victorian basketball squad.

A year later she was captain of that side, and continued an affiliation with Victorian representative sides up to the Under 20s age group.

Many athletes would be proud to sit back and soak up the accomplishments. But Ellis was already looking further ahead to higher honours.

Her match awareness and playmaking abilities meant Abbey became a valuable team member for many representative sides

Like a magnet drawing her across the world, American college basketball always held a lure to Ellis.

It started with ESPN’s feed of the magical March Madness play off tournament, featuring esteemed colleges like Duke and North Carolina.

As the years passed by and Ellis continued to dominate Victorian competitions, she began to dream of her next step up in the world of basketball.

“The college atmosphere looked like it was so much fun and very professional at the same time,” she said.

“I liked the way the Americans played – they play a different ball game than what we do at home. I thought it would be fun to be a part of the environment.”

“I saw older girls from Victoria and Australia from domestic competitions who went to American colleges, and it made me I realise that it was an actual pathway I could take.”

Once Ellis put her mind to it, everything unfolded quicker than her speedy on-court manoeuvres. On a whim, she “randomly signed up” for an American basketball camp in Australia impressed scouts there.

The successful camp resulted in a trip to Dallas during her Year 12 studies in 2018 to participate in another camp.

She had a contact who acted as a manager, sending highlight packages from all of her games weekly to interested colleges. It soon turned into three Skype calls a week with prospective campuses.

“It was a process, it felt like a job or obligation to do. It was all about talking and narrowing down what I suited and where I felt I could take my basketball to the next level,” she said.

Despite having a myriad of options to consider, Ellis soon fell in love with a particular college on America’s west coast. California Polytechnic State University, or Cal Poly for short, were one of the first institutions to show interest in her.

It had a thriving women’s basketball program – the Mustangs were only growing in talent and skill. The campus was close to LAX and the beach, making it a prime spot for a dreamer who “hated the snow”.

With the decision becoming easier by the day, Cal Poly sealed the deal when they funded a five-day trip for Ellis and her mother to visit the campus. The trip gave her the perfect amount of time to fall in love with the environment.

“The facilities were great, the campus was beautiful and the town was right on the beach,” Ellis said.

“It was everything I needed and I felt safe, which was a big deal for my parents and I, especially since they were sending a kid overseas.”

Everything was set for Ellis to become the latest Cal Poly Mustang. But just months before her departure, disaster struck.

A state training session for the upcoming national carnival ended with her being pushed towards a wall and putting her hand up to stop the impact.

The collision broke her arm and left her in a cast for eight weeks, with a further four weeks required for rehab.

Ellis remembers “cussing and swearing” her “head off”, and the consuming feelings of helplessness that followed a serious injury to her shooting hand.

The rehabilitation period went slowly. Facing frustration and boredom, she decided to practice with her other unimpacted hand.

“I definitely focused on my other hand – dribbling, passing and developing as much control as possible,” she said.

“I still had the touch in my shooting hand, but I didn’t have the strength. I couldn’t even do a push up.” 

Once again, her persistence paid dividends. She was cleared to travel to California and begin her college life. Despite the “stressful and nerve-wracking” start, she soon found her routine of constant practices over the summer break to be a great way of bonding with new teammates.

Once settled, she never looked back. Proud family and friends watched on from home as Ellis dominated from her point guard position and was eventually named in the freshman first team of the year for the conference. Despite the daunting proposition ahead of her, her sporting instinct had found a way to flourish.

Abbey in her Mustangs green, defending for another Cal Poly win

Building into her second year at Cal Poly, all preparations were thrown out the window when COVID-19 struck.

Ellis returned to America without the base level required to soldier through a heavy schedule, but she soon enjoyed the distractions that daily practice provided.

“I wasn’t unfit when I got here, but I knew I needed to be fitter,” she said.

“In my second year the physical aspect and bringing my fitness level up was something that I really focused on.”

This hasty block of training didn’t stop Cal Poly’s point guard from excelling once again.

Ellis swished her way into the conference’s elite players, draining clutch buckets and consistently lifting her Mustangs to important wins.

Her continual improvement saw her reach that conference first team, and create buzzer-beater moments from beyond the arc.

None of Ellis’ game-winning feats should surprise those who know her – the Mustangs often work on end-of-match scenarios. For her, it was all about following the play and getting the shot off in time. The rest was up to her hard work and determination.

“Practicing every day on those situations gave me so much confidence that I knew where the ball was going,” she said.

“Every time I’ve scored at the end, I’m only focused on getting the shot off out of my hand before the buzzer goes and praying. I’m never over-thinking it.”

Ellis may be one of only a handful of Australian women performing wonderfully in the college basketball scene, but she has connections.

A friend from around her north-east Melbourne suburb plays at the rival UC Irvine – the pair often trained together while grounded in Australia due to COVID-19.

After such a whirlwind start to her American basketball life, she believes many young players from Australia can make the jump to college rosters.

“It’s a different ball game mentally and physically, but if you have that mindset to get better as a player then you’ll be alright,” she said.

“It’s all about embracing the lifestyle.”

The bubbly point guard now gets time to stop and smell the roses. Two hectic years of American basketball have exhausted her – in the past week she has returned to Australian shores to soak up valuable time with her loved ones.

But it won’t last forever – Ellis is intent on completing her child development teaching degree, before seeing where her basketball abilities can take her around the world.

“My number one goal is to graduate with a degree in my back pocket,” Ellis said.

“Then I can push myself to where I feel like I want to be.”

“It would be great to play professionally in Europe. I know a lot of college girls do that, but first I want to try and get through the college times that are coming up and improve once again.”

With such a grounded mindset, Ellis may have many years of dazzling the global basketball scene left to come. Whatever she does, she’ll do it with intensity and a winning smile.

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