MIKE Ellis might be synonymous with the Perth Wildcats, but the Stirling and Warwick Senators have been part of his life for near on 50 years now and to bring the club their first championship banner since the SBL’s inception with his son as captain is right up there in his basketball accomplishments.
It’s not easy for a new achievement to rank up there high in the accomplishments of a lifetime in basketball so successful for someone like Ellis both on the national and state level.
He played 302 games with the Perth Wildcats as part of the initial team with his father Gordon coach and he went on to captain the ‘Cats to their first two NBL championships in 1990 and 1991.
He would then go on to be an assistant coach, head coach and general manager of the Wildcats with his No. 6 jersey proudly retired by the club and hung from the rafters whether it’s been home games at the Perth Entertainment Centre, Challenge Stadium or more recently RAC Arena.
But prior to those days in the NBL at the Wildcats, it was at the Senators that Ellis called home from his early teenage years and they would go on to claim district championship victories in 1975, 1978, 1981 and 1982 well before the SBL ever was started up in 1989.
Ellis continued to play with the Senators throughout most of the 1980s while playing in the NBL and then following his NBL retirement and a brief stint at the Swan City Mustangs, he came back to play at Stirling for three more seasons, and then took over as coach for three years starting in 2001.
He then returned to coach the club at the redeveloped Warwick Stadium in 2016 and has been building solidly with his son Cody as captain to try and turn themselves into a championship team, and that finally happened in 2020 in the West Coast Classic.
It had been a challenging previous four seasons in the SBL prior to that with the Senators looking capable of contending for a championship but ending up losing in three quarter finals and a semi-final series with two of those eliminations coming in Geraldton at the hands of the Buccaneers.
But there was just something about this Senators team in 2020 once the West Coast Classic started that suggested they would accept nothing but the championship.
Even after losing their opening game to the Perry Lakes Hawks, that lit a fire under them and they wouldn’t lose another game with Cody leading the way alongside Caleb Davis, Corban Wroe, Ngor Manyang, Ash Litterick, Jay Thwaites, Justin King, Tom Witts and the emerging Wani Swaka Lo Buluk, Ethan Elliott and Isaac Campion.
That saw the Senators qualify for the finals in top spot before beating the Lakeside Lightning in the semi finals and 48 hours beating the Hawks in the Grand Final to secure the first championship banner for the Senators since 1982.
Ellis couldn’t be prouder of the work put in by so many people to achieve the success and to do it with mostly local, and some young players too.
“I think it just means that it’s a reward for the amount of effort that’s been done. There has been a lot of work done over a long period of time and it’s nice to see that all that work that has been done has probably paid dividends, I think that’s the biggest for us,” Ellis said.
“From our perspective I’ve looked at what we have done the whole year and obviously we’ve got the main guys, but our bench has been phenomenal all year, and there have been different guys stepping up at different times.
“There were comments around that no one thought our bench was very strong but I would have thought we would have one of the strongest benches in the league. We have some young guns too and if you did the averages of the Perry Lakes starting five and ours, I don’t think there’d be much difference in the ages.
“We have a heap of young guys on the bench and to have some of our lesser lights to step up in the big game was fantastic. It’s great to see young kids coming through and that’s what is exciting for me is seeing all these young guys.
“It’s not just on our team either, but Perry Lakes have a few too and a number of other teams have done a similar thing which I think is what’s been good about this competition to give the opportunity to the younger guys.
“There was talk about having three imports and all that but with every additional import you put in apart from the cost factor is taking away the opportunity for a junior to come up and play. It’s so important for our juniors to see a pathway to play at the top.”
With Mike having experienced it himself winning a championship with his father Gordon coach, to share it with his son Cody with the Senators made it that extra bit special for all involved too.
“It’s great obviously but also a bit surreal to share a championship with your son. The ones that I won with the Wildcats in the NBL, Cody was far too young to remember or know what was going on,” he said.
“Then as he got older I was part of the coaching staff but to now do it with me the head coach and him being the captain of the team and all that sort of stuff, it’s pretty special. It really is.
