Immediately after his mother was shot by his stepfather in 2003, then 10-year-old Octavius Ellis threw rocks at his now-estranged stepfather, chased him out of the house. His stepfather was arrested hours later for first-degree murder.
Struggling to cope with the horror of having his world destroyed in front of him, Ellis still deals with anger issues today. However, he has used basketball to channel his anger, frustration and hopelessness into something productive. Earning his way onto University of Cincinnati’s basketball program, Ellis was touted as a tenacious rebounder with a knack for high percentage shots in the key.
Yet, he was booted from the team his freshman year after getting in a bar fight in downtown Cincinnati. The media unfairly labeled him a thug, when in reality he was a tragically misunderstood kid, who simply did not have the support system he needed for his situation.
Think about the unfathomable pain of having your father figure kill your mother in front of you, especially at such a young age. Think about all the psychological trauma that comes from it. Of course he is angry and bitter.
After spending two years in junior college, Ellis came back to Cincinnati. This season, his senior year, the Bearcats lost a heart-breaker to St. Joseph’s in the first round of the tournament. With 0.1 seconds left in the game Ellis knocked down a bone-shattering dunk that seemed to tie the game and force over-time, only for it to be called off by the refs. They determined ball did not leave his hands in time.
And in that moment, in that dreary 0.1 second, all that Ellis worked for, struggled with and was tormented over had come to an end. It was the abrupt ending of a tragic tale. The cameras panned over a teary-eyed Ellis, his hands on his head, tears dripping down his face with red eyes that have seen far too much pain for such a young man.
That moment captured the extreme emotion of March Madness. Saying “words cannot describe the pain” is a cop-out. Besides the fact that Ellis was feeling something I hope no one ever has to feel — utter hopelessness brought on by failure and a pure guilt as to “why me?” — the picture of him crying does that feeling justice.
With this we see the beautiful bodacious breathtaking sport of basketball in its purest form, and especially so every March. As the madness ensues, we see that with each dribble, each jumper, a wave of anxiety tightly wrapped in hope rushes over for the fans, coaches, but most of all, the players.
The Octavius Ellis story is a small subset in the hundreds of other moving stories during the tournament, but it captures the emotions so well. With all the upsets, come-from-behind wins and passion-filled play, it’s important to remember that this is the proving ground for so many unproven men (and women, via the women’s tournament).
Young athletes who are so much less fortunate than you and me have worked their entire life for this moment. This is why we love the tournament, and rightly so. It is pure madness.