By John Gillis
One of the nation’s all-time greatest high school shooting guards was Ervin Stepp, who played his sophomore season at Sheldon Clark (Kentucky) High School and his junior and senior seasons at Phelps (Kentucky) High School.
At Sheldon Clark, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Stepp averaged a respectable 18 points a game as he helped lead the team to its best record in school history (24-4). A very accurate shooter, he shot 65 percent from the field and also averaged five rebounds and four assists.
However, it was during his final two high school seasons that Stepp put up some really astonishing scoring numbers.
As a junior in 1978-79, he averaged 47.3 points per game, which broke the Kentucky single-season scoring record of 46.8 points per game set by Kelly “King” Coleman” of Wayland High School during the 1955-56 season. Amazingly, Stepp’s scoring average led both the state of Kentucky and the nation, and it still ranks eighth all-time according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ online multimedia National High School Sports Record Book. For good measure, he averaged 11 rebounds and five assists, and set the state record for most free throws in a season. For his efforts, he was named first-team all-state.
As incredible as it might sound, Stepp actually increased his scoring average as a senior in 1979-80, when he averaged an eye-popping 53.7 points a game. In addition, he averaged 10 rebounds and five assists.
That winter, Stepp waged a torrid unofficial national scoring battle with 5-9, 125-pound Bobby Joe Douglas of Marion (Louisiana) High School, who averaged a national-record 54.0 points a game. Given that it was the “pre-Internet” era and national media coverage wasn’t as sophisticated back then, Stepp’s awareness of Douglas was somewhat limited.
“I didn’t know anything about him at the time,” Stepp said. “For that reason, we didn’t have any sort of ‘scoring competition’ between us. He wasn’t a big player, but he was a good player.”
During his varsity career, Stepp averaged 40.4 points a game, which ranks No. 2 nationally. Helping bolster his scoring average is the fact that Stepp was able to both attempt and make a high number of free throws. As a senior, he connected on 357 of 429 free-throw attempts, both of which rank No. 2 all time.
Stepp’s career at Phelps started out extremely well, as he scored 50 points in his first game as a junior. In what might be construed as an effort to prove that game wasn’t just a fluke, Stepp followed it up with a 68-point road game against Millard, a game that he regards to be his personal best.
“I missed only six field goals (made 28-of-34 attempts), made 12-of-14 free throws and had 17 rebounds in that game,” Stepp recalled. “What a lot of people don’t realize is I shot a really high percentage and also averaged 14 free throws a game my senior year. Those helped bolster my scoring averages.
“Although they didn’t have the three-point shot back then, I did have great shooting range. Many years later as a 35-year-old in a semi-pro league, I averaged eight three-point field goals a game.
Stepp finished his junior year at Phelps with 1,275 points and scored 1,449 points as a senior. He still holds 42 state records, which is the best in Kentucky high school boys basketball. Following his senior season, he was chosen Kentucky Mr. Basketball and was named to the McDonald’s and Converse High School All-American teams. He subsequently played college basketball at Eastern Kentucky University and Alice Lloyd College (Kentucky).
Although it’s been 33 years since he graduated from high school, Stepp’s name still peppers the state and national record books. However, he keeps in all in perspective.
“I live in the moment,” Stepp said. “Back then, I never thought about the scoring records. Something I didn’t realize at the time was throughout the entire history of high school, college and professional basketball, nobody else had averaged more points for two consecutive seasons. It’s kind of neat to remember those days.”
Stepp had the dual benefit of growing up in a basketball family with three brothers who were also standout players and a father who helped mold them.
“My brother Joe, who was 6-5½, led the state of Kentucky in scoring in 1971 and 1972,” Stepp explained. “Jim, who was 6-3, led the state in scoring in 1978. Although not blessed with great size, Gary averaged 25 points a game in 1982 and was a great assist man.
“We had unbelievable pick-up games growing up. They were real knock-down, drag-out games. We had the advantage of having that great talent right there in our home. I remember our mom at the kitchen table always told us to quit arguing over the games.
“My father, Joe, who passed away in 1999, was a welder and an electrician. He was also my best friend. Using the skills of his profession, he would take regulation 18-inch diameter basketball rims and cut them down to 16 inches and 13 inches, and then mount them in our back yard. That’s what we grew up on and that’s how my shooting improved – having to score in a smaller target.”
For Stepp, his high school and college basketball careers were really just the beginning of his remarkable story. At age 43, he was involved in a terrible auto accident that nearly cost him his life.
On that fateful night, Stepp had played in a basketball game in Huntington, Kentucky, in which he made nine three-point field goals. Given that it was one of his best recent performances, he was very excited. As he came within a half-mile of his home on his return trip, he fell asleep at the wheel and became involved in a crash. Stepp was thrown airborne from that, his vertebrae snapped in two places and his left arm was virtually destroyed.
Fortunately, a young boy happened to be outside at the time, heard the noise of the crash and came to see what had happened. Since it was a remote area with little traffic and it was late at night, Stepp might not have survived absent the presence of the boy.
Stepp was taken to the hospital, during which time his left arm went 11 hours with no blood flow. As such, the doctors removed a vein from his left leg and placed it into his left arm. The doctors informed Stepp’s family that he could possibly die, and added that if he did survive, there was a possibility that he could become paralyzed due to the fact that his back was broken in two places. They also advised him that it was possible that he could also lose his left arm. Stepp was in a coma for five days before recovering consciousness. Amazingly, Stepp enjoyed a miraculous recovery.
“God spared me that night,” Stepp said. “I guess it wasn’t my time to go yet. I was actually back playing again about a year later.”
In perhaps an appropriate coincidence, Stepp now owns and operates Ashland Prosthetics in Ashland, Kentucky. Stepp and his wife of 27 years, Teresa, are the proud parents of three daughters – Chelsea, 20; Tori, 14; and Cammi Jo, 13.
“I am most proud of my children,” Stepp said. “I am also proud to have been raised by Christian parents. My mom is 80 now and is a special lady.”
At 205 pounds today and only slightly above his high school playing weight, Stepp still possesses the burning passion to lace up his sneakers and to take to the basketball court.
“I still love to play the game – I’ve never lost that,” Stepp said. “One of the great things about sports is they enable you to be able to have a positive influence on young kids. These days, I enjoy that part of it too.”
John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at email@example.com