Seventeen players will suit up for Dayton’s first-round NCAA tournament game this week. We have a really close team this year. I wish you knew them like I do. We’re a motley crew: There’s Xeyrius Williams, who’s the pretty boy; there’s Ryan Mikesell, who’s the peacemaker; there’s Darrell Davis, who’s the prankster; and there’s me — I started as a team manager as a sophomore (the guy with the clipboard), but after a lot of pestering I convinced our coach to give me a tryout … and I made the team.
We have 17 players and I love them like family.
But we should have 18. We were supposed to have 18 guys on our roster. We used to have 18.
When you watch us play in the NCAA tournament this month, you won’t see one of our teammates — the guy wearing the number 5 Dayton Flyers uniform.
Number 5 was Steve.
There are almost 9,000 undergraduates at Dayton — it’s not tiny, but it’s not massive like Ohio State, either. It’s just small enough that you recognize a lot of people when you’re walking around campus, but it’s still too big to know everyone’s name. You meet new people every day at Dayton.
But Steve … everyone knew Steve McElvene.
And yeah, because Steve was 6’ 11”, 270, maybe that seems like a given. But that doesn’t explain everything.
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When I made the basketball team as a walk-on two years ago, one of the coolest things was how many people at Dayton wanted to hear my story — the story of a team manager who wound up on the roster of an NCAA tournament team. Everyone was so nice. They’d congratulate me. It was a whole thing.
It was funny. Every conversation seemed to go the same way. Once I got done answering questions about myself, people always wanted to talk about Big Steve.
“I know a guy on the team!”
“Do you ever hang out with Steve?”
“You know Steve, right?”
“Steve is sooo funny.”
It happened over and over. How could so many people all claim to be friends with Steve? No one has that many friends.
I couldn’t believe this was for real. So one day after practice I approached Steve, just to test him: I asked him if he knew this particular freshman who, a few days before, had told me that he was “good friends with Steve.”
When I said the guy’s name, Steve responded immediately. “Yeah, that’s my boy!” he said. “We play 2K together.”
O.K., fine. That was just one random guy. That still didn’t mean he really knew all these people. So then I asked about another guy who had also told me that he was good friends with Steve.
“We go to lunch every other week. He’s my dude!”
Obviously, Steve was the type of kid who was friends with everyone. But it was deeper than that. To Steve, I don’t think it mattered whether you were a freshman or a senior, what you looked like, or whether you cared about basketball or not — he wanted to find out about you. He didn’t act “bigger” than other people just because he was almost seven feet tall and had a bright future in basketball. He made new friends feel like they were old pals.
For him, it came naturally.
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I met Steve in the fall of 2014. I had just joined the team as the manager and Steve was a true freshman, sitting out the season as a redshirt. For the first couple days, I kept to myself. I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries. I was just humbled by the opportunity to be near the team. Maybe it was noticeable that I was being quiet — it’s not really my personality to be low-key, but it’s what I felt I had to do.
Steve saw through my front from a mile away. And he wasn’t shy about fixing it.
At one of our first practices, I noticed Steve and Darrell Davis — the two guys, I found out, who were basically inseparable — across the court. They were looking at me and whispering to each other. I made eye contact with them and then quickly looked away. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the two of them walking over to me. They had the biggest smiles on their faces.
“Hey guys, what’s up?” I said.
They didn’t want to chitchat.
“Yo, you have a new nickname now,” Steve said. “You’re gonna be ‘Black Love.’ ”
Darrell chimed in: “Yeah, Black Love! That’s you!”
Then they both looked at each other, started giggling and whatnot, and walked away. And that was it.
I thought it was the weirdest thing in the world. I remember going back to my dorm that day thinking that Black Love was one of the strangest nicknames I had ever heard. But over time, it grew on me. To this day, I’m known to my teammates, friends and classmates as Black Love — I’m not entirely sure of what it means, but the fact that he gave me a nickname made me feel welcomed.
I’d like to think of it as a little legacy that Steve left for me. I mean, he could’ve ignored me. But from the very beginning he made me feel more like a starter than a kid with a clipboard.
