It didn’t feel real then. It doesn’t feel real now — one year later.
Steve McElvene died on May 12, 2016. He was 20. He had just completed his second year at the University of Dayton and his first season on the basketball court with the Flyers. He was at his family’s house in Fort Wayne, Indiana. From all reports, it was just a normal morning for McElvene, and if so, that meant his smile was as wide as his stature. No one will forget that smile or the personality behind it.
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Days earlier, McElvene had a productive meeting with then-coach Archie Miller. His future was bright. He was going to do big things. He blocked more shots than any Dayton player ever had in one season. He was going to break all the block records by the time he was done. No one had any doubt.
If you had to chart the trajectory of his potential on a graph, the line would head straight up. To quote a wise man named Michael Jordan, the ceiling was the roof for McElvene.
Then it all ended. I’ve talked to many of McElvene’s coaches and teammates — I’m especially thankful to Dayton’s four seniors and former assistant coach Allen Griffin for sharing their thoughts last year — to get the story of where they were when they learned of his death. Here’s my story.
I was sitting at my kitchen table, where I do most of my writing. I was casually glancing at Twitter, which is often a full-time job these days. I saw one post about Steve from Justin Mitchell, a Wright State player from Fort Wayne. I saw a couple other tweets with a quick search, but still wasn’t sure what to think. Did McElvene get hurt? What was going on? I checked McElvene’s Facebook page. There I saw the first posts by people writing, “RIP No. 5.”
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My hands started shaking as I called Dayton’s sports information director, Doug Hauschild, to see if he could tell me anything. That’s the type of news you don’t want to rush. It wasn’t long before UD confirmed McElvene’s death — months would pass before we learned an enlarged heart caused his death — and we posted the news to our website.
Immediately, I thought of Chris Daniels, the Dayton player who died in 1996 from an irregular heartbeat and slightly enlarged heart. The Atlantic’s 10 annual award for most improved player is named after him. Everyone with any connection to UD thought of Daniels that day and wondered, “How could this happen to UD twice?”
I’d been through this as a writer in 2005 when Springfield’s Jason Collier, who was then playing for the Atlanta Hawks, died of an enlarged heart and again in 2010 when Kenton Ridge graduate Josh Linthicum, sophomore football player at Wabash College, died as a result of complications from surgery.
The death of McElvene, or “Big Steve” as he was widely known, hit everyone hard. I attended the visitation and funeral the following week in Fort Wayne. Hundreds of McElvene’s friends and family members paid their respects. If it didn’t feel real before you walked into the church, it felt real when you walked past the open casket. I had to sit down in the nearest pew fast to quiet trembling legs as soon I took my turn.
A giant photo of McElvene rising into the air to swat a shot at the Atlantic 10 tournament just two months earlier — one of my favorite photos from his only season on the court with the Flyers — stood nearby. It and all the other photos served as reminders of how much promise McElvene showed and how tragic his passing was.
There are mixed feelings throughout the Dayton community about Archie Miller right now because he left the program for Indiana, but he stood tall on the day of McElvene’s funeral. He delivered an eloquent eulogy with Dayton’s four senior starters — Scoochie Smith, Charles Cooke, Kyle Davis and Kendall Pollard — standing behind him. I would argue it was his finest moment in six seasons as head coach.
ARCHIE MILLER: ‘Everyone was proud’ of Steve McElvene
“Everyone was proud of you, Steve,” Miller said. “You came such a long way against odds that most people can’t fathom. Not many people gave you a chance in my opinion. Maybe that’s why we ended up together. We needed you. You needed us.”
Honoring McElvene became a major theme in the 2016-17 season. Miller presented McElvene’s mom, Jenell Shoals, with his A-10 championship ring before the season opener in November. Players wore his number on their uniforms, a simple black No. 5.
Shoals brought a cardboard cutout of McElvene, the same one the players posed with at his funeral, to the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis. The players slapped hands with it as they took the court. It was just another surreal moment in a year full of them.
RIP, No. 5.