Dr. Willie Morris – decked out in his shiny red and blue striped jacket – directed the music with his typical, over-the-top flair. In front of him, the pep band bobbed and dipped and held its horns high as it blasted one song after another into the Arena.
The Red Scare students were out in full force, the front row, as always, featuring a white-shirted pilot flanked by two, blue-clad stewardesses. Next to them were three Flyers’ fans – with red, wild-haired wigs and blue-painted faces – who looked as if they were carrying Halloween over into November.
A new batch of cheerleaders smiled and waved and tumbled. Two military veterans sat in easy chairs on one corner of the floor and were cheered at halftime by a crowd that packed UD Arena to the rafters.
In many ways it was like old times at UD Arena on Monday night as the Dayton Flyers routed Division II Cedarville, 94-60, in a sold-out exhibition game that followed 20 months of COVID-19 disruption that, back in March of 2020, brought a premature end to the winningest season in UD history and then turned last season into a mostly uncertain venture where just a couple hundred fans or so were allowed into the silent and antiseptic setting.
So you could say Monday night was a trip back to the Flyers’ days you once remembered.
And in other ways, it was not:
»There was no “Smile of the Game” contest. Safety guidelines – as voiced by the public address announcer more than once – required all fans to wear masks indoors, except when eating or drinking.
But at least half of the crowd, probably more, never did.
»There were no Chucky-scowling Jon Gruden Fathead signs being waved by the students as there were during than 29-2 season two years ago.
»And there were no scholarship-recruited players from Ohio on the roster.
But there was a promising cast of youthful, athletic talent, highlighted by the most international roster in UD basketball history.
In the modern era of Dayton basketball, the Flyers have had 16 international players.
Five of them played Monday night.
There were players from Belgium, Finland, Canada, England and Mali.
The three top scorers were international players – (Belgium’s Toumani Camara led UD with 20 points and Finland’s Mustapha Amzil and Canada’s Kobe Elvis, both had 13) – as were two of the top rebounders (Camara and Amzil both had 7 rebounds). So was the leader in assists (Elvis had 6), the leader in blocked shots (Camara had 2) and the best shooter on the night (Elvis was a perfect 5 for 5, including 3 for 3 from beyond the arc.)
Head Coach Anthony Grant and his recruiter extraordinaire, associate head coach Ricardo Greer, and the other coaches have turned UD basketball into a national – no, make that international – program.
Along with Monday’s three stars, a pair of 6-foot-9 world travelers – Moulaye Sissoko from Mali and Richard Amaefule from England – came off the bench.
And directly behind the bench sat a potential recruit – 6-foot-8 Enkhiin-Od Michael Sharavjamts from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a city of nearly 1.5 million. He’s been dubbed “Mongolian Mike” by the ambassadors of several national programs who are flocking to see him play at the International Sports Academy in northeast Ohio. UD offered him a scholarship in December. He graduates in 2022.
I’ve interviewed three of the current international players – Camara, Amzil and Sissoko – and they are engaging and delightful.
It’s been the same for most of foreign-born Flyers, going back to the first one since World War II -- Makor Shayok, the Dinka tribesman from Sudan who moved into a house on Stonemill Road in the Student Ghetto in 1990 with his wife Helen – he paid her family 85 cows for her hand in marriage – and their three little girls.
Helen spoke no English, but she had questions in her own tribal language. With Makor’s help, she asked me why the students drank so much beer.
Some of the current international players don’t have quite the exotic background that Shakor did – he fled civil war and worked in the U.S. to help pay his family’s way to America – but they have one thing in common.
Many started out playing other sports.
They eventually discovered basketball, were drawn to America and finally found their way to Dayton, a place they’d never heard of back in their homeland. All played at or at least attended schools elsewhere first – as high school players – and three played at other colleges.
Camara started two seasons at Georgia. Elvis, who’s from Brampton, Ontario, played all 19 games of DePaul’s COVID-shortened season last year and Amaefule, battling injuries, came off the bench in 19 games at East Tennessee State last season.
After Monday’s game, Amzil touched on the one thing they all have in common:
“If you can hoop, you can hoop.”
And nobody hooped better against Cedarville than the 6-foot-8 Camara.
He was a presence inside – rebounding and blocking shots – and he had the exclamation point play of the night with a backwards, over-the-head dunk that came with an “and-one” free throw.
“That’s something you can expect from him,” Amzil said. “He’s a high flyer…a very skilled player.”
After the game Grant praised Camara for something that didn’t show up in the box score:
“He’s provided good leadership. He’s an everyday guy in terms of his ability to come in with the right mental approach in practice…trying to get better every day and help the team be as successful as it can, whether it be through his performance or using his voice to try to help.
“This team is young on experience. He’s a guy who comes in with two years of experience. He’s been through some battles before, so he has an idea of what it should look like.’’
Although Amzil played last season for the Flyers, he’s still been in Dayton less than a year. After growing up in Helsinki – the son of a Moroccan father and Finnish mother – he joined the team last Dec. 19 and, after just three practices, made a Flyers’ debut that was one for the ages.
He scored 22 points against La Salle, including, at one point, making 17 points in a row for UD. He also pulled down 7 rebounds.
Although he tailed off some as the year progressed, he said he worked in the offseason at making himself stronger and more consistent and Monday night he showed traces of that.
And then there was 6-foot-2 freshman Elvis, who started at point guard Monday carrying two iconic names atop one pair of sneakers.
He has to have one of the best names in college basketball this season, matched only by a few guys like Adonis Arms of Texas Tech, Tony Toney of Alabama-Birmingham, Boo Bouie of Northwestern, Saint Thomas of Loyola Chicago and Nobal Days of Tulane.
Elvis in the building, as Amzil said, is “a great addition.”
“We lost our guards from last year. They played a lot of minutes. Kobe had some experience playing at DePaul, so he’s not a fresh player like that. He’s got a little bit of experience. He’s a pretty good player.”
UD needs all the experience it can get. It lost six players from last season, four of whom were starters and each had at least 100 college games under his belt.
This team is a work in progress, but as Camara said: “This is just the beginning of something that can be really good.”
And just as the players have an idea of what’s ahead of them, they also know what’s loudly behind them.
Camara said he’d just heard about the crowd, but finally experiencing it – even in an exhibition setting – was: “really exciting. It’s a great feeling. The community is amazing. The people are just amazing. I’m excited to keep playing for them.”
Amzil – who last year never experienced an Arena with more than 300 or so people – agreed:
“It felt so great…Amazing. I can’t wait ‘til the real games start. I think it will be more louder, more better.
“I’d never seen that many people in the Arena before. It just gets me hyped. No matter what the game is, the Arena is full. It makes me feel great to play.”
Over the years you’ve heard many players – though maybe not with a Finnish accent – say the exact same thing.
Monday night, in many ways, was just like old times.