By Brandon Roberts/Sports Writer

Joseph Stephens, a fifth-grader at Kit Carson Elementary and son of Eastern golf coaches Pat and Joni Stephens, loves Eastern athletics, particularly basketball.Joseph, 11, was born with a rare genetic deformity called Apert Syndrome. Approximately 1 in 160,000 children are born with this malformation. Apert Syndrome causes deformations of the skull, mid-face, hands and feet.

Joseph has undergone over 50 surgeries due to Apert Syndrome. The most recent of these surgeries took place the first of December of this past year. Joseph spent 14 hours on the operating table during the surgery. At the conclusion of the surgery, a two-day stay in the Intensive Care Unit at the University of Kentucky Medical Center followed. Joseph was then released from ICU and put into a regular room.

At approximately 8:30 p.m., a nurse entered Joseph’s room and notified him that “a bunch of really tall basketball players” were there to see him. Coach Travis Ford and the rest of the Eastern men’s basketball team came in the room. “It was a really touching moment,” his father, Pat Stephens, said describing the event, “it meant a lot to Joseph.”

“He was really excited about this season,” Pat said.

Joseph received gifts from coaches and players that he cherishes. Some of the gifts he received were pair of game shorts from sophomore guard Matt Witt. and a schedule poster signed by Ford.

“The visit from Travis and the players really got him through a tough time,” Pat said. “He really started improving after that, his mood started to change. We really appreciate everything.”

Joseph’s favorite Colonel is freshman forward Julian Mascoll.

“I was intrigued by his situation,” said Mascoll. “He gives me strength when I get tired, he makes our problems look minute. I try to do everything for this kid.”

Joseph’s ailment makes him unable to do physical activities, but there is nothing physically required to love the game of basketball.

“He loves basketball more than anyone I’ve ever met. He makes every home game,” Mascoll said. “I try to play hard for him, especially against Austin Peay, he shares that rivalry with us.”

Joseph was on the bus with the team when they traveled to Nashville to take on APSU during the Ohio Valley Conference tournament this season, which was good for the moral of the team, as well as for Joseph.

“He gives me a drive when I need to look for one,” Mascoll said. “He’s always on my mind, and I pray for him every night. One can’t help but fall in love with a kid like that.”

Ford got really attached to Joseph during basketball camp.

“He has incredible spirit, and is very fun to be around,” Ford said. “He is never in a bad mood, and has handled adversity better than anyone I have ever met.”

It was obvious while talking to Ford that he had become very fond of Joseph.

“He doesn’t let his physical incapabilities hold him back,” Ford said. “He is the funniest kid I have ever talked to, and probably the smartest as well.”

When I spoke with Joseph he was sporting his EKU basketball shorts, and came in bouncing a basketball.

“He is the biggest EKU fan I have ever met, and as much a part of this program as I am,” Ford said. “He has an amazing outlook on everything.”

His parents say that the basketball team has helped him get through this tough time.

“He gets upset when they lose in anything,” Pat said.

On their recent trip to Nashville to watch the Eastern vs. APSU game in the OVC tournament, Joseph offered a bit of advice to Eastern’s players after their loss. He went into the locker room “to see Julian” and said proudly, “It’s not the end of the world guys, you played hard.”

“The basketball team has basically helped him be healthy, and we appreciate it,” Joni said.

Joseph’s game shorts are his favorite gift that he has received; he wears them all the time. He plans to get his shoes signed by Julian whenever they get a special kind of pen to do it with.

“I like their shooting and their personalities,” Joseph said of his love of the basketball team.

Along with his Eastern game shorts and his maroon button-up shirt, he also had on a pair of basketball shoes. I ask him what he called his shoes, he looked at his shoes, then looked at me and replied, “These are my Air Julian’s.”