Many childhood friends talk about how they are going to play their sport at the highest level in college, and they are going to do it together at the same university, wearing the same jerseys.
Most don’t ever live out that dream. But South Carolina State’s men’s basketball guards Eric "EJ" Eaves and Ed Stephens aren’t like most.
Stephens and Eaves first played basketball on the same court around the time they were 8 years old in Hopkins, just outside the Southeast side of the city of Columbia. It was recreation basketball and they played on opposing teams.
But, that was the last time they wore different jerseys on the same level. They played together through middle school, their time at Lower Richland High School, summer AAU basketball, their time at Gray's Military Academy and now at South Carolina State.
They sometimes joke that they are cousins, and some people mistake one for the other, thinking they are brothers from the same family. Even though they aren’t, they don’t mind the confusion.
And neither does Bulldogs head men’s basketball coach Murray Garvin, who sees the two atop his team statistics at this point in the season. Eaves leads SCSU’s squad with an average of 15.2 points per game. Stephens isn’t far behind, averaging 14.4 points per game. And the two are tied with a team-high 18 steals apiece.
Entering Saturday’s home Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game against Delaware State, the Bulldogs were 8-10 overall and 3-1 in conference play. Much of the early success has been sparked by the play of the childhood friends from less than an hour’s drive away from the Orangeburg campus they now call home.
“We first laid eyes on them when they were at Gray's and they came to team camp here,” Garvin said of Eaves and Stephens. “As soon as we saw them play, immediately we wanted both of them to play for us here.
“Ed decided to come and sit out his freshman year, since he hadn’t gotten his test score high enough. When he did that, we met with E.J. as well. He decided to go to junior college (Dodge City) and we kept tracking him and keeping in touch with him. Last February, E.J. sent me a picture with a Bulldog on it, letting me know he was coming here to play. They’ve both been phenomenal, and both are better people than they are basketball players.”
Both players carry better than 3.0 grade point averages after the fall semester of 2015, and are among 10 players on their roster who rank that high academically as this semester gets going.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Garvin said. “E.J. has given us another scorer, who can put the ball in the hole and keep teams from keying on Ed.
“To have two perimeter guys who can score you 20-plus points on any given night is a bonus. E.J. actually comes off the bench for us. I’ve been questioned as to why, but it just works better for us.”
According to Eaves and Stephens, they played with the same set-up in high school. They don’t care who starts, as long as they are able to be on the court at the same time in games and utilize their abilities and knowledge of how each other is going to play.
Don’t think Eaves gets shorted playing time just because he doesn’t start. In the Bulldogs’ 92-85 home win against North Carolina A&T this past Monday, he scored 17 of his possible SCSU record 23 free throws to finish with 27 points. He entered the weekend fifth in the country in NCAA Division I this season in free throw attempts (144) and ninth in the country in made free throws (106). Stephens balances it out by getting a good many of his points from behind another line, the three-point line. Entering the weekend, Stephens ranked 26th in Division I play with 51 made three-pointers this season.
“They are so familiar with each other that we have to find a way to get them on the court at the same time,” Garvin said of the Hopkins duo. “They hold each other to a higher standard. They are the first to get in each other’s face and ask what’s going on when they aren’t playing well.
“But, when they do well, they are the first to congratulate each other.”
In fact, Stephens admits that he was the main recruiter who convinced Eaves to join him at S.C. State.
“I feel like we know each other’s game to a T, we know where each of us likes to shoot the ball and how each of us can score,” Stephens said. “And playing here at State, we have a lot of support coming from family and friends in Columbia.
“With it being close to home and us playing on the same team, I think it’s the best set-up for us to be what we can be -- a force scoring in the conference.”
Perhaps the only downside to how things worked out is the fact that Eaves has just one season of eligibility left after this one, while Stephens has two, having redshirted when Eaves went to play at Dodge City (Kansas) C.C.
Even so, they are enjoying their time as Bulldogs together. Some people think the two are brothers, since they spend so much time around each other. They do have a few more things in common than just growing up together. At least one first name is common in both players’ families, both have dealt with losing their father, and they each have a sister with a birthday on the same day.
“People call us by each other’s names on campus and referees call us twins; so we just go with it, since it doesn’t bother us,” Stephens said. “If we’re both playing and being successful on the court, it doesn’t matter if people can’t tell us apart.
“We lost some close games at the beginning of the season. But, I feel like we are getting better and playing more as a team now.”
With five home MEAC games remaining on the schedule, there will be plenty of opportunities for Lower Richland fans, family members and Bulldog fans nearby to come out and see Stephens and Eaves on the court this season.
“I think our play as a team has come together at the right time, and we are ready for the rest of the schedule, especially after playing so many (13 of their first 18) games on the road early,” Eaves said. “In fact, with me shooting so many free throws this season, I really didn’t work on shooting them until junior college. So, that’s paying off now.”
With all the enjoyment the best friends have playing on the same team, there’s still one thing that has eluded them -- winning a championship. Through all their time playing together, they’ve reached semifinals, but have never won a state title or anything more significant together. Winning a MEAC championship this season would end that drought.
“Since middle school and on through high school, we’ve gotten to semifinals, but we’ve come up short,” Stephens said. “We want a championship bad. We’ve got to get over that hump.”
Is that -- a MEAC title -- something the two ever talk about?
“We talk about that every day,” Eaves said. “We want to help our team win every game.
“If it’s by being our own version of the Splash Brothers (Golden State’s NBA champion scoring duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson), that’s fine. We treat each other like brothers on the court -- he gets on me and I get on him; we push each other to be the best.”