March 6, 2013
When local baby boomers talk about some of the best basketball players to ever come out of the area – the name of Matewan’s Jerry Epling is sure to pop up.
Epling was a sharp-shooting guard who suited up for the Tigers from 1962 to 1966.
Epling was known to be one of the best long distance shooters to ever come out of Mingo County. He went on to play at the University of Georgia in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
“I lived right across the street from the old gymnasium in downtown Matewan,” Epling recalled. “I practically lived in the gym from the time I was 7-years old.”
Epling became a ‘gym rat’ and learned and practiced his craft on the old Magnolia High School hardwood.
“I just loved basketball,” Epling said in a phone interview from his Georgia home. “It’s all I wanted to do.”
Epling said he really wasn’t interested in any sport other than basketball. So it was nothing to see him dribbling a basketball down the street. He practically slept in the gym.
As he got older the coach gave him and his brother a key and there were constant pickup games in the historic gym.
By the time he reached the 9th grade at Matewan, he made the varsity squad. His coach was Jim Melmige and the assistant was the late Jack Elkins.
“He was the best I ever coached,” Melmige said. “If they would have had the 3-point shot back then, it’s hard to tell how many points he would have scored.”
Epling averaged around 35 points per game his junior and senior seasons. A knee injury slowed him some during his final year of high school, Melmige recalled.
“He was a great player and so was his brother Terry,” Melmige said. Terry Epling also received a college scholarship and played four years at Pikeville College. “Terry was a great player too.”
Jerry and his older sibling Terry got to play one year together in high school. Terry was a senior and Jerry a freshman in 1962.
After his senior season at Matewan, Epling played in the premier high school all-star game in the country, the Dapper Dan Classic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He started in that game with future All-American and NBA star Calvin Murphy. Many other future college and NBA greats played in this nationally known all-star game.
Epling said his team scored well over 100 points and beat the other team, which was made up of all-stars from the state of Pennsylvania.
Melmige recalled one game when Epling fired in 49 points against Class AAA Logan. That Wildcat squad went on to win the state championship.
After graduating from Magnolia High in Matewan, Epling decided to attend Georgia.
He briefly thought about attending Pikeville College to play with his brother, but the lure of playing Division one hoops in the famed SEC was too much of a draw for this country boy from the tiny town of Matewan.
He was recruited by a lot of schools including West Virginia and Marshall, but he said Georgia wanted him more than any other school. So how did Georgia hear about a player from a small rural school in the mountains of West Virginia?
Epling gives the credit to former Matewan teacher and coach Denny Jude. “He was taking classes down at Georgia one summer,” Epling recalled. “He saw some of the Georgia players playing.” Jude told the college coach that he knew a player back home better than anyone he had playing for the Bulldogs at that time.
So Georgia contacted him and continued to pursue the Mingo County native. “I got more interest from them than any other school,” Epling said.
So the rest is history. He went to Georgia and was All SEC by his junior and senior seasons in 1969 and 1970.
He averaged 18 points per game as a junior and 12 as a senior. He became more of a point guard his final season, according to Melmige.
While playing at Georgia, Epling went up against the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer in “Pistol” Pete Maravich. He also played against Kentucky and their All-American Dan Issel and many other greats in the SEC.
Epling recalls his team going up against Adolph Rupp, the legendary coach of the UK Wildcats.
Epling played in what many call Maravich’s greatest game. On March 8, 1969, LSU and Maravich was playing Georgia. Pistol Pete scored 58 points in a 90-80 double-overtime win over Georgia. But Epling recalls how the Bulldogs held Maravich in check the first half.
The LSU All-American came in averaging 43 points per game. He only had 16 in the first half.
Georgia had a 15 point lead early in the second half.
But in the second half, Maravich, coached by his father Press Maravich, took over the game for LSU.
He scored 17 points in a row, mostly on long-range jumpers from all over the court to give LSU a two-point lead. The Bulldogs were able to extend the game only because of Epling’s long-range jumper with four seconds left. Then, after playing to a 78-all tie in the first overtime, Maravich made a basket and tied the game. Maravich scored 11 of the Tigers’ 12 points in the second overtime. If there had been a 3-point shot at that time, many think Maravich would have scored 75.
He finished the game by dribbling out much of the clock with his mastered ball-handling skills.
Epling is now retired and he and his wife Beth have been living in Georgia for 39 years. He has worked in real estate and in the insurance business.
They will soon be moving back to the Athens, Georgia area, which is where the University of Georgia is located.
Epling has many fond memories of his days growing up in Matewan.
He doesn’t have any memorabilia from the 1960s. He recalls how his family’s home was inundated by flood waters from the Tug River back in 1963.
“My family lost everything we had,” he recalled. He remembers coach Melmige opening his home to him after the flood. He went to stay with him for a few nights in Williamson after the disaster.
Epling was surprised when told that his name still comes up when locals talk about the high school basketball legends from years past.
But he shouldn’t be – Epling was one of the greatest to ever play on the local hardwood courts. And he will long be remembered.