CHAMPAIGN — Ask Jon Ekey to meet at Chipotle, Wendy’s or any other Campustown eatery and he can make it there, on his own, in short order.
“I know where most of the food places are around here,” he says.
But have him meet at the Alma Mater, Krannert or any other campus landmark and the Illinois State transfer has to call on one of his new Illinois basketball teammates to serve as tour guide.
“I can get to the Union. Does that count?” he says.
Ekey likely will never fully get the lay of the land during his time at Illinois. And it’s not just because he’s here for one year playing out his final season of eligibility for John Groce’s Illini.
While Ekey arrived in June after earning a bachelor’s degree from Illinois State, while he took an eight-week UI course during the summer while going through basketball workouts, while he’s been enrolled in classes for the first month of the fall semester ... he’s never set foot in a UI classroom.
“It’s weird when everyone’s talking about class or something was going on in the quad, I don’t even really know where that is. I’ve only been there a couple times,” he said.
Like Sam McLaurin and Sam Maniscalco before him, Ekey is finishing his college basketball career as a grad student at Illinois. The course load for his sports management master’s degree is exclusively online.
So Ekey wakes up as early or late as he pleases, walks two steps from the double bed against the wall to the desk in the bedroom of the John Street apartment he shares with teammate Ahmad Starks and — voila! — he’s in class.
“It’s a little weird. I was used to getting up and having the 8 a.m. classes and 9 a.m. classes, so it’s weird when I see my schedule and I don’t have any times listed until 2 p.m,” Ekey said. “It’s nice because I worked hard for four years of college and put in all that work. It’s nice to be able to work at my own pace now.”
It’s a nice setup for Ekey.
He can set up shop in his bedroom classroom, complete with a laptop, black desk and whiteboard hanging on the wall with a to-do list of assignments for the two classes he’s taking this semester — marketing and human resources. Or he can commute to the living room and plop down on one of the green couches occupying space in his and Starks’ common area.
“I get up about 8:30 or 9, depending on the class time. He’s a lucky man,” Starks said of Ekey. “His door is closed and he’s in there sleeping. I bet that’s nice. It would be great to have that schedule. I’ve been doing heavy work all summer and Jon’s in there doing online work. But he’s earned it. He’s graduated, so kudos to him.”
Make no mistake, Ekey is serious about academics. A two-time pick for the Missouri Valley’s All-Scholar-Athlete team, Ekey isn’t letting up despite the different classroom setting.
“I think he is enjoying the setup,” Jill Ekey said of her son. “But he knows it’s important, that’s why he graduated in four years from Illinois State. Having this last year to get his master’s in something he really likes and being at a place he really enjoys is a win-win for him.”
On a typical day, Ekey wakes up and he checks his emails for assignments and feedback on work he’s already completed. He whips up breakfast in his state-of-the art kitchen complete with upscale appliances and granite countertops. He watches “SportsCenter” before retreating to his classroom/bedroom to get work done before basketball workouts in the afternoon.
“Normally in the morning I’ll work on my marketing class and then I’ll take a little break. In the afternoon, before workouts start, I’ll work on my HR class so that way I can split it up so that I’m not getting everything confused,” he said. “I try to keep it a little spaced out so that it’s like I’m going to marketing class. But I’m just here.”
Aside from attending basketball workouts, the 6-foot-7 sharpshooter could probably experience a full day without leaving the grounds of the swanky apartment complex where all the Illinois basketball upperclassmen live.
Ekey can get some fresh air on his fourth-floor balcony or spend some time in the spacious courtyard, complete with a half-dozen gas grills and two Illinois-themed sets of cornhole. Or he could make use of his Netflix account to watch movies.
“I really enjoy the old comedies with Mel Brooks or Gene Wilder, those always make me laugh,” he said.
About the only thing he can’t do there is hang out by the pool — there isn’t one there. He tried to spend an off day at the ARC pool this summer but was denied admission because of his status as an online student.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal, but it would have been nice,” Ekey said.
Jon is the youngest of Jill Ekey’s three sons. Mike, 28, and Geoff, 25, picked on their little brother growing up just outside Kansas City in Independence, Mo. A family joke when Jon was a child was that he had an exceptionally large head. To have fun at the youngster’s expense, Jill, Mike and Geoff dressed Jon as Charlie Brown for Halloween when he was 2.
“Thankfully he grew into it, his head doesn’t seem so big anymore,” Jill said while hardly containing her laughter.
