PHILADELPHIA—When Jim Ellis was a youngster, his father took him out in a boat and threw him into the lake.
The lesson: Sink or swim.
Terrence Howard, Bernie Mac, Tom Arnold, Regine Nehy, Kevin Phillips
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 27 Mar 2007 (General release); 2007)
Swim he did. Ellis went on to become a competitive swimmer and coach, turning out nationally ranked African-American swimmers from a tiny pool in Philadelphia’s gritty Nicetown neighborhood.
And now, like last year’s underdog Philadelphia sports movie “Invincible,” about bartender-turned-Eagle Vince Papale, Ellis’ tale has been taken on by Hollywood and turned into “Pride,” which stars Terrence Howard as the young Ellis. It opens Friday.
Ellis seems incredulous that his story has made it to the screen. “For 30 years, I’ve tried to get a swimmer on the Olympic team. I have not. If that’s the way they measure a coach, I have not succeeded,” he says.
Who believes that?
“Let’s go!” shouts Ellis, his booming voice echoing off the cinderblock walls. He’s a compact guy of 59, cropped salt-and-pepper hair, stalking the pool in khakis, sweatshirt and deck shoes.
Ask him how long practice will last on this bright, chilly Saturday morning, and a slight smile manages to stretch his stubbly beard: “Till I get tired.”
He looks at the dozen kids crawling through the water and says with respect: “They could be home, watching cartoons.”
In “Pride,” set in 1974, Ellis is hired to shut down Philadelphia’s dilapidated Marcus Foster Recreation Center. After winning over the center’s crotchety janitor (Bernie Mac), Ellis rehabs the pool and whips the neighborhood kids into a championship swim team bearing the name “PDR,” as in Philadelphia Department of Recreation, despite the objections of a city councilwoman (Kimberly Elise), the contempt of a neighborhood thug (Gary Sturgis), and the scorn of a coach from the Main Line (Tom Arnold).
Ellis’ road to Hollywood began in 1990 with a New York Times Magazine cover story about the Junior National Championship meet in Cleveland. Three of Ellis’ swimmers had times among the top six nationally; eight others ranked regionally in the top 10.
“This was something new,” the article said. “While there have been a scattering of black individuals competing on a national level in the past, the PDR squad, coached by Jim Ellis, was by all accounts the largest contingent of black swimmers ever to appear at a national swim meet.”
The article drew white families to the program, which at its peak, in the `90s, had 150 kids. “I didn’t have the resources the white clubs had,” said Ellis, who still relies on dues—about $800 a year plus travel for the top kids—to pay his coaches. Now, he said, he has 25 to 30 swimmers.
The article also piqued the interest of Kevin Michael Smith, who later wrote a script treatment with friend Michael Gozzard. (This being Hollywood, the finished screenplay also carries the names of rewrite men J. Mills Goodloe and Norman Vance Jr.) First-time feature director Sunu Gonera shot the film last year not in Philadelphia but in Louisiana, to save a few bucks and boost the post-Katrina economy. The soundtrack carries gems from the stable of Philadelphia International Records’ Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
The studio points out that “Pride” is “inspired by true events.” Ask Ellis what is true in the movie, and he shoots back: “My name is.”
He laughs heartily.
“I’m honored. I see this as a story about a guy getting kids together and doing something positive.”
The producers, he says, “knew nothing about swimming” when they took on the project.
They saw the story.
“What I see is a chance to bring our story to a lot of nonswimmers—that Afro-Americans can swim,” Ellis says.
Howard, who lives outside Philadelphia in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., spent a month shadowing Ellis. “He has a most magnetic nature,” says Howard. “He’s studying me as a man who wants to play him while I’m studying him ... In order to climb a mountain, you have to know how high it is.”
Ellis grew up in Pittsburgh, and in the mid-1960s went east to Cheyney State, where he swam competitively in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle. He started as a long-term sub at Bartram High in 1971.
While a student at Cheyney, Ellis started as a water safety instructor with the Rec Department, “racing kids every now and then” at the pool, at what is now Sayre-Morris Recreation Center in West Philadelphia. He’d work with the kids who didn’t get picked for basketball.
