On this Valentine’s Day, here’s a story of how Christina Harrell put a song in Anthony Grant’s heart.
It happened three decades past when Grant – now the head coach of the 22-2, No. 6 Dayton Flyers – was a young assistant coach at his alma mater, Miami Senior High School, a basketball powerhouse in Miami, Fla.
She was a young singer, who along with her sister Meesha and their friend Fabian, made up C’est La Vie, a pop/ R & B group that performed at clubs and bigger venues around Miami, opened for national acts and had quite a South Florida following.
“When I was young I had aspirations of being a pop singer,” she said. “I really thought we could be the next girl band at the time – like En Vogue. They were about the only group like that then so we thought we had a shot.”
That’s when she happened to run into Grant at the annual Calle Ocho Festival, one of the largest, most pulsating, one-day gatherings in the world. Drawing more than one million people to SW 8th Street in Miami’s Little Havana section of town, it made their chance encounter seem like kismet.
Their families had had a bit of a prior connection, she said: “When we were growing up my grandmother lived on NW 51st Street in the heart of Liberty City and his mom lived a couple of houses away.”
But he soon moved to another part of the city and then had gone off to college to play basketball at the University of Dayton. He was now back and that day he was with two of his pals, fellow high school assistant coaches Artie Cabrera and Frank Martin, now the head coach at South Carolina.
“I recognized him, but he didn’t recognize me,” she said.
They exchanged phone numbers and then she said he came to see the group perform and. well, c’est la vie – that was life.
“It just took off from there and we began to date,” she said.
Right off, she saw traits she liked in him: “He wasn’t really into the club scene. He was a hard worker. I knew he came from a good family and felt he was very trustworthy.
“He had a quiet confidence about himself. He’s not a big talker, but actually he’s very witty. Very funny. All that appealed to me.”
Soon spending time with Anthony was more attractive than the late-night shows and the club scene. At about the same time the local management company the group was with broke up and eventually the trio went their separate ways, too.
“So Anthony and his hoop dreams double-teamed your shot at music stardom?” she was teasingly asked.
“Ooh no…no,” she laughed. “He was very supportive…but I just developed other aspirations.”
The two wed and she began a life as a coach’s wife, which usually means, among other things, moving around a lot.
Soon Grant was an assistant college coach at Stetson and then joined Billy Donovan’s staff at Marshall and after that, Florida, where he spent a decade.
Grant was a success as a head coach at VCU, then jumped to Alabama, where roller-coaster fortunes ended his reign after six seasons. He spent two years back with Donovan as an assistant with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder and then came to Dayton three seasons ago
Chris, who has a degree from Florida, meanwhile has handled much of the task with their children – Anthony Jr, Preston, Jayda and Makai – while also partnering with him in different ways to be involved in the community.
When a series of tornados ravaged Alabama in April of 2011, they started the Sweet Home Fund that provided supplies, money and manpower to help people immediately.
And come game time – especially at UD Arena – you can find her and their children sitting a few rows behind the Flyers bench providing some of the most passionate and vocal support in an Arena full of it.
‘Fragility of life’
As we sat together in a Brown Street breakfast spot the other morning, her eyes filled with tears when I mentioned one date:
“I had just thinking about that,” she said quietly
It was on February 6, 1999, that Chris — 8 ½ months pregnant with their second child, a son they named Brandon — felt something wasn’t right.
She stopped by Anthony’s office at Florida and then headed to the doctor, who found no heartbeat in the baby.
They lost the child due to a freak occurrence, a ruptured placenta, and then for a while Chris’ own health hung in the balance.
“Anthony Jr, our oldest, was probably 2 ½ at the time,” she said. And after that, at first, they weren’t sure if they could have more children.
“You really appreciate the fragility of life after that,” she said. “I think for many women, it’s easy to take the whole pregnancy process for granted. That reminded me of what a miracle childbirth is. And I was very thankful we were blessed to have more children.
“It was also amazing to see that God used the experience we went through to help the Donovans and the Pelfreys through their ordeals, too.”.
It an inconceivable connection over a four-year span, three coaches who had been together on that Florida staff all lost children before they were born.
Some 21 months after the Grants lost their boy, Donovan and his wife, Christine, lost a baby girl. Then in 2003, John Pelfrey and his wife Tracy lost a son.
Every Feb. 6, the Grants have honored the son they lost. Sometimes there was a cake. Often the family went outside and released balloons in his name.
The Donovans and Grants are especially connected in many ways. Billy and Anthony are best of friends after sharing a basketball bench for over 14 years.
That’s why Chris is headed to Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday, while Anthony and the Flyers play at Massachusetts.
The University of Florida is dedicating the Billy Donovan Court at Exactech Arena in the O’Connell Center and she’s going to represent the Grant family, as she so aptly does.
‘A lot of work still to be done’
When Anthony coached at Oklahoma City, Chris said the fans routinely stood until the Thunder scored their first basket of the game.
She thought that might be something to introduce to UD Arena, as well.
It would be a way – instead of taking a seat to await the start of the game – for everyone to sustain the amped-up energy level that comes during player introductions.
“I thought it just kind of sets the tone for the players,” she said.
Unfortunately, she first tried to launch her idea when the Flyers played St. Mary’s at the Colangelo Classic in Phoenix on Dec. 8.
“The lady was sitting in our section, but I don’t know if she was one of our fans or not,” Chris said. “She just politely told me, ‘Excuse me, but can you sit down? I can’t see.’
“I said, ‘Well, I kind of would like to stand until our team makes the first basket.’ And she said, ‘Well, I still can’t see.’
“I didn’t want to create a scene, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to have to try this at home.’ And my kids encouraged me, so that’s what we finally did.”
She helped get the whole Arena standing when UD beat St. Louis last Saturday and then repeated it again last Tuesday when the Flyers routed Rhode Island.
Everything she and Anthony have had a hand in this season seems to be working.
She gets the fans on their feet and he keeps them there.
The Flyers are on a 13-game winning streak, are unbeaten in the Atlantic 10 (11-0) and have their best national ranking in 53 years.
“He’s excited about the way the season is going, but he’s making sure the kids and I don’t get too far ahead,” Chris laughed. “He reminds us there’s a lot of work still to be done.”
And there’s something else that could be attempted, as well. En Vogue got back together just four months ago to perform at a benefit, so how about C’est La Vie?
How about teaming up for the national anthem before the tip at UD Arena?
Chris shook her head: “Oh no. I haven’t performed in years.”
But THAT would set a tone.
“Oh yeah, that would be a hot ticket,” she said facetiously. “People would love that, right.”
Well, Anthony Grant once did.
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