The pregame minutes had drained off the clock, the national anthem had been sung, the crowd was waiting.
Behind the bleachers in the shadows of Fordham University's Rose Hill gymnasium, the Dayton Flyers basketball team huddled tightly, their upraised arms joined above them like spokes coming into the hub of a wheel. All the players wore black patches bearing the number 33 on their red jerseys - a remembrance of the Flyers 6-foot-10 center Chris Daniels, who died of heart failure Thursday morning. Several players had written Chris, CD or Bear on the sides of their basketball shoes. Coaches and UD staff pinned the patches on shirts, sweaters or coats.
"As we pushed in there tighter and tighter, I told the guys that Chris wanted nothing more than for us to win this basketball game," point guard Josh Postorino said. "I said, 'We owe him. We owe Chris a good effort.' "
Then, instead of their usual two-word chant - "WIN! DEFENSE!" - the Flyers simply shouted "CHRIS!'' and turned to go out onto the floor.
Some were crying. Tears rolled down Shawn Haughn's cheeks. They brimmed over in Coby Turner's eyes. They blurred Ryan Perryman's vision.
"That's when it hit us," Haughn said.
On this day there was no CHRIS.
. . . And with no Chris and no defense, there was no WIN.
Fordham - a team that had lost 10 in a row, a team that its coach, Nick Macarchuk, said won Saturday only because of the circumstances - toppled the Flyers, 68-58, in a game where Dayton was plagued by every miscue imaginable.
"They're trying too hard,'' said Brenda Perryman, Ryan's mother, who was in the stands. "They're playing with their hearts, not their heads. When I talked to Ryan last night, I asked him what he thought about today's game. He said, 'Through all this, I never even thought about the game.'"
Tony Rotunno, a New Jersey lawyer who graduated from Dayton in 1980, sensed the same thing as he watched Saturday: "Their bodies are here - but those hearts are back in Dayton."
You sensed that Saturday morning during the team's 45-minute ride from New Jersey to the Fordham campus. There was silence as the bus rolled along Webster Avenue through the rough, played-out areas of the West Bronx. Salsa music, graffiti-covered tenements, parking lots with fences wrapped in razor-sharp concertina wire - it set a mood. The players were going through a strange land . . . without their big man.
"Going through uncharted waters," is the way athletic director Ted Kissell had described the Flyers sojourn since Thursday's tragedy.
Although Dayton had postponed Thursday night's game with LaSalle, it decided to play Saturday.
"We felt it would be good for everybody to get back in the flow, but I'll be truthful, at tipoff it was tough," coach Oliver Purnell said afterward, his eyes reddened, a tissue wadded in his fist. "For me personally, walking out there today was the toughest thing I've ever had to do. Once it started, I pretty much was focused, but there were flashbacks."
Postorino had them, too. "I would look in the paint and expect to see his big arm reach up. Chris was such a big presence. On the court . . . and off."
As Haughn talked about the off-court presence, he managed a smile: "For three years at school, Chris called me every day to get a ride to practice. Every day. You'd think after three years he'd know I was picking him up. Afterward, people would get in my car and the front seat was way back, tilted into the back-seat, and they'd say, 'Who in the world rode with you? "
Haughn grew quiet and as he thought about his friend, he looked around the dressing room. Rodney Horton - who scored a season-high 17 points - sat numbly in a corner, his uniform still on. He could not talk. He just stared off in space as assistant coach Dave Manzer tried to comfort him.
"Chris always took losses the hardest on this team," Haughn said. "He'd just sit on his stool for hours if we got beat. He hated losing more than anybody on this team. He would have taken this one real hard today."
Daniels was the team's eternal optimist. He expected the best for his team and himself. And that's why Purnell - in his pregame remarks - told the team: "Chris will be our inspiration - not our excuse."
Lawyer Frank Floriani, a 1972 Dayton grad who was at the game, said he hoped that inspiration, might lead the Flyers "to play their hearts out."
That was the storybook saga of Loyola-Marymount after its big man, Hank Gathers, died of heart failure right before the NCAA Tournament six years ago. After the Lions pulled off a pair of big upsets, Sports Illustrated dubbed them "a team on a mission."
Brenda Perryman yelled that same thing to the Flyers Saturday: "C'mon Dayton. You're on a mission." But the story line here - even before Daniels died - was one of recent struggle. Before Saturday, they had lost five of their past seven games and barely got by Bethune Cookman on Tuesday.
Add to that a tragedy that just a little over two days old at tipoff and you can understand why "those hearts are back in Dayton."
"We wanted to play hard determined basketball," Purnell said quietly, "but I don't know if anyone had their best effort today - not the players and not me as a coach."
In the somber dressing room after the game Postorino tried to touch on that point: "I don't have the answers . . . I don't know, I guess it's just gonna take time. Right now you just expect to look up and see Chris. You just wish this was all a bad . . ."
He didn't finish. His voice trailed off and his lip began to tremble and then Josh Postorino buried his face in his hands and wept quietly.
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