PHELPS, Ky. – When walking into the old Phelps High School gymnasium it seems like you have entered a time machine and traveled back to another era.
It is small and only seats a few hundred fans. There are only about four rows of bleachers on each side. Balcony seats were later built over top of the bottom row of bleachers. But they didn’t add that many seats.
“We called it the old Alamo,” said Bert Hatfield, a longtime Phelps resident and former basketball star for the Hornets. “That was because of the way it looked on the outside.”
The outside is made of rustic, coarse looking stone. The facility was built in the 1940s. It was later named the Charles “Poke” Wolford Gym, who was a longtime janitor at the facility, and used to unlock the doors for the boys so to go in and play basketball.
“If you had any association with sports in this community, you knew Charlie Poke,” Hatfield said with a smile. “He just passed away a few months ago.”
Once you step inside the narrow doors, it is reminiscent of the old gym used in filming the movie “Hoosiers.”
Hatfield, like many others, spent countless hours practicing, playing pick-up games and firing up shots from the old hardwood floor.
“This was a home for me,” Hatfield said. “I can say that sports contributed to my success in life. It was a passion for me – it was my whole world.”
“Honestly, I liked basketball probably better than anything,” Hatfield said, who has been a longtime deputy sheriff in Pike County.
Hatfield reminisced while looking around the old gymnasium. You could almost hear the echoes of the basketball bouncing off the floor and the fans cheering for their home team.
“The gym was always full,” Hatfield recalled. “But back then, that was all there was to do. Everybody went to the ballgames on Friday or Saturday nights.”
“It was a big deal to go to a game back then,” Hatfield added. “I’m amazed now that when I go to a lot of games, they don’t draw a crowd.”
Going to a local gym to see their high school play was a social event for most of the citizens in the hamlets and hollows of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia.
Hatfield pointed to a spot on the floor where he made a 65-foot shot at the buzzer to win a game for Phelps. He said the principal at that time, John Cromer, drove a nail into the floor to mark the spot of the incredible shot.
The story of the principal putting the nail in the floor made the paper. “I remember for years people would see me and say ‘are you that guy who hit that shot’ and then they drove a nail in the floor to mark that spot.”
“It just tells you how people around here followed basketball and remember games like that,” Hatfield said modestly.
“I remember the shot,” Hatfield recalls. “I just got the ball from out of bounds, turned and shot it at the buzzer.”
Hatfield said the shot won the game, but he can’t remember who the Hornets were playing that winter night back in 1967.
“There are so many memories in the place,” said Hatfield. “I can remember when Jack Cunningham was coach, he would have to come and get us in a jeep during the winter months so we could practice because the snow would be so deep.”
Players didn’t have cars or trucks back during that era and many lived in very rural areas, with narrow hollow roads.
Hatfield was not only a star at Phelps, but he was one of the area’s best players. He brought with him old Williamson Daily News clippings that his mother had saved.
One article proclaimed him as having the area’s top scoring average. Hatfield, who graduated in 1967, fired in 27 point per game. Other recognizable names on the list included Williamson High all-stater James Hambrick and Matewan sharpshooter Raymond Joplin. During this period in time, there were probably 25 high schools included in the coverage area. So leading the area in scoring was an impressive feat.
“I can remember about every night of my life, if this gym was open, I would be here,” Hatfield recalled with fondness.
“On Sunday’s we would hitchhike to Matewan,” Hatfield said. “Coach Melmidge (Jim) had given Jerry Epling a key and we would go down there and play in that old gym.”
Epling was a basketball star and one of the area’s best shooters. Hatfield and others say that Epling and former Phelps star Ervin Stepp may be the best shooters to ever come out of this area.
“Jerry was probably as pure a shooter as I ever saw,” Hatfield said. “But, Ervin was phenomenal.”
Both played before the era of the 3-point shot, but their scoring averages were extraordinary.
Hatfield received a scholarship to Pikeville College, but as “an old country boy,” found it tough to adjust playing with and against players from the city and other parts of the country.
The gym will likely be torn down once the new middle school and gymnasium is finished. That facility is being built next to the newer Phelps High School and McCoy Athletic Complex. The old structure has continued to serve as the elementary and middle school building over the last three decades.
Hatfield, like a few others, is very sentimental about the old gym. “This was my life,” he said. “I hung out here so much.”
“But, I guess everything has to come to an end. Progress takes its course, and you really hate to see it,” he added.
“There is just so much history here,” Hatfield reiterated.