Geoff, an architect in Kansas City, remembers one Christmas when Jon received an Aladdin outfit as a gift.
“He literally wore that thing for a week straight,” Geoff said. “He had the hat and everything.”
But Geoff and Jon, only being separated in age by a couple of years, spent quality time together growing up. Jon played soccer because he wanted to be with Geoff.
“He was actually a great goalie. His athleticism was amazing and he had no prior goalie training at all,” Geoff said. “I was actually a center defender and we were kind of the last defense on the goal. That just made us closer. That was my sport and it was fun to have him around when I was there.”
It wasn’t until high school that Jon began to surpass Geoff as an athlete. Before that, Jon would get mad because Geoff was always a little bigger, a little faster and a little stronger.
“Now, when we play pickup basketball, he’s getting me back and he dunks on me now. It’s not even fair,” said the 6-2 Geoff. Still, big brother holds a trump card.
“I think there’s a first-day-of-school picture from sixth grade or seventh grade where he’s wearing a Winnie the Pooh T-shirt,” Geoff said. “He loved Winnie the Pooh.”
Ekey had success early in his Illinois State career. After sitting out as a freshman, Ekey started 57 of 66 games for Tim Jankovic’s Redbirds during his first two seasons, averaging a career-best 9.0 games as a sophomore and shooting 41 percent from behind the three-point line.
His production tailed off last season in a new system under coach Dan Muller.
“The style of play is similar to what we played our last year at Illinois State,” said Illinois assistant coach Paris Parham, who was on the Redbirds’ staff during Ekey’s first three years in Normal. “We set a lot of ball screens and he’s really used to that. He’s just now getting comfortable again to play his game as a pick-and-pop guy. He’s athletic, can make plays around the rim.”
Don’t let Ekey’s boyish looks and baby face fool you. He’s a freak of an athlete who can make highlight-reel dunks if given the opportunity.
“He’ll definitely surprise you with that,” Starks said. “He’s already caught some of the freshmen going baseline with some tip dunks.”
Ekey himself downplays his dunking ability, though his teammates are urging him to participate in a dunk contest at the Illini Street Jam on Friday.
“I’m just a guy who works hard and does the little things. Whatever Coach needs me to do, I’ll do it,” he said. “I won’t take any plays off, diving on the floor, taking charges. Just doing whatever I need to do.”
Something else the Illinois teammates want to see Saturday: Ekey’s dance moves.
During a Midnight Madness event, the team was broken up into teams of dancers in a competition. Ekey went last and his version of “The Jerk” was a crowd-pleaser.
“He was the secret weapon,” Parham said. “He really can dance, you wouldn’t believe it just looking at him. Imagine Jon Ekey with hat on backwards doing ‘The Jerk.’ I’m serious, he can really dance.”
Geoff has attended plenty of weddings and family functions with Jon. He knows nothing about what Parham has seen.
“He’s the whitest guy you will ever meet. I don’t think of him as a good dancer at all,” Geoff said. “Maybe when he went to Illinois State he picked up a few moves.”
Ekey raves about his experience with the Illini.
“It’s just such a great group of guys, Coach Groce really brought in great guys and the guys who were here before him are all great guys, too,” Ekey said. “It’s really just a fun locker room to be a part of.”
No matter what Jill Ekey’s boys were doing, she always had one simple question for them: “Are you having fun?”
“If you’re not having fun, then it’s time to do something else,” she said.
In speaking to Jon regularly about his experiences at Illinois, she doesn’t even have to ask. She knows the answer.
“He loves his teammates, the coaches have been great to him and he’s been overwhelmed by the fan support,” she said. “It’s probably the easiest transition he’s ever made to a new team.”
Maybe one of those rabid Illinois fans can get him a campus map.
Five dates to remember
Illini Street Fest
Illinois’ answer to Midnight Madness is a unique event sure to get the students involved.
Orange and Blue Scrimmage
Three weeks before season opener is first chance for fans to see 2013-14 squad in gamelike environment.
The preseason game against McKendree will be our first chance to see Champaign’s Rayvonte Rice in an Illinois uniform playing against another program.
Cliff Alexander visit
Five-star Chicago big man is scheduled to make an official visit to the UI campus, his fifth after stops at DePaul, Arizona, Kansas and Memphis.
On the first day Michael Finke, Leron Black and Quentin Snider can sign letters of intent, Illinois’ class should be rated among the 10 best in the nation.