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It’s impossible not to smile when I think about Steve. The dude was filled with so much joy. He had a kind heart and one heck of a personality.
I think about seeing Darrell and Steve laugh like there was no tomorrow. Steve’s laugh was unmistakable — kind of deep, always loud. There would be bus rides where they’d laugh so loud that the rest of us had to turn our music all the way up in our headphones just to drown them out.
I think about the practices when Steve would yell — at himself — for missing a layup or falling behind in sprints.
He’d say, “C’mon, Steve!” Or, “C’mon, big man!” Or, “You’re better than that!” To us it was hilarious, but to Steve it was dead serious. To see him that intense — knowing how laid back he was off the court — was one of those things we always laughed about.
I think about the epic NBA 2K battles that he and I had. Steve was so stubborn. Even if he lost a game, he’d never admit it. So if someone brought it up a couple days later, Steve would say something like, “Bro, no way. I think you’re remembering wrong. I didn’t lose that game. You did.” All you could do was shake your head and smile.
I think about how he would cause a scene if he saw a friend walking across campus. No matter if you passed right by him or if you were a few hundred feet away, Steve would scream your name — loud, too — to make sure everyone heard it. You could try and play it cool, but you’d always end up smiling.
Steve was all about making those around him feel better. If other people were happy, he was happy. That meant more to him than anything else in the world.
But, man, Steve could get you going, too. The dude was like everyone’s annoying big brother. He was good at teasing people — maybe too good. Sometimes he’d come into the locker room, look at someone’s new haircut and, even if it was a good cut, ask if they could still get their money back.
That was his quirky way of showing how much he loved you. No matter how annoyed you’d get, you knew, deep down, that Steve was just being Steve. And when you saw him flash his big smile, you couldn’t help but laugh along with everyone else on the team — like we were one big family.
And if there was one guy who appreciated how close we were as a team, it was Steve.
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After classes finished up last spring, I stayed at school to work as a campus tour guide for the summer — showing prospective students around. Thursday, May 12, was a quiet day — no morning tours — so I spent most of my time scrolling through Twitter on my phone in our offices.
And then I saw that a Dayton student had posted a tweet that read in part, “RIP Steve.” Another Dayton student posted something similar. Then I saw a post with Steve’s full name next to the letters R.I.P.
My heart sank.
A few minutes later, the director of operations for Dayton basketball — who knew that I was one of the few players on campus — called me and asked me to come to his office. When I arrived, I saw our strength coach standing there, too. They both kind of clenched their jaws and nodded.
Their faces said it all. Steve was dead. He was only 20 years old. We later found out that he had collapsed at his home in Indiana and couldn’t be resuscitated. The cause of death was heart failure.
The following Monday — May 16 — the whole team reported to campus. Coach Miller brought us in for a meeting early in the morning. That day … those emotions … man, it was tough. But in the midst of the misery, Coach said something I’ll never forget.
“I don’t have the answers,” he said. “No one does. But I will tell you guys one thing: We will get through this together. We will get through this as one group.”
Since then, we’ve all tried to do that. For a while, it was extremely tough on all of us — especially on Darrell, Josh Cunningham, Kyle Davis and Kendall Pollard, the teammates that Steve was closest to. But for as tough as losing him was for us as his teammates, we knew it was unimaginably hard for the McElvene family. We want them to know that we love Steve so much. He’s in the way we work in practice. He’s in the way we laugh when we’re with each other. He’s in our hearts when we play.
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This year, Coach Miller has the same routine before each game: He comes into the locker room and writes the KEYS TO THE GAME on the whiteboard. Then he talks about what to look for from the opposing team. Sometimes we review specific plays we want to, and sometimes we go over film.
But before any of that, Coach Miller goes to the top right corner of the board and writes a big number 5.
He doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t have to. There’s no big speech or inspiring message.
There’s just a number.
Because that’s all we need. We know what it means. We know why we’ve been leaving everything we have on the floor in every game this year.
We’re doing it for you, Big Steve.
We miss you terribly and we want everyone to know that you’ll never be forgotten. Your laugh and your life lives on with this team and with this school. We hope to make you proud this spring.