WILMINGTON — When the Philadelphia 76ers open play in the National Basketball Association playoffs in the coming days, they will count plenty of Catholic school students and teachers among their fans. But few will be following the Sixers as intently as Andrew Ellis.
Ellis, a learning support specialist at the lower school at Ursuline Academy, is a special kind of 76ers-crazy. He has turned his classroom at the Wilmington school into a shrine of sorts to his favorite professional team. A combination of donations and Ellis’ own contributions have made the room a must-see for anyone in the lower school.
Padded flooring looks like a basketball court. One of the walls is painted red. There are pennants, banners, photos, bobble figurines, even two signed basketballs. The team learned about his devotion and sent him two boxes full of memorabilia, including pens, playing cards, pins, arm and headbands, even team-branded hand sanitizer. Ellis found a bell on Etsy that now sits in one corner.
It’s Sixered up, for sure,” Ellis said recently. “I wanted to do something that mixed my love of teaching with my love of the 76ers. That’s kind of how it all came to be.”
He said a student who loves the team like he does was an inspiration. He also used to teach the son of team president Chris Heck and got to know Heck’s wife, Mary Beth, who introduced him to her husband. Ellis recalled one time he had to give away tickets to a game, and the Hecks surprised him with tickets to another game.
“It’s been a nice relationship, and he’s spoiled the heck out of me as far as Sixers things. But it’s just been a nice friendship,” he said.
So it was not too surprising when Heck reached out after seeing the Sixers-centric room on Facebook.
“They sent over two huge boxes. (Heck) texted me the morning after he saw the Facebook post and asked how he could help,” Ellis said. “It’s like a whole community kind of thing, but it was nice of the Sixers to donate some things.”
Ellis, 33, grew up in West Chester, Pa., as a fan of the team. He was a young teenager when the Sixers advanced to the 2001 NBA Finals behind Allen Iverson. There is an Iverson Georgetown jersey hanging on the wall at Ursuline. His devotion grew more into obsession when Sam Hinkie took over as team president in 2013 and began “The Process,” making the team really bad so that it could acquire top draft picks, which led to the drafting of current stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and the acquisitions of other too players. “Trust the Process” is stenciled on one of the walls in his classroom.
“I really, really got into it when Sam Hinkie took over. I have followed them diehard since. Love the atmosphere and love what the Sixers are about in the community,” he said.
It wasn’t always easy being a 76ers supporter in those days, Ellis said, but he saw a bright future.
“There were some really bad years in there, but that’s when I really started getting into it because there was a purpose behind it. Kind of like, ‘We’re going to be bad to be good,’” he said.
The room is fun to look at, but it also has served an educational purpose, according to Ellis. As a learning support specialist, he only has a few children in the room at a time. They can spread out and use the floor as seating. They can relax in there while Ellis helps them with whatever they need to ensure their academic success.
He had to run the idea past lower school principal Samantha Varano, who, despite many years in education in Boston, is a “four for four” Philly sports fan. Varano said she believes in creating safe spaces for students, places where they can grow academically, emotionally and socially. Ellis showed her a video of a teacher who created a similar room for another professional team.
“When you’re in here, it’s a fun learning atmosphere, and kids are getting additional support. They started a homework club in here two days a week,” Varano said.
She said she encourages her teachers to “get creative, get innovative. Try new things. Not everything’s going to work, but some things will. And that might be just the thing that a student needs. I’m all for it. They have my full support.”
Ellis, who often wears Sixers apparel, including socks, said his north Wilmington home does not look like his classroom, although he does have “a bunch of jerseys, seven different hats.” He’s ready for the playoffs, although he will have to suspend his friendship with a former student of his if the Sixers and Milwaukee Bucks meet in a later round. Ellis taught Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo at Salesianum. DiVincenzo has started every game in which he has appeared this season.
He has not seen a Sixers championship team, but if that happens, “It would mean the world considering where they started from.”
Additional photos courtesy of Ursuline Academy.