Because Anthony Grant and his staff got them to understand and appreciate the concept of being a true team and then turned them into an old-school, new age version of it, the Dayton Flyers were able to overcome their darkest hour, rise to glorious, unprecedented heights and finally attempt to come to grips with the frustrating way the season came to an end.
The whole experiment was first put to the test three months before the season was to start – on the night of Aug. 3 – when some of the older players went to the Oregon District downtown.
Then, at about an hour past midnight, a 24-year-old Bellbrook man wearing body armor and rapid firing an AR 15 style assault weapon, burst out of a narrow walkway that leads from a back alley onto Fifth Street alongside the patio of Blind Bob’s.
In just 32 seconds he killed nine people, injured 27 and was shooting his way toward the front entrance of Ned Peppers, which was packed with people. Police finally killed him a step from entering the bar.
When the assault began, Trey Landers, the senior guard and emotional leader of the Flyers, had run into Ned’s for cover, then escaped out a back door and crawled over a fence.
A much closer call for the Flyers had come across the street at a sidewalk taco stand in front of Blind Bob’s. That’s where Ryan Mikesell, the other senior cornerstone of the team, was getting something to eat alongside teammate Jordy Tshimanga and Jhery Matos.
According to Mikesell’s parents, Reed and Lisa, the trio had called an Uber for a ride back to campus and when the driver missed them at the taco stand, they turned to walk toward him.
“They had gone just about 30 feet when the (shooter) came out and started firing,” Lisa said. ”Ryan said, ‘Mom, 20 seconds sooner and I’d have been the first one shot.’”
The shooter killed three people – including his sister — at that taco stand.
When the three Flyers jumped into their Uber ride, the driver temporarily froze and they ended up watching the deadly scene unfold.
”It was horrible,” Lisa said.
Mikesell has never talked about this publicly, but he and the others reached out to Grant as soon as they got back to campus that night and the coach immediately brought the team together, while he also called the players’ parents.
Several Flyers have said Grant was exactly what they needed then. He let them know he, his staff and especially their teammates, were there for them.
Eventually Grant got the team two sets of rubber bracelets – a red one bearing the dates of the May tornadoes that devastated the area and the August shooting spree and a white bracelet that simply said “Dayton Strong. “
The players still wear them to this day.
Basketball became a safe haven for those who witnessed the Oregon District horror that night and, as the season began, the team realized its triumphs on the court were becoming a tonic for their besieged town.
Makings of a great team
The Flyers started the season unranked, but the national voters didn’t know what the players knew. They had the makings of a great team.
The two pillars were the seniors – Mikesell and Landers – and then there was Obi Toppin, the 6-foot-9 redshirt, sophomore who was set to leap and dunk and laugh his way into a breakout out season that ended with him as college basketball’s national player of the year.
A high-flying vision of pure joy, he was humble and unselfish, willing to share the ball and the praise and that quickly made him the template for everyone on the team
The Flyers had fearless leader out front in Jalen Crutcher, four solid transfers each with a unique skillset and pair of skilled returning backup players.
From the start of the season the group showed a penchant for sharing the ball and that caught the eye of Don Donoher, the iconic former coach of the Flyers for whom Grant had played in the mid-1980s.
“As I watch them play, they seem to have a little of Anthony in them,” Donoher said. “They have his personality. He was a great teammate. He was selfless. He did all those intangible things that make a team better and it’s like he’s imparted that in them.”
“They’re unselfish. That shows a team where they’ve all bought in.”
The Flyers had their national coming out party at the Maui Invitational, trouncing Georgia and Virginia Tech and then pushing Kansas – which ended the season ranked No. 1 – into overtime before losing.
After that they won four more, including overpowering a good North Florida team at UD Arena on a night when Toppin had a career-high 31 points and 10 dunks
Afterward Ospreys coach Matt Driscoll praised the Flyers team, Grant and especially Toppin:
“I stood here and watched him in pregame and watched him in the stands with people and interacting with his teammates. There’s his kindness and his heart and it shows with the team.
“When your best dude is also your hardest worker, a great defender and with the way he shares the sugar, it affects the whole team and next thing you know they’re super connected.
“The thing that makes Dayton different is the way they are connected and share the success. That’s why I think they’re going to be such a handful down the way…because they are a team.”
Driscoll was right. The Flyers lost just once after that – in overtime to Colorado – and then put together a 20-game winning streak, the longest in the nation.
They became the No. 3 team in the nation and finished 18-0 in Atlantic 10 play.
And they did all that – they were No. 2 in the nation in offensive efficiency, No. 1 in field goal percentage – by staying true to the team concept.
“That’s the key to sharing the ball,” explained starting guard Rodney Chatman. “You give up good shots for great shots. And when you do that the basketball gods seem to reward you every time.”
The heavenly recompense was felt around town, as well.
Landers, who graduated from Wayne High School, told of people stopping him on the street and thanking him for the way he and his teammates had lifted their spirts after a tough, tough 2019.
“If just for a couple of hours, if people can come and watch a Dayton game and maybe forget about some of their individual trouble, man, this can become part of the healing process.
“And that really is part of what we’re trying to do.”
The Rev. J.D. Grigsby, who played for Donoher, lauded the way Grant did his job:
“He has character and decency. He teaches them his own way. He doesn’t have to do all that yelling and screaming. He coaches them with love.”
The lovefest was evident after the final regular season game at UD Arena, a win against George Washington that came with a Senior Night salute to Mikesell and Landers and, in some ways. Toppin, too. He’ll almost certainly head to the NBA now.
As players, families, former players and fans gathered for a net-cutting ceremony that included lots of tears with the hugs, Grigsby watched the embrace and smiled:
“Just look. This is beautiful. Just beautiful. This is, as they say, Dayton Strong.”
The team – whose 29-2 record was the best in school history – headed to Brooklyn as the favorite to win the A-10 Tournament, which would have meant the Flyers’ first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Then came the scourge of COVID-19 that cancelled all of college basketball.
On the plane ride home, it felt as if the team had lost, said walk-on guard Cam Greer. But as he had done in other trying times, Grant gathered the players once they got back to campus and spoke to them.
Then, Greer said, they went through a daily practice ritual where they form a circle and one player steps inside it to share what he’s appreciative of.
But on this day all the players – each wearing his bracelets – did so and they soon realized there was so much to be thankful for this year.
Now, once the coronavirus is cleared from our daily lives, there is talk of throwing a parade for the Flyers, who would be taken in open-air convertibles through the city so the masses could cheer them.
It would be the team lifting the town once again after a tough time.
It would be, as Grigsby had said, one more beautiful example of ”Dayton Strong.”
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