On his death bed, Carl Ervin dishes one final assist
On the last day of his life, Carl Ervin did what came natural. It was his finest moment and, yes, that includes his memorable game-winning shot in the 1976 state tournament championship game.
Seattle Times staff columnist
On the last day of his life, Carl Ervin did what came natural. He made others better. Bladder cancer couldn't stop him, not the real him. Through the pain, he remained an unselfish point guard.
This time, there was no basketball to share, however. So Ervin, the former Cleveland High School and Seattle University star, spent Saturday passing his love to friends and family. He made sure everyone knew just how he felt about them. He seemed to be on a mission, and he had no use for complaints or pity or blame.
It was his finest moment and, yes, that includes his memorable game-winning shot in the 1976 state tournament championship game.
"It was an experience that I'll never forget," said Washington men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, who played against Ervin in college, befriended him and visited the hospital the morning Ervin died. "It was, 'How can I make you guys feel better?' He wasn't in that bed saying, 'Woe is me.' He was still entertaining."
Ervin died at about 5 p.m. Saturday. He was 53. He was too young and too likable to die. But he was also too resourceful to live with regret.
I wish I had known him longer, but it seems best to honor Ervin by appreciating that I knew him for a little while. In the past three months, I had the privilege to enjoy two long visits with Ervin to learn about the history of Seattle basketball. One afternoon, we talked for two hours at his house. One morning, we spent five hours at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club with former Franklin High School star Trent Johnson, who is now the LSU men's basketball coach.
Those experiences were invaluable. They turned this vast metropolitan area into a lovable small community. They included jokes about a young Romar, tales of epic pickup games from stars of the 1970s and, of course, arguments over the city's greatest high-school hoops squad — the Cleveland teams that went 50-1 in 1975 and 1976, or the undefeated Garfield High "Super Dogs" of 1974?
"I've had this argument so many times that I've perfected it," Ervin said, smiling. "I know all the countermoves that I need to make. We were the best."
That's the closest Ervin really came to bragging. He was a humble, understated man who used his charisma to make others feel better. He was the consummate point guard. No excessive flash, just results. He was the floor general for those great Cleveland teams, keeping happy a squad blessed with four Division I college players (Jawann Oldham, James Woods and Eli Carter were the others).
The Eagles entered high school with unprecedented hype. They went 88-0 at Asa Mercer Junior High School. They learned how to be stars before they learned how to drive. They won the Class AA state title as juniors; then they moved up to AAA and won again as seniors. In the 1976 state final, Ervin helped the Eagles avenge their only loss of that 50-1 run by making an 18-footer in the closing seconds to claim a 42-41 victory over Tacoma's Lincoln High. He also set a tournament record with 35 assists in four games.
Then Ervin went to Seattle U. from 1976-80 and left the school with 1,304 career points and 534 assists. In 2009, he was inducted into the Seattle U. Hall of Fame.
"His senior year, he was the best guard in the state that did not play for the Sonics," said Romar, who was playing at Washington at the time.
Ervin went on to be a seventh-round draft pick of the Sonics, but he didn't last in the NBA. He became a coach, and his career included bookend jobs as an assistant under the great Al Hairston — first at Seattle U. and finally at O'Dea High School, where he was part of a coaching dream team that also included Steve Hawes.
"His greatest strength may have been that he had an ability to break down walls and communicate," said Hairston, whose résumé includes five state titles at Garfield. "He had an electric personality."
Just as Ervin kept quiet about his accomplishments, he hid his illness. He battled cancer for three years, but he rarely discussed his struggle. He'd rather ask about you or tell a joke. Everyone underestimated how sick he was. He was unfailingly positive, and so was his wife, Penny, a lifelong friend whom he married four years ago.
At the end, Ervin lay in a hospital bed, enjoying Coca-Cola. The medical staff told him that he could only take sips of his preferred beverage, but his friends and family decided to surprise him with a two-liter bottle. Ervin caught them as they tried to smuggle in the treat.
"That's what I'm talkin' about!" he said. "Aww, suki suki now!"
On the last day of Carl Ervin's life, everyone around him laughed. The consummate point guard had saved his most incredible assist for last.
Note: Ervin is survived by his wife, Penny, and 10-year-old daughter, Karlee. Funeral arrangements have yet to be finalized.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org,Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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