Covering the Dayton Flyers requires me to have the skills of a writer, reporter, photographer, videographer, travel agent — and often a therapist.
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Fans come to me on social media (mostly Twitter). They call my phone — my number’s in the newspaper — and leave long rants on voicemail. They send me emails or direct messages, which are the best ways to contact me, by the way. I’ve probably gotten an old-fashioned letter in the mail a time or two in seven seasons, as well. They even approach me in person.
“Jablo!” they shout, and I love to hear it. The fans fuel the program. They motivate me, too. I wouldn’t trade the Dayton basketball beat for anything.
Two years ago, I tried to provide as much counseling as I could. Give it time, I told fans. Dayton wasn’t going to be great that season, even if Archie Miller had stayed. It had little chance to return to the NCAA tournament with the inexperienced roster Anthony Grant inherited.
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Anyway, the Flyer Faithful had just enjoyed an unprecedented run of four straight dances in March Madness and two straight Atlantic 10 Conference championships. I figured fans had little reason to complain. They were due for a downturn. They complained anyway. Even some of the most logical fans I know gave up on Grant.
I knew it would get better. It did last season. I had no idea how good it would get.
Even I, one of the people who’s supposed to know this team best, wasn’t brave enough to pick the 2019-20 Flyers to win the A-10 — I picked the reigning champs, Virginia Commonwealth, which tied for eighth — and I scoffed when the talk of the national championship began. That first emerged in late July when I sat down with four of the key returning players — Obi Toppin, Jalen Crutcher, Ryan Mikesell and Trey Landers — at the Cronin Center for offseason interviews.
Here's what I wrote then:
The Toppin-Crutcher connection extends beyond the court. The two are roommates. They talk about the team’s goals, and interviewed separately last week, both mentioned a goal rarely mentioned by Dayton players and only occasionally talked about by the biggest dreamers in the fan base.
That goal is a national championship. Toppin, who may be Dayton’s best NBA prospect in decades, is a big reason the Flyers have set their sights far beyond Dayton’s normal goals of winning the Atlantic 10 championship and advancing in the NCAA tournament.
More than seventh months later, the Flyers won a national championship of sorts. Sportsline.com simulated the entire NCAA tournament and declared Dayton the national champion. It used the bracket compiled by Jerry Palm, of CBS Sports.
It was painful to write that paragraph. I live for March. Everything I write in the offseason and from November through February serves as the opening chapters. The climax comes in March — or it had, every season until now.
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The greatest Dayton basketball regular season in history led to the first Dayton season since 1988 without any postseason games. Starting in 1989, Don Donoher’s last season as head coach, Dayton played in at least one conference tournament game every season. The Coronavirus ended that run for Dayton and many teams, though it’s quickly become apparent in recent days that losing basketball was the least of our concerns.
Four A-10 teams played in the opening round of the conference tournament at the Barclays Center on May 11. I went to sleep that night with my bags packed for Brooklyn but expected the tournament to be cancelled the next day because the NBA had suspended its season. I flew to New York City anyway only to have the games postponed during my Uber ride to the arena.
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I fit in a quick phone interview with Ryan Mikesell’s dad in the backseat of the Uber driver’s car, getting the first quotes for a reaction story. I arrived at the arena with minutes to spare and was able to cover the press conference announcing the demise of the A-10 tournament and then talk to Dayton Athletic Director Neil Sullivan outside the arena.
Just like that, the four-plus month ride that had taken me to Maui, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Richmond (twice), Saint Louis, Massachussets, Virginia and Rhode Island ended. I managed to see every Dayton game in person for the first time — I usually miss one or two because of family obligations — but like everyone else was denied the best part of the season.
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It was so sad. That’s the best way to describe it. I’m not too proud to say I cried a few tears putting together the story about Trey Landers thanking everyone on Instagram. If you throw your heart and soul into something for months after months, a very real hole remains when it’s taken away so fast. I can’t imagine what the players, coaches and fans felt — all of whom felt the pain on an even deeper level.
Having said that, this season provided more joy from the opening tip in November to Senior Night in March than any other. I’ll treasure more than a few moments, among them:
• Jumping off the Black Rock Cliffs in Maui a couple days after Toppin, Mikesell, Ibi Watson and others had done so.
• Walking the length of the student line outside on the Frericks Center and filming the whole thing with my iPhone on the morning ESPN’s College GameDay filmed on campus.
• Talking to Jalen Crutcher's Sheila after his buzzer-beater at Saint Louis and hearing her tell me she was too nervous and didn't see the shot.
• Having a beer on press row after midnight after a long day of work with several other media members and the public address announcer at a certain A-10 arena.
• Telling Anthony Grant after the Senior Night victory he had won the Basketball Times National Coach of the Year award, something I knew early because I was hired to write the story for the magazine.
One of the best things about this season, of course, is the fans didn’t need my counseling. With a few exceptions — the last-second loss to Colorado, the departure of Chase Johnson, Toppin’s sprained ankle — they had no reason to fret.
Of course, they do now — and my email inbox is open.