“This is bigger than basketball.”
Dayton Flyers basketball coach Anthony Grant kept repeating that phrase Friday afternoon as he, UD’s women’s coach Shauna Green and the school’s athletics director Neil Sullivan, held a brief press conference at UD Arena to talk about the “roller coaster of emotions” their athletes have gone through in the past few days as they’ve found themselves in the “uncharted territory” that not just the rest of the sporting world, but the whole world now finds itself in.
In the midst of a global pandemic caused by the COVID 19 virus which is 10 times more deadly than the flu experts testified before Congress early this week – a realization that brought President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency Friday afternoon – everyday life has changed drastically in a few days time as everyone tries to find a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Sports events and the crowds that they draw were one of the first things put on hold or cancelled altogether and no place felt that decision more than the city of Dayton and especially UD, where both its men’s and women’s basketball teams were headed to the NCAA Tournament and UD Arena was set to host the First Four beginning next Tuesday.
The UD women had just won the Atlantic 10 Tournament before a large, enthusiastic crowd at the Arena last Sunday, assuring their berth in March Madness.
The men’s venture never got that far – the A-10 men’s tournament in Brooklyn was cancelled Thursday – but on the strength of their 29-2 record, No. 3 national ranking and the nation’s longest winning streak at 20 games, Grant’s team was looking at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
Not only were they the talk to the town – and their 14 sold-out games at UD Arena were a record — but the Flyers were becoming the darlings of the college basketball world because of their unselfish team play and their charming, high-flying star Obi Toppin.
Now all that was put on the back burner – as it should have been in these times – but it still was not easy.
Green talked about gathering her team Thursday and trying to come to grips with their “shattered dreams” and the new reality: “Having our kids all get up and share their thoughts and some start just bawling” had been tough.
Grant also had seen raw emotions from his players once they flew back to Dayton on Thursday, but as he reiterated: “This is way bigger than basketball. We’ve got the health and safety of a lot of people to consider, that’s got to be first and foremost.”
Green talked to her players about “thinking of and praying for the people being affected by the virus”.
Sullivan stressed how this was a time “to be good global citizens…We understand the magnitude of what is going on…and that hopefully these actions will help limit the impact of COVID 19.”
He admitted that may not easy for young athletes immersed in their seasons and carried along by their dreams to easily see:
“Our job is to try to help them see the bigger picture. It’s very hard today. It was very hard yesterday. But we’re really confident that in time, as they go through more things in life, they will look back and understand this moment and that sometimes this is what happens in life. (Sometimes) you’ve got to adjust and figure it out.”
Green agreed: “We talk about life lessons and this is part of life. It’s uncharted territory. No one’s ever – we’ve never – experienced it before, but we’ll get through this together.”
And that’s already happening, she said.
She talked about how close the men’s and women’s teams are this year and the embrace she’d witnessed Thursday evening and Friday:
“This is probably one of the most together men’s and women’s teams we’ve ever had. I just saw Trey (Landers) and Ryan (Mikesell) and Obi come up and give us all hugs. There’s just a great group of guys on the men’s team.”
She said that’s why, as much as she hurts for her team, she especially hurts for the guys, too: “This was a once in a lifetime season.”
Sullivan said as good as it was for the players and the coaches – Grant and Green both were voted the A-10 coaches of the year – and the school, the basketball season had been good for the Dayton community, which went through so much this year.
The success of the Flyers was tonic to a town rocked by tornadoes, a mass shooting and some other high-profile tragedies.
“Now we’re prepared to get through this as a community and the University of Dayton is a big part of this town,” he said. “We’re going to help and hopefully next season we’ll give people some more memories to do that.”
And that, said Grant, would bigger than just basketball, too.
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