The four of them huddled together at the end of the tunnel leading out onto Blackburn Court and — like the sellout UD Arena crowd all around them — looked up at the video board with a mix of smiles and tears.
Up there on the big screen Big Steve McElvene was putting on one last show.
One moment the 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman was dancing in this same tunnel with his teammates before a game and the next he was either slapping an opposing player’s shot into oblivion or dunking on another suddenly-wilted rival.
Always he was animated and often he was laughing. Finally, right at the end of the short clip, the picture froze on that light-up-the-room smile.
Then the goodbye phrase flashed on the soon to darken screen:
“Forever a Flyer.”
MORE ON STEVE MCELVENE
» Dayton Flyers remember Steve McElvene on his birthday (Sept. 26)
» Archie Miller: Steve McElvene was ready ‘for monster jump’ in 2nd year (May 21)
» 8 local athletes who died too young (May 17)
» Steve McElvene’s death brings back bad memories for 1996 Dayton Flyers (May 14)
» Steve McElvene spoke to high school class day before his death (May 13)
As the four — McElvene’s mom, Jenell Shoals, her two younger sons Trayshawn and Escarvar, and her sister Vanessa Jackson — readied to walk out to the floor, Vanessa picked up on a feeling she would explain afterward:
“We feel him around us all the time and I know he’s here tonight.”
As the family made its way to midcourt and to the waiting Dayton Flyers coaches, all of whom would hug them, the crowd of 13,121 stood and began a long, warm standing ovation.
When coach Archie Miller presented Jenell with the Atlantic 10 championship ring her son had won last season, she began to weep.
Although Friday night will go down in the record books as a 96-68 season-opening win for the Flyers over Austin Peay, it will be remembered for the pregame tribute to Big Steve McElvene.
He had been the most beloved player on last season’s NCAA Tournament team. On campus, he wasn’t just the tallest of the 11,000-plus students, but he was, by far, the best known.
Everybody focused on him, not just for what he did on the court — he set a UD single-season record with 55 blocks last year, his only season in a Flyers’ uniform — but for how he was off it.
He may have rejected shots, but he embraced hearts.
He won people over because he struggled when he first got to Dayton. He sat out a season as he upped his grades and brought down his weight, from 315 pounds to almost 245. Through it all he talked and laughed and cared.
That’s why people couldn’t wait until this season. It would be another step in watching the development of what certainly would be an NBA player one day.
Last season the most popular sign in the Red Scare student section was the one — reflecting on McElvene’s blocks — that proclaimed “Big Steve Says No!”
Friday night the message was: No Big Steve.
McElvene died suddenly at his neighbor’s Romy Avenue house back home in Fort Wayne on May 12. The coroner eventually said it was because of an enlarged heart.
Steve was 20.
The death numbed the UD community, the team and Big Steve’s family.
Friday night was the first time they were all back together since his death.
After Miller gave Jenell the ring, the UD players — all wearing black No. 5 patches above their hearts — left the bench and gathered around the family. That’s when some memories flooded back for junior guard Darrell Davis:
“It was mind blowing. He was like my brother from another mother. He was just so vocal, always lifting us up and that smile was worth a million dollars.”
Finally, the players all pressed in around the family and clasped their hands overhead in their traditional sign of “True Team.”
“I said somebody’s got to stand in the middle here and dance like he did,” Vanessa laughed. “Everybody loved his dance moves.”
Around them the crowd still cheered and Vanessa said she understood what her nephew had tried to explain to all of them:
“I finally realized what he was always talking about. How it felt being surrounded by so many fans and hearing all that noise. I know he loved it.”
‘Dayton was home’
Jenell came to all the home games last season as well as the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn and the NCAA Tournament game in St. Louis.
“We’d usually get there just in time for the game to start,” she said. “But he always found us. Sometimes he’d wave, sometimes he’d nod. But he always wanted to see us.”
The thing that warmed the family the most was the way the Flyer Faithful took to the big kid who was not Big Steve to them, but Doody, his childhood name.
“Dayton was home to him,” Vanessa said. “Everybody accepted him and loved him as much as we did at home. That’s one thing you still see now, the amount of love my sister and Steve’s two brothers still get from them. I’ll always love this place for that.”
After the games they’d meet inside the arena and try to make their way back to campus. It was often a slow process.
“It was like I was with my own little superstar,” Jenell said. “People stopped him and they talked and took pictures and he never turned them down.
“I remember one time a little girl was waiting outside the Arena for the bus that takes fans out. The next thing I know, he’s kneeling down next to her as her mom takes their picture.
“When we’d get back to campus sometimes we’d go out to eat. Another time I remember my friend Pam and I took him to Walmart and bought him a deep fryer. After that I came over and made fried chicken and corn.”
With a laugh she added: “Mostly I just walked around behind him at his place and picked up his clothes.”
Vanessa remembered some of those times too. She said that’s why it was “unreal driving into Dayton tonight. Just knowing he wasn’t gonna be here was surreal.”
Healing in progress
“The healing process has just begun,” Vanessa said. “(Today) makes just six months that he’s gone. We just stick together as a family and pray all the time.”
The players and coaches have really helped, Jenell said:
“They call and send us messages. Griff (assistant coach Allen Griffin) calls me almost every day. He’s been there since Day One. He was like a dad if you ask me.”
In September three of the players — Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard and Darrell Davis — came up to Fort Wayne for a birthday party the family had for Steve.
“We just relaxed with the family and we had a great time,” Cooke said Friday night following his game-high 31 points. “There was nothing down about it. It felt good.”
Friday night Big Steve’s family and friends — a party of 10 — watched the game from Section 214 where many of the players’ parents sit.
Once she got back home, Jenell said she was taking the A-10 ring over to her mother’s house.
“I’m going to put it on the special table she has there. It’s all dedicated to Steve. It’s got a pair of his gym shoes, a book of pictures of him. And his obituary.”
She may visit his grave, where the stone reads:
“Steven J. McElvene II
“Flyer # 5… True Team.”
And on occasion she’ll peruse Facebook.
“Days go by and one random day I might look and someone is saying something good about my boy,” she said. “They say they wish he was here or they miss his smile and that big laugh.
“I just want that to keep going. It keeps his spirit alive. That’s all I really need. I just don’t want him forgotten.”
Friday night he was not.