EAST GARFIELD PARK — Providence St. Mel School boys basketball coach Tim Ervin always has been driven to succeed.
Ervin was motivated to avoid trouble after growing up in the Stateway Gardens Housing Project, when, as a 6-year-old, he said he watched a man washing his car get fatally shot.
"Just laid there with blood coming out of him," Ervin, 39, recalled.
Being salutatorian in eighth grade at Charles Hughes Middle School wasn't enough for Ervin, so he bet a favorite teacher, Charles Bishop, $100 he would become valedictorian at Providence St. Mel.
Ervin won the wager, graduating at the top of the P.S.M. Class of 1991 before earning a 3.69 grade-point average at Purdue University.
At Purdue, the 5-foot-6-inch Ervin — nicknamed "Large" — walked on with the basketball team as a sophomore and was named co-captain by the time he was a senior.
In 1998, Ervin devoted his life to Christianity and his West Garfield Park church, New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. Ervin said he hasn't uttered a swear word since.
"He never curses — ever," said Knights senior point guard Teadric Anderson, of West Humboldt Park.
In the business world, Ervin quickly climbed the ladder at LaSalle Bank/Bank of America, earning such a comfortable living that he was able to retire a few years ago to concentrate on his duties at St. Mel, his church and spending time with his family.
All this from a boy whose mother, Ella Flowers, had three children by the time she was 19.
"He's like an old soul," said Flowers, 57, of North Lawndale, who graduated from Jones Commercial High School and is now a tax examiner for the IRS. "He learned lessons from previous people's lives who struggled."
That includes his father, Ricardo, who died from cirrhosis resulting from alcoholism when he was just 36.
"I used to hear so many good stories about my dad," Ervin said. "How nice he was, how good he was. But my images of him were as an alcoholic and a druggie.
"I wanted to be the man that he was supposed to be. And I've always had a real fear of failure."
While thousands of kids idolize NBA star Dwyane Wade, Ervin's role model was Dwayne Wayne, a character in the sitcom "A Different World" played by Kadeem Hardison in the late 1980s and early '90s.
"I wanted to be the guy who was the smartest kid in the class and also the coolest kid in the class," said Ervin, who lives with his wife and three children in Naperville.
Those traits have helped him become a great leader, his family, friends and church members said.
"He's very wise and very patient," said P.S.M. athletic director Teresa Cullen, who's been at the school for 16 years.
"He's something like [former legendary Purdue coach] Gene Keady — in your face and aggressive, but also personable," said P.S.M. varsity assistant and freshman-sophomore head coach Eric Marshall, a West Lawn resident.
"He just puts that pep in your step," said New Mount Pilgrim youth leader Eric Williams, of Austin. "He brings life back to me."
New Mount Pilgrim church administrator Shenita Thomas, of West Garfield Park, said Ervin was simply born to be a role model.
"He just has those qualities in him," Thomas said. "He's our youth pastor, the chief financial officer and a member of the executive board. And he also conducts youth retreats, hosts different youth events and leads Sunday school services.
"I don't understand how he does all of it, but he does."
The Knights are 16-4 after Saturday's 70-69 victory over Uplift and are hoping to at least reach a Class 2A supersectional for the second straight year.
But Ervin's players said his blueprint for the program has been much broader than wins and losses.
"My father stopped talking to me, but that situation didn't affect me because Coach Ervin has always been there for me," said Knights junior forward Joshuan McNeal, of Austin. "In my point of view, he's the real definition of a man because he helps everyone."
For all his accomplishments, Ervin said helping "young people" like McNeal has been his greatest.
"I love seeing what people get from me and my experience," he said. "It's amazing to see the cycle continue."