When you talk about the best basketball players to ever lace up the tennis shoes and hit the hardwood in this region – the name of Ervin Stepp is sure to come up.
Ervin is a legend when it comes to high school basketball in eastern Kentucky. Raised near Warfield, Ky. in nearby Martin County, Ervin moved to Phelps, Ky. to play his junior and senior seasons when his older brother Joe was named head coach for the Hornets back in 1978.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Ervin is one of the greatest scorers in the annals of high school hoops, not only in Kentucky, but in the nation.
His junior season he broke the old season scoring average held by the great “King” Kelly Coleman. Ervin fired in 48 points per game in the 1978-79 season. Coleman averaged 47 back in the 1955-56 season.
Then he topped that with an incredible 54 game average his senior season. That easily led the nation in scoring.
And this was before the 3-point shot came into the game.
Many of those who witnessed Ervin’s incredible play know that many of his shots came from downtown. Once he crossed midcourt, he was ready to fire up one of his patented jump shots.
Not only did he swish shots from long range, the 6-3 sharpshooter also had enough hops to enable him to dunk the ball.
Ervin scored an incredible 2,724 points in only two seasons at Phelps. During his sophomore season, he played at Sheldon Clark with his brother Jimmy and averaged 19 ppg.
Stepp has many fond memories from his high school days at Phelps.
He remembers sitting in a classroom in high school and having a reporting crew from CBS come in and film him for a national telecast.
Ervin won the Mr. Basketball award for the Bluegrass State in 1980. Major college coaches were driving the back roads of Pike County and surrounding areas to watch Stepp play. He was recruited by Kentucky, Auburn, Virginia Tech and other Division One schools.
Ervin grew up playing against his older brothers and his later father Joe, Sr.
His brother Joe, the oldest, led the state in scoring in 1971 and 1972 when he played for the old Warfield High School. Jim led the state in scoring in 1978 playing for Sheldon Clark.
I shot over 55 percent from the field and averaged 14 points a game at the free throw line, Ervin said. He shot 83 percent at the charity stripe.
During his days at Phelps he scored over 60 points in a game at least five times and once scored 75 against Feds Creek. Many times he was double and triple-teamed.
He describes his late father as ahead of his time in teaching basketball and his uncle Orville, who played at Marshall during the mid-1960s, was a great player during his era. His dad was a welder and made the backyard rim smaller for him and his brothers. With this philosophy, when they shot on regulation goals, it was easier for them to make shots.
“Wish we would have patented that idea,” Ervin said. “We use to go to carnivals and not have any trouble. They wouldn’t let us keep playing.” The carny games are notorious for having smaller rims in their sideshow games.
Ervin said those hard-fought family backyard battles on a dirt court helped him tune-up his game. “We used to get my dad’s mining light and put it on top of his truck and shine it on the goal,” Ervin recalls. “We would play well after dark until my mom would finally make us go in the house.”
He played on some semi-pro teams, finally getting to shoot from behind the arc. He was recruited by the late Rick Huckabee to play on one such team in Huntington when he was in his mid-30s. He averaged making about eight 3-pointers a game for that team, he recalls proudly. “That is why he recruited me,” Ervin said.
In July of 2005, Ervin almost lost his life in a bad traffic accident. Oddly, he had been to Spring Valley High School near Huntington playing in an independent league game and it was late when the game was over. On his drive home he fell asleep at the wheel. He was driving a jeep with the top off and went off the road into a culvert.
“I don’t remember a lot,” Ervin said. “It was a horrible wreck. I broke two vertebrae in my back and nearly lost my left arm.”
He was flown to the University of Kentucky Hospital for treatment and surgery.
Ervin’s arm was severely injured and doctors ended up having to take a vein from his leg and transplant it to his arm. He lost his left index finger and thumb. He nearly had to have the arm amputated.
“It’s ironic, considering the business I’m in and what I do for a living,” Ervin said of almost losing his arm. “It was one miracle after another miracle.”
Ervin operates Ashland Prosthetics & Orthotics Services in nearby Ashland, Ky. He has been there for 12 years and the business has been around for 21 years. Ervin travels throughout the region marketing the products.
Less than a year after the surgery, Ervin was back playing in an independent league tournament. He is right handed, so his shooting was not affected, but other parts of his game were more difficult. Ervin even entered a 3-point shooting contest at the basketball event and finished in second place.
“I can still play ball. I could have been paralyzed,” Ervin said. “I could have bled to death. “ If not for a young college student – who normally wasn’t home from school – had not heard something during the nighttime accident, he may have well died in that jeep. Ervin said that was another miracle.
The young man called 911 and Ervin was just conscious long enough to give the teenager his home phone number so he could contact his wife.
Ervin first played at Eastern Kentucky University where his brother Jimmy had transferred. Jimmy had first played at George Washington University in D.C. His last year was spent at Alice Lloyd College where his brother Joe had been named coach.
Now 51 years old, Ervin still finds time in his busy schedule to play some basketball, run and workout.
“I love it as much as I ever did,” Ervin said of basketball. The sport is ingrained in his soul.
“My love for the game has never changed,” Ervin concluded. “It will always be a part of me.”
Ervin Stepp’s legacy will always be a part of the history of the Tug Valley area. His records have stood a lifetime and will likely never be surpassed.
(Kyle Lovern is the sports editor and a columnist for the Williamson Daily News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)