Hundreds mourn Steve McElvene at visitation in Fort Wayne

For friends and family members of Steve McElvene, the reality of his death hit home Friday, eight days after he collapsed at his family’s home.

Hundreds, including Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter, who recruited McElvene, stood in line at a visitation for the Dayton Flyers center at Abundant Life Church in McElvene’s hometown. Many wore T-shirts with photos of McElvene on the front. Some posed with a life-sized cardboard cutout of McElvene in the lobby.

The mourners walked up to the casket, saw McElvene in a white suit and saw the photo in the casket of him with his UD teammates posing together after clinching the Atlantic 10 championship 76 days earlier. For many people, the sobs came then.

They mourned a 20-year-old University of Dayton student who had dreams of playing in the NBA and a New Haven High School graduate who never forgot where he came from and spoke to three classes of students one day before his death. One of the mourners was Dayton women’s basketball player JaVonna Layfield, who rode to Fort Wayne in a bus with other student athletes and administrators. She said McElvene was her best friend.

“People will remember that smile,” Layfield said. “Oh, that smile. That laugh, just his personality, the person he was. You couldn’t miss him. He was the biggest person on campus. He made everyone around him better.”

Layfield told McElvene he was the boy version of her, and he told her she was the girl version of him. They finished their second year at UD earlier this month.

“Being with him was like being with me outside of my own body,” Layfield said.

Dayton coach Archie Miller and his staff and McElvene’s teammates will travel to Fort Wayne on Saturday morning for the 11 a.m. funeral at Abundant Life Church. There’s no doubt the church will be full. In his short life, McElvene touched many lives.

New Haven coach Bruce Stephens, an assistant coach during McElvene’s two years at the high school, remembers a 6-foot-11 kid who took great pride because he could decorate the top of Stephens’ Christmas tree. The coach’s house has high ceilings in the living room with space for a 16-foot tree.

“Steve would always say he was the best Christmas tree decorator,” Stephens said. “I told him, ‘I’m 50 years old. I’m too old to get up there.’ I would bring the ladder out, and Steve would say, ‘Coach, I don’t need the ladder.’ It was a time we really got to know him. He would just have a ball. That smile, he was like Magic Johnson.”

Three days before his death, McElvene attended the funeral of his aunt, Thelma Williams, in Fort Wayne. His cousin, India Starks, said she saw McElvene there and couldn’t believe the news when she heard he died May 12.

Starks, 20, used to tease McElvene about beating her high school, Snider, a New Haven rival.

“There was never a dull moment with him,” she said. “He was awesome.”

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