Chrisman grad Jon Ekey now helping out at SMU

By Cody Thorn
The Examiner

The basketball season ended early for Jon Ekey and his Southern Methodist University Mustangs, but this time it came on the court.

The William Chrisman High School graduate wrapped up his fifth year at the Dallas school, the third serving as the video coordinator. Though that is his title, the former Division I basketball player does a little bit of everything. He is on the bench each game, as he was on Thursday, when SMU lost 85-84 to Boise State in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament, which was held in nearby Frisco, Texas.

Jon Ekey

“Coach (Tim Jankovich) gives us free rein,” said Ekey, who played for Jankovich at Illinois State. “It’s all behind the scene stuff and helping the players however we can. I have the title of video coordinator so I’m downloading games and helping the coaches if they need video or if Coach Jank needs the video hook up to a TV. I also do a ton of the behind the scenes, like logistics, team travel – booking flights, buses and hotels. I also help with scheduling and helping Coach Jank find non-conference games. So I do a little bit more than video coordinating. It is nice doing a little bit of everything.”

The journey to Dallas started in Independence, where Jankovich recruited Ekey and Justin Clark to Illinois State in Normal, Illinois. Ekey was a standout player for coach John Vickers and the Bears. Vickers employed a Grinnell College-like offense in which the Bears’ goal was to get a shot off on a possession in seven seconds – mostly 3-pointers.

Read more on Ekey and Clark::Together again: Clark, Ekey make good combination for Bears coach

Ekey played three years at Illinois State under Jankovich and hit 36.5 percent of his 3-pointers (112 for 307) in 99 games. The 6-foot-7 forward finished seventh all-time in career blocks (110) and had the sixth-best single-season mark with 52 blocks.

The Cardinals twice made the NIT when Ekey was there and he excelled in the classroom as well, being named to the All-Missouri Valley Scholar Athlete first- and second-team.

His playing career in college extended an extra year as a graduate transfer to Illinois, where he was the Big Ten Newcomer of the Week once during the 2013-14 season. He started 23 games and played in 35 that year for the Fighting Illini, scoring 7.3 points and grabbing 4.8 rebounds per game. Among the four team awards he won that year was the Sixth Man Award and the Orange Krush Award – given to the team’s best 3-point shooter.

Illinois knocked off nationally-ranked Iowa, Michigan State and Missouri that year on the way to a quarterfinal run in the NIT.

The success led the 2009 William Chrisman graduate to Japan to play for the Saitama Broncos in 2014, where he earned the Most Improved Player award.

After the season in Japan was over he came back to Independence, where he decided it was time to get into coaching.

“Instead of trying to find another playing spot in Japan or Europe – it is a little bit of the unknown holding out hope and hoping something will pop – I started my coaching career at Van Horn,” Ekey said. “Coach (Daniel) Bieser (now the activities director at Truman High School) let me use the gym when I came back from college and work out and I stayed in contact with him and he told me he’d love to have me as his varsity assistant coach.”

Ekey served as a substitute teacher for the Independence School District that year but the draw of the college game kept pulling at him.

He stayed in touch with his former coach at Illinois, Jim Groce, as well as Jankovich – who resigned from Illinois State in 2012 to take a job as an assistant coach at SMU under Hall of Famer Larry Brown. Jankovich succeeded Brown as the head coach in the 2016-17 season.

“I was contacting people every other day, seeing if someone who knew someone knew someone,” Ekey said. “Out of the blue, I learned that SMU approved a second graduate assistant – they had not been known for having multiple GAs – but it worked out and Coach Jank called me right away after he became the head coach and said he would love to have me.”

Within a week, Ekey was moving from Independence to Dallas.

There has been plenty of success while at the school. The Mustangs have won the American Athletic Conference regular-season and postseason title and made the NCAA Tournament in 2016-17 with future NBA players Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown and Shake Milton.

After his two years of being a graduate assistant was over – he earned a master’s degree in liberal studies – there was an opening on the staff and Ekey became the video coordinator. That is a spot that tends to lead to promotion as the two previous video coordinators are assistant coaches now.

His fourth season at SMU ended last year not far from Dallas either as the Mustangs were in Fort Worth for the AAC Tournament. They were set to play Temple in the first round on March 12 when the news broke the tournament and the rest of the postseason was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a 19-11 record heading into the tournament, it was likely the Mustangs were headed to the postseason again.

“We were ready to get on the bus for a shoot-around and the tournament gets canceled,” Ekey said. “It is hard to go up and tell the guys everything they have worked for is over because of a once-in-a-lifetime-pandemic and they don’t get a chance to play.

“We get on a bus and go home, and we would normally have workouts and practice, and we didn’t see our guys for three months. The university was shut down and we weren’t allowed to go into the office because of a full quarantine. Normally we start on June 1 when summer school starts and the players are back on campus, but that didn’t happen either.”

The Mustangs were picked to finish third in the AAC this year and added 6-foot-10 center Yor Anei from Oklahoma State – a former standout at Lee’s Summit West.

SMU opened the year 6-0 but there were COVID issues a few times. Vanderbilt was forced to cancel a game on Dec. 8 in the AAC/SEC Alliance crossover. Then Tulane had to cancel due to COVID-19 issues in January and last month, South Florida had to call off a game with SMU due to a suspension of activities related to COVID-19. The already crazy season got more crazy when the Tulane makeup game was called off due to a rare ice and snow storm in North Texas.

More:At least 4 dead, 150M people under winter advisories as 'unprecedented' storm stretches across 25 states; 4.3M without power in Texas

Then a COVID outbreak hit the Mustangs, forcing them to call off the rest of the regular season. Six different games were called off and by the time SMU played again – a loss to Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the AAC tournament on Feb. 12 – there was a span of more than 30 days without a game. Two non-conference games also were called off, meaning the Mustangs lost a total of 10 games.

“I felt bad for our guys,” Ekey said. “You want to play as many games as you can because you only get so many college seasons and opportunities to play.”

With an 11-5 record, the Mustangs were one of 16 teams chosen to play in the NIT – which moved from New York City to Frisco and Denton, Texas. The Mustangs were the only Texas team in the field and ideally had a home-court advantage but fell behind 30-9 against Boise State.

The Mustangs took the lead late but Boise State regained it in the final seconds. With 8.7 seconds left, SMU had the ball down a point but a pass inside to Anei was knocked out of his hands and then a scramble for the ball saw the basketball go off a SMU player’s body with 0.4 of a second left.

Boise State escaped and now Ekey and the Mustangs are back to the drawing board hoping for a more normal offseason this year.