Ellis Paige and his son, Marcus, talk often and the elder Paige said recently that “I text him every day of his life – always on the positive side.”
And yet these days, remaining completely positive has been more challenging than usual. Marcus Paige, the North Carolina senior guard who for the past two seasons has been the Tar Heels’ most important player, is in the midst of a confounding slump he has never experienced before.
Paige earlier this season set the UNC record for most career 3-pointers. He entered his slump having made at least one 3-pointer in 41 consecutive games, a school record. Now he hasn’t made a 3 in three consecutive games and he has missed 30 of his past 35 attempts from the field, overall.
Before this slump began, Paige had never gone more than two games without making a 3-pointer.
UNC coach Roy Williams has never seen Paige miss shots like he has the past two weeks. Neither have Paige’s teammates. And neither have his parents, Ellis and Sherryl, who are back in Paige’s hometown of Marion, Iowa, waiting, like everyone else, for the shots to start falling.
They know it will happen. They know it’s only a matter of time. Yet this is something new for them, too – watching a sport that for so long has come so easily to their son all of a sudden turn cruelly difficult.
“It’s tough on us to watch,” Ellis Paige said by phone earlier this week, “because we’ve never seen it before. This is his (final college season) and he’s had a few setbacks. But I still feel like the best is yet to come. That’s his history. He’s a gamer. He’s a gamer.”
Only once in the past week or so someone approached Ellis and asked him about Marcus. The question, Ellis said with a laugh, referenced Paige’s continued shooting woes and went something like this: “What’s up with that?”
It’s a question with which UNC fans can likely relate, and one that Paige’s teammates and coaches have asked themselves in their own way. And there is no answer, no way to make sense of how one of the best shooters in UNC’s storied basketball history can all of a sudden go cold just like that.
During a 106-90 victory at Florida State on Jan. 4, Paige scored 30 points and made five of his nine 3-point attempts. In the four games since he has missed 21 of his 22 3-pointers.
Coached by mom, dad
Ellis and his wife, who was a successful high school girls basketball coach, taught their only son how to play the game. The fundamentals came first – dribbling, shooting and the proper mechanics and form for all of it.
Shooting came naturally to Marcus. It has always been one of his strengths, which makes it all the more frustrating that his normal shooting ability has abandoned him during the past four games.
“To be honest, ever since second grade, this is probably his first slump, shooting-wise and making a basket-wise,” Ellis said.
Ellis coached Marcus from second grade through eighth grade. His mom, the most decorated coach in the family, provided plenty of guidance and teaching, as well, both for Marcus and his sister, Morgan, who played basketball at Wisconsin.
Now Paige’s parents are mostly spectators. Or they’re trying to be, anyway.
“In terms of the shooting the slump, what we’ve been doing with Marcus is keeping a safe distance and letting him go through the whole process by himself,” Ellis said.
Which doesn’t mean they haven’t offered advice or criticism here and there. There was one moment during UNC’s victory against Virginia Tech on Sunday that bothered Ellis, in particular.
It came after Paige missed a shot and for a brief moment his body slumped. The emotion and disappointment was evident on his face, if only for a second or two.
“Man,” Ellis said he told his son, repeating the story in the nicest way possible, “Your body language on that was horrible.”
Sherryl is the shooting expert in the Paige household, and also “the heart and soul of the family,” Ellis said. Paige’s recent shooting failures have been especially difficult on her.
She has reminded Marcus to “stick the goose neck,” which is the phrase she uses to emphasize the importance of the follow-through on a jump shot. The idea is that the proper follow-through will leave the shooting hand pointing down, in the shape of a goose’s neck.
“She always tells the kids, ‘Hold it,’ ” Ellis said, referencing the follow-through. “He’s just got to stick the goose neck, and she’s right.”
Focusing on other parts of the game
A lot of what Paige has discussed lately with his parents, though, doesn’t have much to do with shooting or the slump. Ellis might ask his son how he’s doing with it all and Marcus will respond with a quick and simple assurance that he’s fine.
The victory at Virginia Tech was the first time Paige showed some outward frustration – the first time that he appeared visibly upset at the uncommon sight of the basketball bouncing off of the rim, again and again. Afterward he answered some of the same questions he has now for the past two weeks.
“It’s not any different than it has been,” Paige said. “I always feel like the next one is going in. Hasn’t been the case but I stayed aggressive, I made some plays to Brice (Johnson) late so I was happy with the way I played. … I was good defensively, got some steals, and just played solid all around.”
That’s what he has attempted to focus on: the timely assist or the valuable defensive play or the important rebound. Paige earned UNC’s defensive player of the game award at Virginia Tech and Williams has been quick to point out all the good things Paige has continued to do.
There’s something bigger to all of this, too, even amid all of the missed shots: Paige is in the final weeks and months of doing what he always dreamed of when he grew up a UNC fan back in Iowa.
“He puts it into perspective,” Ellis said. “He said he’s a young man playing the game he loves to play.”
Still, Ellis is waiting for his son to transform back into his normal self on the court. There is at least one sign that it’s coming: Ellis said his son earlier this week sent a picture back home featuring a shorter, sleeker haircut – the one he has worn when he has played his best. Maybe there’s something to it.
“I think you’re going to see the baby-face killer again,” Ellis said with a laugh, offering a contrast to the menacing-sounding nickname, “because he looks like a little kid again. When he goes to that haircut, that’s his game cut – he’s all business.”