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Tom Archdeacon: Anthony Grant’s first impression always a winner

This is about first impressions.

Not the one Anthony Grant made when he met with his Dayton Flyers players for the first time Saturday afternoon at UD Arena.

And not the one he made soon after when he was introduced as Dayton’s new basketball coach at a Flight Deck gathering in the Arena that included his former UD coach Don Donoher, former teammates like Damon Goodwin and Dan Christie, a few other Flyers from the past, the current team, some school administrators, boosters and the press.

No, the first impression that will be recounted here is probably the most important one of his life.

It happened at the annual Calle Ocho Festival in Miami, Florida, his hometown. It is one of the largest, most-pulsating one-day gatherings in the world. Over one million people party their way along SW. 8th Street — Calle Ocho — in the Little Havana section of the city.

It was in that throbbing mass of humanity that Christina Harrell stumbled upon Grant, someone she knew of from her childhood.

Their two families once had been neighbors — “he and his siblings grew up with my aunts and uncles,” she said — and she remembered seeing some old photos of them at a kid’s birthday party.

But then the Grant family moved to another section of the city, she said, and Anthony went off to the University of Dayton and finally returned as a fresh-out-of-college assistant coach at his alma mater, Miami High School.

“That day I happened to see him standing there with Frank Martin and Artie Cabrera (two other Miami High assistants), so I approached him and said ‘hello,’ ” she said. “He didn’t remember me, but I remembered him.”

She said they exchanged phone numbers.

“He claims now that he knew right then we were going to be married,” she laughed.

True or not, Christina Harrell did become Chris Grant.

“And it’s been a great ride ever since,” she said.

They have four children and a lot of stamps in their basketball passports.

“We’ve enjoyed the journey,” she said Saturday afternoon. “Florida, Richmond (VCU), the Thunder (Oklahoma City’s NBA team). And now God’s allowed this to happen. Now we’re finally in Ohio.”

Grant got the chance to return to his alma mater — after working as an assistant coach with the Thunder the past two seasons — when Archie Miller jumped to Indiana University eight days ago.

“This was an opportunity to come home,” Grant said.

Several former players in Saturday’s crowd were glad he did. That included Christie, who showed up on a silver crutch, one day after knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus he suffered playing in one of the three-times-a-week basketball games he’s still involved in.

“This is just fantastic,” Christie said. “I’m happy for Anthony and his family and especially the university. This is a great hire.”

Some of the current Flyers said they were relieved to see Grant get the job after a week of rumors took them on an unsettling roller-coaster ride.

“When we first lost Coach Miller, I had mixed emotions,” said sophomore forward Xeyrius Williams. “I was mad at first. Then I accepted it. It’s more of a business. You forget that sometimes. But now I’m looking forward to Coach Grant.”

He said Grant’s NBA connections are “a big deal” to players: “You have more respect for someone who’s been around great players you look up to. He can tell you what they do every day and you’re gonna take it (to heart).”

Fellow sophomore Ryan Mikesell said he’s “excited to build on the tradition we got started here.”

He thinks his teammates feel the same way: “As of right now I’m hopeful we can get everybody to come back. We talked as a team and they all seem excited about the future, whether it’s here or somewhere else. And the recruits, we talked to them and told them to stay here. You committed here to have success and we can.”

Former player J.D. Grigsby said he “loved” the hiring of the 50-year-old Grant:

“The university has a lot to offer, but I feel like younger coaches want to go to the next level. And I feel the university is getting the short end of the stick when they leave. We’ve got to rebuild and worry about recruits who are already supposed to be committed here.

“That’s why I thought we needed some 45 to 50. Someone who is not using the university as a farm team to better themselves. I think this is a guy who will be committed and help us soar forward.”

Game to remember

A lot of memories were dusted off at Saturday’s gathering.

Christie remembered getting his first appreciation of Grant:

“I’m from Oak Harbor, Ohio. I came down here as a freshman and we were shooting around in the PAC, just messing around, and all of a sudden Anthony, without even trying, goes up and dunks the ball behind his head. I was like ‘Whoooooa. We don’t have people like you back in Oak Harbor!’ He was one of the most athletic guys I’ve ever been around. And one of the most hard-working.”

As for Grant, he recalled the game when he got a different appreciation of Donoher, who has since become his lifelong friend and confidante.

“I was playing poorly and going through a shooting slump,” he said. “We were on the road and before the game he tells me, ‘OK, if you miss your first three shots I’m pulling you out of the game.’

“I was thinking, ‘How you gonna put that kind of pressure on a guy right before the game?’ I was mad. Steaming. And I was gonna prove him wrong. But then I take my first shot and miss.

10 Moments: A look at Anthony Grant’s coaching career

“I look over at him and I’m thinking, ‘Maybe he doesn’t remember what he told me.’

“Then I take my next shot and miss and I’m like, ‘Oh crap!’ ”

The ball came back to him on the very next possession and he missed an easy shot. “A chippy!” he said. “Immediately I have this involuntary reflex and I look at the bench and sure enough he’s over telling someone to go over to the scorer’s table.

“Well, now I’m livid. I’m like, ‘Screw this! I can’t play like this.’

“But sure enough, before there’s a stoppage of play and the sub comes in, I get the ball and ‘Boom!’ I score. Then I don’t even look at the bench, I’m so ticked.

“And then on another possession or two I score again. Now there is a stoppage of play, so I get ready to come out. But I turn and the guy’s no longer at the scorer’s table.

“And there’s Coach Donoher. He’s got that cat-ate-the-canary look on his face.

“That’s when I realized the method to his madness. He forced me to think about something else. I focused on him and he got me out of the slump.”

So many to thank

UD athletics director Neil Sullivan said Grant “knocked it out of the park” in his interview for the job.

When the hire was announced, that answered a question for Christie, who had gone up to Cleveland recently to visit with Grant when the Thunder played the Cavs.

“I said, ‘You know our 30th reunion is this summer?’ ” Christie said. “And he was like, ‘Really?’ ”

Grant hadn’t been getting the emails.

Christie said he asked him if he wanted to go: “He said, ‘Yeah. We haven’t been playing well and we might not even be playing anymore in June.’ He said, ‘Send me the emails, I’d like to come if I can.’

“So then when they announced his hire, I said, ‘Well, I guess you’ll be around for the reunion!’ ”

With all the re-connections, Grant had a lot of people to thank as he stood at the podium Saturday. He mentioned everybody from Sullivan to Archie Miller, Donoher, his former teammates, the community and the current players.

He spoke for almost 13 minutes, wrapped up his remarks with ‘Let’s get to work!’ and then, as he was bathed in applause, a realization suddenly hit him.

“Whoa! Whoa!” he said as he quickly leaned back into the microphone. “I made this mistake once before, but I’m not gonna do it again.”

And with that he thanked his wife who, though she was sitting up there next to him, he had forgot to mention.

She looked at him and smiled.

This time it was the last impression that counted most.

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