The Red Scare had just made a thrilling advance into the semifinal of the winner-take-all, $1 million The Basketball Tournament and once again Scoochie Smith had hoisted the team of mostly former Dayton Flyers players onto his oft Gumby-like, twisting and rolling shoulders, and carried it past Best Virginia, a team of mostly West Virginia University alums, 67-60, at UD Arena late Friday night.
The atmosphere in UD Arena was “awesome” in the words of Red Scare forward Ryan Mikesell – “electric,” said Trevor Thompson, the team’s 7-foot center – and it got that way late in the game thanks especially to Smith.
He erased a two-point deficit late in the game with a pair of three pointers, the second of which he punctuated with his trademark Dab, a back-in-the-day dance move that’s become his playful sign of triumph.
When he did it – just like when he was a 1,289 point scorer for the Flyers from 2013-17 – the crowd erupted.
“They were just waiting for that, so I told Joe (Red Scare coach Joey Gruden): ‘The next one I hit, I’m gonna blow the roof off!’” he said afterward with a laugh.
“I hit one before that and they weren’t as hyped, but I knew it was gonna get electric when I dabbed. I knew we needed that energy.”
Soon after the game – in a hallway between the Red Scare’s dressing quarters and the media room – Smith huddled in a private conversation with an uncharacteristically-animated Neil Sullivan, the University of Dayton athletics director.
Surprisingly, they were talking roots, not hoops.
“Instead of basketball, we were talking about the opportunity that exists for him here as a person,” Sullivan said. “I’m not talking moving back here, but having a presence here where he is known and people love him.
“I know that might sound silly being that we’d just been focused on winning the game, but I think there is a bigger picture, a bigger story here.
“For us, it’s a manifestation of what we always say. We talk about being a basketball family. We talk about connecting the past and the present and the future and you can see that happening here.
“I know it’s kind of cliché, but it’s true. This is about our fans and former players coming back and our current team – they’re all very young – and them experiencing this and getting a different sense of what it means to be a Dayton Flyer.
“We’re not very transactional in recruiting. We pride ourselves in having long relationship with players. When I sit down with families, I tell them, ‘This is not a four-year relationship, this is a 40-year relationship.’”
He mentioned a few of the many former Flyers who stayed connected, not only to the school, but the community long after their playing days were done.
He brought up George Janky, the mighty presence from Chicago who came to UD in the late 1960s and then settled down here to work and raise a family.
“He said coming here changed his life,” Sullivan said.
He brought up Bucky Bockhorn, the Illinois farm boy who went from UD to the NBA and then came back here and now, in his 80s, remains the most-beloved Flyer of all.
He mentioned Ed Young, too, and had he kept going, names like Bill Uhl, Frank Case, Pat Murnen, Hank Josefczyk, Leighton Moulton, Noland Robinson, Alex Robertson, Nate Green and so many more would have come up.
After playing here, Smith has gone on to a pro career in the G-League and overseas and now his younger brother, Malachi, is the Flyers starting point guard.
Sullivan sees an evolving, growing connection here for Smith, who, whether driving and contorting his way to the rim or launching no-fear threes, has been embraced by the TBT crowd, which has grown each game since the tournament tipped off here last Sunday.
Nostalgic, but competitive
It took a couple of games, but Flyer fans and the Dayton community are starting to realize what’s going on at the Arena.
While this is a trip down the nostalgic court, it’s not, as my co-worker Dave Jablonski put it – like a Cincinnati Reds Old Timers’ game.
This is a bone-fide competition where teams are on an all-or-nothing quest for $1 million.
These are players who are all involved in their own pro careers. Some have played in the NBA and a few others might still end up there. Almost all are now playing overseas or in the NBA G-League.
And while this might not be the hoops crucible UD Arena becomes when it’s the Dayton Flyers playing VCU or before that Xavier, it’s more compelling than some of those non-conference games early in the season when Division I bottom feeders come in for a payday that enables UD to spin its turnstiles for a lucrative return and, usually, a win.
Just as Sullivan talked of a generational commitment to players, UD has an even longer one with fans.
“We’re built on people spending 30 years moving from the upper arena (seats) to the lower arena,” he said.
“And the interesting thing here (at TBT) is that we have a different fan sitting courtside. People who sit in the 400 level normally are now four rows up from the court. They don’t get that chance during the season.”
And those folks are getting a close-up looks and brotherhood shared by Flyers players from the past and the present and maybe even the future, since 7-foot Jazz Gardner – a top 100 recruit from California who all colleges are after – was sitting right behind the Red Scare bench the other night and was urrounded by everybody from former Flyers Obi Toppin and Jalen Crutcher to several current team members.
Toppin, who left here a first-round draft pick of the New York Knicks and just finished his second NBA season with considerable flourish, has been at every Red Scare game and is treated like a rock star throughout the Arena.
