Chris Daniels, pictured in 1996 on the left. Steve McElvene, dunking during a Dayton Flyers game in 2016 on the right. Credit: University of Dayton/David Jablonski

Steve McElvene’s death brings back bad memories for 1996 Dayton Flyers

McElvene would have turned 21 on Sept. 25. He would have set all the block records for the Dayton Flyers. He had a smile as wide as his 6-foot-11 frame. His teammates loved him. His fans adored him.

Coaches and teachers remembering him at Talladega (Ala.) County Central High School and New Haven High School (Ind.) — he spent two years at both — told the same stories this week of “Big Steve,” a big man with big dreams and great promise.

All those things made McElvene’s death on Thursday morning a devastating blow to anyone who knew him, but for UD fans who remember Feb. 8, 1996, the news brought on the worst sort of deja vu.

McElvene was four months old on the winter day Chris Daniels died 20 years ago. Daniels was 22. He was a fifth-year senior. He was 6-10. He died in his sleep at his house on Lowe’s Street in Dayton. Investigators determined Daniels died from an irregular heartbeat and had a slightly enlarged heart, but nothing out of the ordinary for an athlete his size.

While Daniels had a lot in common with McElvene, who easily could have won the most improved player award named after Daniels next season, their stories are different in that Daniels died during the season. The Flyers played two days later. This Dayton team will have almost six months to process their teammate’s death before getting back on the court in front of the public. On other hand, with something this stunning, there’s never enough time.

Darnell Hoskins and Josh Postorino, two members of the 1995-96 team, know the theme of the 2016-17 season for seniors Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard, Kyle Davis, Charles Cooke and the others will be: Play for Steve.

“I think whenever you get into a situation like that, you’ve got think of what Steve would want and play for him,” said Postorino, a freshman in 1996 who now provides analysis during games on WHIO Radio and is the director of athletic development at UD. “You owe it to him. If you put your energy to that, I think they can really rally and each of those guys, they’re not taking anything for granted now, I’ll tell you that.”

Hoskins, who sat out the 1995-96 season after transferring from Wisconsin, had been at UD for about a month and was roommates with Daniels. Daniels’ girlfriend, Ratana Earle, woke Hoskins in the middle of the night to tell him something was wrong with Daniels, who was convulsing in bed. Hoskins checked his pulse, called 911 and then tried CPR himself after getting instructions over the phone.

In 1996, Hoskins told the Dayton Daily News, “The short time it took for help to get there seemed like an eternity. I can’t tell you how tough that was.”

Twenty years later, on Friday, one day after the death of McElvene, Hoskins looked back on a night still fresh in his memory.

“It’s sort of an out-of-body experience, just thinking back to when Chris collapsed,” said Hoskins, now the boys basketball coach at Thurgood Marshall. “It’s something you never imagine in a million years happening, but when you put things in perspective and you talk about how large both individuals are and you hear about stories all the time about enlarged hearts, arrhythmia, things of that nature, you tend to think being that being big is a gift and a curse.

“You obviously have an opportunity to potentially do well financially playing basketball, but on the flip side of that, you have health issues or the potential of health issues that a normal sized human being wouldn’t experience. It’s really sad.”

Hoskins can identify with what the Dayton players must be feeling. Although McElvene only played one season on the court with the Flyers, he practiced with them when he sat out the 2014-15 season as a NCAA partial qualifier. Many of the players knew him for two years.

“It’s tough to process,” Hoskins said. “This is a guy you hang out with every day. This is a guy you practice with, you play with, you hang out with after practice and after playing, and you would never think in a million years you would never be able to speak to that individual again. It’s something you often times take for granted.”

Daniels had a breakout season for the Flyers as a senior in 1995-65, averaging 12.9 points and 6.0 rebounds after averaging 3.8 points and 3.0 rebounds as a junior. The Flyers won a total of 17 games in the three previous seasons and were 11-10 when he died.

The Flyers lost their first game without Daniels, 68-58 at Fordham on Feb. 10. Postorino remembers wanting to play but also how hard it was once they got on the court at Rose Hill Gym. He was Daniels’ roommate on road trips because coach Oliver Purnell liked to pair seniors with freshmen.

“We’re sitting at Fordham and we think that’s the right thing to do, to get out there,” Postorino said, “and all of a sudden you’re in the huddle — I was the point guard at the time — and Chris wasn’t there. It just kind of hits you. It hit us pretty hard. I remember it like it was yesterday. We had a tough time playing, let alone playing well.”

Postorino sees that season as a turning point for the program. The Flyers went 4-4 the rest of the way without Daniels and finished 15-14, stopping a streak that saw them finish .500 or worse five years in a row. They had a losing record in two of the next three seasons but started to find consistency in the 1999-2000 season, returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years.

Purnell, who was in his second of nine seasons at UD, had a big hand in that and also in rallying the team in the days after the death of Daniels.

“I think OP did a really good job in terms of getting the right individuals to help us cope and deal with the situation at hand,” Hoskins said, “because he said, ‘The last thing I want to do is pretend this isn’t happening. Obviously, Chris is going to be heavy on your hearts, but think about Chris would want done. He would want you guys to keep pushing and pursuing what we set out to do at the beginning of the year.’”

Hoskins said the season became about playing with purpose and telling yourself, “I’m going to play in dedication of Chris.”

The current Flyers, Hoskins said, must tell themselves the same next fall: “I’m going to play in dedication of Steve.”

Hoskins keeps the memory of Daniels alive by telling his Thurgood Marshall players about him, not to provide a lesson during tragic situations but to let them know to not take any day for granted.

“It sounds cliche, but you really truly never know,” Hoskins said. “Nobody thought Steve’s day was going to be (Thursday). What are the chances? Here’s a kid who was as healthy as a horse. He played an entire season and conditioned the season before that. You never think it can happen.”

Postorino has no doubt, however, the Flyers will get plenty of support from the UD community.

“This is beyond basketball,” he said. “When something like this happens — and I’ve been to a lot of different places— there isn’t a better tight-knit community than Dayton. Steve is not only a basketball player but part of the Dayton family. It hits everyone hard, but there’s not a better place to go through something like this than Dayton.”

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