Archdeacon: Flyers historic season ‘about so much more than just basketball’

It’s become a recurring occurrence that initially took him by surprise.

Trey Landers is the hometown hero of the No. 4 Dayton Flyers. He was born and raised here, went to high school at Wayne and chose to stay home for college.

Over the years he’s suffered tragedy and triumph here, but he wasn’t quite ready for this.

“I go out in the city this season and people are stopping me and thanking me,” the senior guard said quietly. “I’m like ‘Whacha all thanking me for?’

“And they go, ‘For what you’re doing for the city, for the whole community around here. We appreciate it so much! You are bringing everybody together when they need it most.’

“That’s when I knew this is about so much more than just basketball. We’re not just somebody they can cheer for. We’re being that lean-on for them.”

>>Photos: Members of the Flyers 1,000-point club

>>Preview of tonight’s game 

Bill Withers might have made "Lean On Me" a hit song in the early 1970s, but the Flyers have taken that promise straight up the charts this season – this is their 13th straight week in the Associated Press Top 25 poll – and they've brought the city, the entire Miami Valley really, right along with them.

UD – which ascended to No. 4 in Monday’s poll, its highest national ranking in 64 years – is now 25-2 and going into tonight’s game at George Mason is a perfect 14-0 in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

The Flyers are having a season for the ages and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“People have been through a lot here in the in the last several months,” Landers said.

In late May a group of Ku Klux Klan members from out of state showed up in downtown Dayton to spew their hate in the shadow of the Abraham Lincoln statue at Courthouse Square.

Two days later 15 tornadoes – a couple with winds up to 170 mph – ravaged the Dayton area, killing one person injuring over 200 and destroying whole neighborhoods.

Then just past 1 a.m., on Aug. 4, a gunman with an AR-15 style weapon opened fire in the popular Oregon District entertainment area downtown, killing nine and injuring 27 – all in just 32 seconds – before he was killed by police as he was about to burst into a crowded bar.

Later that month an ex-con stole a police car after stabbing his father, roared into downtown at 97 miles an hour and hit a van filled with children and two other vehicles in front of the Dayton Metro library. Two little girls – 6-year-old cousins – were killed.

Finally, in November, respected Dayton Police Detective Jorge Del Rio was shot to death by three men in a drug raid on Rustic Road. His public wake was held at UD Arena – just two days after the Flyers had opened their season against Indiana State there – and drew thousands of mourners.

Amidst all that hardship and terror and grief, the Flyers – game after game after game – began giving people something to feel good about and love again.

The Flyers success has become the subject of Sunday church sermons, classroom lessons and sidewalk conversations, even in the still-battered storm neighborhoods and along the once besieged Fifth Street in the Oregon District.

Like Landers said: “This is about so much more than just basketball.”

Fellow senior Ryan Mikesell agreed:

“It’s pretty special at our games to get everybody in the crowd cheering. It’s pretty cool to see the interaction between everybody there, especially after all the horrible things that happened this summer.

“Thanks to Coach Grant, we talked about this as a team and we realized if we can do anything to sort of draw attention away from what happened – whether it was the shooting, the tornadoes, whatever — and just give people a little bit of positivity watching us, that’s a win for us.”

A love affair between team, town

Some people might consider the idea that a college basketball team can offer the tonic to lift a town from its pain as starry-eyed simplicity or trivializing pablum.

But Dayton’s full-on embrace of college basketball is different than you find most places. And when it comes to the Dayton Flyers, the team and the town have had an unwavering love affair for nearly 70 years.

“Basketball is our special sport,” said Dayton mayor Nan Whaley. “And this year the Flyers have lifted everybody’s spirits and helped us come together. It’s given us something to celebrate.

“And the thing about sports is that it has the ability to reach everybody. It gets past race. It gets past class.”

Not to mention age, gender and locale.

St. Henry, the small Mercer County town in farm country that gave Mikesell to the Flyers, rallies around UD the same way those Trotwood and Huber Heights and Dayton folks do who watched Landers come of age.

>>Ryan Mikesell posters available in St. Henry

After the Flyers pushed aside Duquesne, 80-70 at UD Arena Saturday, the Dukes head coach Keith Dambrot praised the Dayton fans and the way they lift the home team.

At the start of the season he and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins – both with deep Ohio ties – showed their appreciation of Dayton when their teams met each other in an exhibition game in Morgantown, W.V. to raise funds for the Oregon District shooting victims.

“I don’t really understand the world today sometimes,” Dambrot said after the game. “What happened in Dayton was tragic. The shooting there and at the Pittsburgh synagogue were just a shame.

“I’m glad we could play tonight and make some money and hopefully help some people. Maybe they can begin to heal after what happened to them.”

While that began the involvement of college basketball in the healing process, the Flyers – and across town, the 24-6 Wright State Raiders have done some of the same – have made it an ongoing process this season.

“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 – whether it’s something in their own life or some of the challenges the community faces – man, this can become part of the healing process,” Grant said.

“And that really is part of what we’re tying to do.”

Sports lifting a community

Mikesell said the weekend after the shooting, Grant gathered the team together to talk about what had happened and then gave each player a pair of rubber bracelets.

A white one read: “Dayton Strong.”

A red one bore two sets of numbers — “527… 804” — the May 27 date of the tornadoes and Aug. 4 when the Oregon District shooting occurred.

“Coach Grant made sure we had an understanding of how this impacted the community; how we could represent everyone and how sports can lift an entire place,” Mikesell said.

Grant – who was wearing his “Dayton Strong” bracelet under the cuff of his dress shirt Saturday – explained the approach:

“I think it’s part of being the head coach at Dayton. This team, this program – it’s special not only to the people on campus, but in the entire community.

>>History on the line

“My job is to win games here, but at the end of the day this is bigger than just winning games.”

Mikesell said the team has a ritual before every game:

“This conference season we’re building house so to speak and each game we have a brick. Before the game we put the bracelets on the brick to kind of signify how we’re all working as one and doing what we can to build this house and get everyone involved. And when we win a game, we get that brick and add it to the others and put on our bracelets,”

After Saturday’s game – in which he scored 28 points to give him 1,007 in just two seasons at UD – Obi Toppin showed up at the post-game press conference wearing both of his bracelets.

“Every single day we go out and play for everybody in Dayton and everybody watching,” he said. “It definitely means a lot that we’re doing it for the Dayton community and we’re putting them on the map.”

And it’s not the same map Dayton was forced onto in those wee hours of Aug. 4.

“It’s all about this now,” Toppin said as he tugged on his white bracelet.

“We hold this dear to our hearts.

“We are Dayton Strong.”

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