“I feel a bit honoured that I’ve been able to do it and to be able to do it with him. There’s not many people to say they’ve had the opportunity to do that so it’s pretty good that’s for sure.”
Many people will always see Ellis as the first ever Perth Wildcats legend and rightfully so as a dual championship winning captain and 302-game player.
Nothing will ever take away what he achieved with the most dominant NBL club but it’s at the Senators that Ellis has been linked virtually his whole life and that’s where his heart still lies above all else.
He first played for a Stirling club when he was 14 years of age and now 48 years later he has brought a championship banner back to the Senators as well, and now he’s already looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the club in 2022.
The club means the world to the entire Ellis family and while winning a championship is a nice reward, it’s about the bigger picture of providing a place to play basketball for generations of people to this day that makes him most proud.
“When you think about it, I started playing when I was 14 at Mirrabooka which was a feeder club to Stirling at that stage so realistically it’s been 48 years of my involvement in some form,” Ellis said.
“In actual fact in 2022 it will be the club’s 50th year anniversary and I’ve been involved with it for the vast majority of that. There was some older guys and I was only talking to one of them this morning who rang to congratulate me, and he was part of some of the early championship teams.
“I’ve had a number of text messages from other guys who were involved way back then and it’s been a long time between drinks. The last championship the club won was in 1982 when I was playing and long before there was an SBL. The club has been a huge part of my life.
“Yes the ‘Cats have too and I was involved there for 23 years but I’ve been involved with Stirling for 48 so it’s a lot. And to see the club get to the point where we almost folded before we got involved with the Churches of Christ people, and it’s just really rewarding to know that we are still there.
“You look at the amount of juniors that we’ve got playing and we have 3 or 3500 domestic kids playing, and the amount of WABL teams in the competition we have playing is amazing. We don’t just have one team in each division, we have up to four teams in each division.
“It’s just fantastic how strong the club is and to have those kids playing, while they are doing that they are not on the streets or getting into trouble, and living healthy lives.
“It’s just a fantastic vehicle that the club is to provide those kids somewhere to go and that’s why from my perspective it’s always been a real focus that even though the pyramid gets very small at the top, they still need to see there is a pathway that they have a chance to play SBL. That’s why I don’t like that whole recruiting outside of your club stuff if you don’t have to.”
When Ellis took back over as coach at the Senators in 2016 there was a lot of work to be done to turn them into what they have now become and that’s a championship winning team.
But he always wanted to do it the right way and that was largely by backing in the local talent while finding the right imports to top the group up, and then building something ready for sustained success and not just to buy one fleeting championship.
The build was frustrating at times over the last four years and the playoff disappointments were tough to deal with, but not once did Ellis want to move from having faith in the path he wanted to take and that’s what makes it so satisfying to be champions right now.
“It would have been very easy over the years to say we should get this guy in or that guy, and do all that, but I always believed in these guys and had no problems with my belief being there that they could do it,” Ellis said.
“I think they thought they could do it but the difference between thinking they can do it and believing it is pretty significant. Now they do have that belief and if you have that mindset it changes what you can do.
“You can win close games and teams that believe completely in what they are doing and the way in which they are doing it, close games don’t really worry them because they know they can get it done instead of hoping.
“I think this season has probably given our guys that sort of belief that they do deserve to be held in that light, that’s where they need to be. And they are playing at that level but it doesn’t just happen by itself, it’s the hardest thing from a coaches’ perspective to get through to people to go from thinking you are good to believing in it.
“You have to make it happen and it’s very hard to get players to do that and that Grand Final was the hardest for us because we just didn’t play it how we spoke about before the game. We came out slightly flat and weren’t playing at the level we needed to, and credit to Perry Lakes they were all over it.
“We talked about that but just didn’t respond straightaway but the biggest thing for me was being able to keep it two by quarter-time because that could have blown out quite considerably early. That was a credit to the guys to kind of hang in there and just stay strong for a while.”