It would have been more of a surprise if Cross Steplowski hadn’t played basketball.
It was pretty obvious that the eighth-grader at Greater Beckley had determined his route pretty early in life.
For starters, while many of his first-grade classmates wrote their name on their papers, the youngster, to the chagrin of his teachers, would sometimes write Zach Moss. Maybe it was easier to spell the former Mountain State National Player of the Year’s name than his own name, but not likely.
And while most kids were happy coloring Santa Claus in traditional red and white, Steplowski’s Santa was MSU blue with a jersey.
Second, he found his home away from home early, at Mountain State basketball practices and games — where his second cousin Bob Bolen was building an NAIA power.
“Cross was happy being around Bobby and the players,” said his mom, Paula Steplowski.
“He built up friendships with a lot of the guys on Bobby’s team and they have always been a great influence on him.”
But sometimes that love of the game is tested.
On Aug. 9, 2010, during an open gym, Joey Re, who is now a starter as a freshman at Oak Hill and Steplowski got tangled in the air and when they came down, Re, the bigger of the two, landed on Steplowski’s ankle with his hip.
The result was a broken tibia and fibula and the bone under his knee suffered a spiral break.
The season was done before it started.
“I know it hurt a lot but the worst part was knowing I couldn’t play basketball,” Steplowski said. “It was terrible.”
Re felt just as bad, often phoning or texting Steplowski to check on his status.
The break was set the next day. The diagnosis was 18 weeks in a brace. That’s when doubt crept in.
“Sometimes, but I just felt like I was meant to play basketball,” Steplowski said. “I guess I could have just quit, but I love the game so I was going to do whatever I had to do to come back. When I first started, I knew I was meant to play basketball.”
“I know that basketball makes him happy, so I wanted to do whatever we needed to do,” Paula said.
He never complained. He went to MSU practices and games.
“He was invaluable to our basketball team,” Bolen said. “He was like a manager. He did whatever we needed. And (Paula and Cross) drove 15 hours to Kansas City to watch us play in the national tournament.”
After missing a season, he finally got the brace off. But then he couldn’t walk without pain.
Fueled by his desire to start playing again, Steplowski started playing AAU basketball with two teams, practicing from 4 to 6 p.m. with one and 7 to 9 p.m. with another.
Still the pain was there, so his mom got an appointment with Dr. Eric Wall in Cincinnati. His diagnosis was almost immediate. Due to the break under the knee, the knee had been pushed out of place. Normally, that injury results in a tearing of the ACL and/or the MCL. The doctor told the Steplowski’s he was fortunate in that regard. It might have meant even less basketball.
He had surgery in Cincinnati months after the initial injury and had two screws put in the knee, where they will remain until this summer.
He rehabbed hard with Mick Bates at Bodyworks, doing the plan in place to the very letter.
Finally, he was able to get back on the court at 70 percent.
And that was more than enough for the 14-year-old who never complained during the entire ordeal.
He returned and the results were surprising, given the time off.
This year he led Greater Beckley Middle School in scoring at 20 points per game.
What would he tell players in the same position?
“If you love the game, don’t give up,” Steplowski said. “I guess I could have given it up but I can’t really see my life without basketball. I don’t know what it is, I just love it. The competition. Being in the gym.”
People have noticed, too.
“He’s a great shooter,” Bolen said. “He can really shoot the basketball. And he is a gym rat. The kid wants to be in the gym.”
“I’m just really proud of him,” Paula said. “I probably would have been OK if he had just stopped playing, but every parent wants to see their child happy and I know he would not have been happy without basketball. It means so much to him.”
— E-mail: demorrison@