He got to Friday’s game late – midway through the first quarter – and when he walked to his spot behind the bench, some in the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Red Scare players Joe Thomasson an C.J. Walker – both on the bench – walked over and shook his hand.
Toppin is beloved though, not just for what he does on the court, but the way he is off of it.
He’s a joyful presence who signs autographs, poses for photos and engages in small talk with everyone. He passionately cheers the Red Scare team and joins both their huddle and their postgame celebrations.
At halftime Friday, he spotted a special needs fan and his mom sitting nearby. He went over to the young man and, after a chat, photos and an autograph, left him beaming.,
Throughout the Arena this past week you found former Flyers players like 7-foot Sean Finn who was in from Kansas, Ibi Watson, who plays for the G League team of the Atlanta Hawks, Chris Wright, Norm Grevey and Rev. J.D Grigsby, the early ‘70s rebounder who is now a preacher and Friday night was dressed in a bright red suit a captain’s hat.
Credit: David Jablonski
Credit: David Jablonski
Building the UD brand
UD supports the Red Scare team – seven of the 10 players are former Flyers -- by providing it with a site for its pre-tournament camp.
Sullivan said they offer players housing and use of The RecPlex for practices.
In turn the team gets the basketball program some great publicity during the doldrums of summer.
“Part of my job is to peel back and let people know all about the Flyers and build the brand,” Sullivan said. “You’re on ESPN and hopefully that transitions to recruits down the way.
“But don’t get me wrong. It’s exciting to win and advance. Hosting the TBT here without the Red Scare advancing would have been a tough roll of the dice.”
The vocal crowd made that roll a little easier through the first four games.
Thompson played at Virginia Tech and then Ohio State before beginning a pro career in 2017 that has taken him around the world.
He played with Scoochie Smith on a summer league team of the Boston Celtics and then against him this past season when their teams met in the Serbian league.
Against Best Virginia the pair became a one-two, high-low punch. Smith led the way with 19 points and six assists. Thompson had 11 points and a team-high seven rebounds.
“I like the atmosphere here,” Thompson said afterwards. “I see why Dayton has been such a good program the past 10 years and more. I can only imagine what this place is like with a sold-out crowd.”
That vocal support – “and they let us know when we’re lax, too,” Mikesell smiled – has lifted the team each TBT game said Jordan Sibert, who had 12 points Friday.
Coach Joey Gruden agreed: “We’re always finding a way, I don’t know what it is about this building, but when you put that jersey on, you have a toughness about you, a pride about you, and our team has had it all four games.”
Credit: David Jablonski
Credit: David Jablonski
Roots as much as hoops
Each of the opponents this weekend – Best Virginia on Friday and Blue Collar U., a team of mostly University of Buffalo alums on Saturday night, has a connection to Dayton.
Best Virginia featured point guard Juwan Staten, who was a star at Colonel White High and became the longest recruited player in UD history. Then coach Brian Gregory offered him a scholarship when he was a 5-foot-7, 14-year-old freshman.
He turned into a top 50 recruit and had a stellar freshman season as the Flyers starting point guard and was an All-Rookie Team selection in the Atlantic 10.
He then had a rocky split from UD and transferred to West Virginia, where he twice was an All-Big 12 selection and has had a pro career in the G League and overseas since.
Although the crowd booed him some Friday night, he’s returned to the community and was recently hired as the coach at Chris Wright’s Flyght Academy.
The team from Buffalo has an unwanted connection to Dayton.
In May, an 18-year-old, armor-clad white supremacist with a semi-automatic rifle, walked into a Buffalo grocery store and killed 10 elderly people, all of whom were black.
On August 4, 2019, an armor-clad 24-year-old white man with an AR-15 style weapon opened fire in Dayton’s Oregon District, killing nine people and injuring 37 in just 32 seconds. He was then shot dead by police.
The Blue Collar U. players wear the names of the Buffalo victims on the backs of their jerseys and after each game the players take off those shirts and lay them in a circle, then huddle over them and say the Lord’s Prayer.
Nick Perkins, a 1,774 point scorer at Buffalo from 2015-19, led his team to victory Friday night with 21 points and eight rebounds against Heartfire.
He had the name of 72-year-old Katherine Massey on his back.
“She was a civil rights activist in the Buffalo area and was very involved in the community,” he said quietly. “She was just a very good lady. I’m proud to wear her name.”
Teammate C.J. Massinburg -- a 1,990 point scorer at Buffalo who had 19 points – had “Buffalo Strong” across his back.
“Wearing that means everything, man,” he said afterward. “I know it’s a small gesture, but I hope we can put a smile on those families faces a little bit.”
Sometimes basketball – in good times and bad – has that power.
That happens when the effort becomes about roots and connection as much as hoops.
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