After the kids learned to swim, he wanted to keep them in the pool. He saw competitive swimming as a mental and physical outlet, a way to develop discipline—so he created a swim team. In 1972 he fielded his first team.
“He set really high goals for us,” says Tracy Freeland, who was one of Ellis’ first kids at Sayre. Freeland, now 39, teaches health and physical education at University City High and is Ellis’ assistant. Freeland’s three daughters—ages 17, 9 and 6—now swim on the team.
Freeland recalls one meet at which he was entered in eight events. Ellis promised Freeland a Wendy’s Frosty dessert for each win. Two years later, Ellis finally paid up: eight Frosties.
Ellis moved on to Foster when its pool opened in 1980 (a few years after the Hollywood version).
Ellis, who earned a master’s degree from Temple, also became a full-time math teacher at Edison, Chester, Germantown, Central, Overbrook, Tilden Middle School, and most recently Bodine.
Ellis’ dual careers collided in 1994 when he and 15 other Rec Department employees were identified in a department audit as also being on the school district or some other city payroll—a violation of the City Charter. Ellis was told that he had to give up one job. When word got out, an outcry ensued. “It got settled” is all Ellis will say about how he still has both jobs. He also sidesteps questions about his personal life; he is separated and has a 31-year-old son.
He began a sabbatical from the school district Feb. 1 so he could promote the film. He’s also undergoing laser treatments on his eyes, which have been affected by diabetes.
As a high schooler in Pittsburgh, Ellis said, he went to try out for the swim team. When he showed up at the pool, the white coaches assumed he wanted to wrestle or lift weights. “They told me, `The gym is across the hall.’ “
Though PDR is a national success—and Ellis is popular on the swimming circuit—he says he’s never been offered a college job. (In the movie, Ellis is turned down for a job at the all-white “Main Line Academy.”) Ellis will not say whether he thinks racism is at work.
So Ellis stays at Foster, working part time. To anyone who will listen, he argues that Philadelphia kids deserve better swimming facilities, regardless of where they live in the city.
In the summer, the team trains in Kelly Pool in West Fairmount Park, which is a regulation 50 meters.
Ellis has been hoping for decades for someone to fund a 50-meter indoor pool, but he’s made do with the 25-yard pool at Foster, where the roof leaks, a garden hose pumps in warm water, and a drippy overhead pipe oozes roof drainage into the diving tank.
The actor Howard, who swam as a youngster, is appalled at Foster. “It’s like a long-distance runner only being able to have a block to train,” he says.
Ellis walks alongside the pool during practice, nibbling on a McDonald’s hash brown he mooched from a kid. “People don’t want to swim for me because I’m crazy,” he says. “People can’t keep up with the regimen. The program is not for everybody.”
His top kids show up before dawn three days a week. They swim two hours, go to school, return to the pool, and swim till dark. They’re expected to get good grades. “The parents have to get involved. It’s a family program, a lot of car pools, time management,” he says.
Stacy Lopez, waiting in Foster’s anteroom for her son Stefan McKell, says the 14-year-old was a good swimmer in Trinidad, where they’re from. Friends told her, “You need to get him to Jim Ellis.” Three mornings a week, they leave their West Philadelphia home to get a bus at 4 a.m. so they can get to the concrete building at Germantown Avenue and Staub Street by 5.
For eight years, Angel Cherry has made the drive from Northeast Philadelphia for her daughter Cynara Cherry-Cary, now 15. “It builds character,” Cherry says. She’s referring to her daughter, too.
“... I have not succeeded.”
Ellis’ own words.
Despite the pool’s shortcomings, Ellis’ work has paid off. Virtually all of his top swimmers have gone to college on scholarships. Tracy Freeland got a four-year ticket to Howard University. Many of his kids have high-powered careers. Ryan Smith, a top swimmer during the `80s, is a New York entertainment lawyer. Trevor Freeland, Tracy’s brother, is an executive with Deutsche Bank in New York.
“If you’re disciplined at swimming, you tend to be more disciplined in other areas of your life,” said Monica McCollum, a New York-based writer for Town & Country who had Ellis for algebra at Central and managed the swim team there.
“He’s from the old school,” says Tracy Freeland, his assistant. “He won’t bite his tongue for anybody. He’s not willing to change his philosophy to please people.”