That’s the number that Dayton head coach Archie Miller writes on the whiteboard before every game. It’s not an opponent’s number, it’s not a specific statistic that the team needs to achieve, and it’s not the jersey of a player in their locker room.
But it was supposed to be. It was going to be.
Until May 12, 2016.
On the morning of May 12, Dayton freshman Steve McElvene was found unresponsive in his Fort Wayne, Indiana home. He had passed away from natural causes. It was later announced that the cause of death was Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, which is a condition where the heart becomes abnormally thick and makes it hard for the heart to pump blood.
“If you’re in our locker room and you’re a part of our program, you sort of can look each other in the eye and know that you probably saw all of us at our worst moment,” head coach Archie Miller said Thursday in a press conference before the team’s first NCAA Tournament game.
“It was devastating news. It was hard to believe, and I didn’t believe it for awhile,” sophomore John Crosby said. “To this day I still don’t believe it. It feels unreal.”
“I didn’t believe it. I texted him, I texted coach, and I got a response from Arch and he told me, ‘it’s bad.’ Once I didn’t get a response from Steve, I thought it could possibly be true,” senior Kendall Pollard said. “He had passed out on one of our away trips, and I thought it was might have been just another one of those episodes, but it was devastating.”
McElvene had just come off a strong freshman campaign for the Flyers. He averaged 6.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, and even set the school record for blocks by a freshman with 56. But to understand the devastation that his loss caused, you have to understand the impact he had as a person.
John Crosby and McElvene came in together as freshmen, and Crosby says McElevene immediately made his presence known around the university. “Big Steve” literally became the big man on campus.
“Everybody loved Steve,” Crosby said of the comedic center. “Funniest guy ever, never a dull moment with him, and he just enjoyed living as a college student. He just enjoyed life. He was so big and everybody had seen him around campus and knew him. He was always joking, so it was always a blast to be around Steve.”
For the Flyers, McElvene wasn’t just a force in the middle. He was the life of the locker room, and no frown was safe when Big Steve was in the room.
“He was very loving and caring, always in good spirits. Even when he was annoying he could still make you laugh,” senior guard Scoochie Smith said while holding back a laugh himself. “That’s just the type of guy he was.”
In a locker room that was filled with upperclassmen that had more than their fair share of college basketball experience, being the life of the locker room just speaks to the type of personality that McElvene was.
“When you think about Steve, you think about the person he was,” Smith said. “He was always making everyone laugh and smile.”
The Flyers were at the beginning of an offseason that followed a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. The loss of a player of McElvene’s character and quality could have sent the program spiraling amidst emotional turmoil.
But not the Dayton Flyers. Not Archie Miller. And definitely not this senior class.
The senior class for Dayton is among the most accomplished in all of college basketball. Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard, and Kyle Smith have all been a part of a Dayton program that has made the NCAA Tournament in four consecutive years, and Charles Cooke came on board for the last two.
This group has made an Elite Eight run. They’ve won back-to-back Atlantic 10 titles. But their biggest accomplishment has come from off the court, specifically in a locker room that needed them at their lowest moment.
After the news of McElvene’s passing broke, the Flyers needed a source of unity. They’d lost one of their teammates, and the seniors took it upon themselves to do what they could to be a source of comfort for their grieving teammates.
“I was on a family vacation in Las Vegas, so I just sent out a group message saying along the lines of ‘Everything happens for a reason, and I believe that reason was for us to become a closer team.” Scoochie Smith said, thinking back to the tumultuous spring.
“We just try to keep his name alive. Speak of him at least once or twice of day,” Kendall Pollard said. “From a leadership standpoint, I just tried to keep everybody focused and on the main goal, which is winning an A-10 championship and making a run in the tournament.”
For underclassmen like Crosby, the guidance of seniors like Smith and Pollard was a key during the days following Big Steve’s death.
“It means a lot to have those great guys on and off the court,” Crosby said of their leadership. “To have seniors and leaders on your team, especially four of them, it makes things a lot easier. It was hard for everyone when it happened, but we were there for each other.”
Dayton will face fellow mid-major power Wichita State on Friday in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. The Flyers are no strangers to the big stage, but when you consider what they had to go through last spring, their continued run of success seems that more remarkable.
“I think that being here today, win or lose the game, for that room to be sitting here today after May 12, in many cases, a lot of places wouldn’t pick themselves back up,” Miller said of the program’s resilience.
“We have the 5 on our jerseys, everything we do it’s for Big Steve,” Crosby said, “he’s always with us, it feels like he’s still there.”
“You put it up there as perspective for everybody to look up there, see it, and say let’s go out and have a good time,” Miller said about the pregame ritual. “I hope that I can write that number up there for a long time. But in particular, this group has been affected by it the most.”
So in a year that proved nothing is guaranteed, and that life as you know it can be shaken in the blink of an eye, there will still be one constant when the Flyers walk into the locker room on Friday: