Once an escape, basketball is now all about family for James Ennis


James Ennis still can’t quite believe he’s made it to the NBA.

“I should've been on a different route," he said. "Not in the league.”

It’s not that he didn’t have the confidence in himself (he does), it’s that all the odds were stacked against him. 

Growing up in Ventura, California, Ennis moved several times throughout his middle-school years. First, it was Texas. Five months later, Florida.

As Ennis describes it, his family was just “trying to find different situations to survive.”

It was hard for Ennis to get close to anyone since he moved so much. And, basketball, as Ennis says, quickly became his escape. 

Ennis attended three different high schools, even sitting out his entire junior year. He went to adult education school and had trouble getting credits since he was moving before semesters were over. But that didn’t stop his talent from getting noticed.

“He was one of the most talented, athletic kids to ever come through here in this county,” Ennis’ former Ventura College coach Joey Ramirez said. “He was exceptionally gifted, he could do everything.”

By his senior year, Ennis knew basketball could be a serious way out for him, and that meant he could provide for his family.

Ramirez remembers the first real conversation that he and Ennis had was about the reality of his situation and what he needed to do to care for his family. 

“He had a really, really tough childhood, on all levels — family, socially, everything. He grew up in a very, very tough environment.”

Ennis isn’t forthcoming to offer details about his childhood, except that his father worked hard in construction and as a newspaper deliveryman, while his mother worked at the fast-food chain Arby's, until she was put on disability.

But what he does say is that his youth was both “rough and unstable.”

Which is why after Ennis was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the 50th pick in 2013, but traded to the Miami Heat, who had plans to sign him to their developmental team, he quickly made a decision to go play overseas. 

“More money,” Ennis says matter of factly of playing his first year for the Perth Wildcats in Australia. “The G League didn't have money like that, and I needed more money to help my family.” 

It’s also why the proudest moment Ennis has had as a professional basketball player was the day he bought his mother a house in Camarillo, California.

This past summer.

“Being able to see your mom and dad happy," he said. "That's what it is about, helping your family. That's my main reason why we're here today.”

For now, on his sixth NBA team, Ennis has quickly learned the business side of the NBA and is still trying to find his niche.

As Brett Brown continues to experiment with his reserves, Ennis will get a shot to compete for time as the playoffs near.

He poured in 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench in 17 minutes on Wednesday night.

“The most important thing that he brings every day is his joy,” teammate Jimmy Butler said. “He's always smiling, he loves to work. He stars in his role and he plays incredibly hard.” 

That joy has been a little brighter these past three years. Thanks to his three-year-old daughter, Maliyah Parker Ennis.

“When I see her, all the problems go out the window," Ennis said. "When she smiles and calls my name, it makes everything a lot better.” 

“That's what it's all about, making sure that my daughter doesn't go through what I had to go through growing up.”

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