Love story: Flyers, Dayton flying high

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
7:30
PM ET

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Devin Oliver sat at the edge of his locker with his hands in his lap. It was a few minutes after Dayton's 82-72 Sweet 16 win over Stanford, and he was surrounded by the customary tangle of cameras and voice recorders and microphones on poles. He had managed to get his shoes off, but he was still wearing his uniform. He hadn't had time to take a shower.

Behind him, in his locker, sat his iPhone. Every few seconds, it would light up. A river of texts and tweets buzzed its way down the screen.

A reporter asked him if he knew what the mood was like back in Dayton, Ohio. Had he turned around and consulted his device, Oliver could have provided countless specifics.

But really, he already knew.

"I know after the Syracuse game, we had a, uh, friendly riot," Oliver said. "So they're probably going bonkers back there right now."

Bonkers indeed. Thousands of students crammed onto Kiefaber Street in the heart of campus, hugging and singing "Olé" and "Chelsea Dagger." A UD Arena watch party turned into a stadium-seated lovefest. Every house in the area waved its own witty homemade flag. Selfies abounded. Dayton has an undergraduate enrollment of 8,072. Within minutes of the final buzzer that sent their Flyers to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1984, every last one of them was simultaneously celebrating the Flyers' win and documenting that celebration on the Internet. Or at least it felt that way.

And then there were the Flyers fans in Memphis. UCLA and Stanford fans were hard to find. Florida fans are here, but ho-hum. Flyers fans were everywhere. They swarmed Beale Street in blue and red T-shirts and overwhelmed the FedEx Forum Thursday night. On Friday, when a reporter stopped at Central BBQ, a local off-the-path institution 10 miles away from downtown Memphis, the dining room was full of the usual lunch crowd … and a pack of Dayton fans. They chatted with the cashier about their chances of beating Florida on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeDevon Scott
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Flyers have been celebrating a lot during their magical run in the NCAA tournament.
One week after Dayton's president body-surfed atop that same crowd, this weekend's celebration pulled the curtain further back on the remarkable and little-known connection the city of Dayton has with its basketball team -- and vice versa.

"They're intertwined. They go hand in hand," Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "The community, the program, they both live off one another. Sometimes, 20-, 30-, 40-year season-ticket holders run up to you in a grocery store, and you can be 0-8, and they're going to get 12,000 people [to the game], and they're going to cheer you on. They're going to love your players."

The Flyers haven't been to the Final Four since 1967. They've been to six NCAA tournaments since 1990 and spent an entire decade (from 1991 to 1999) in the tourney-bid wilderness.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, an industrial powerhouse in the first half of the 20th century was hit hard by globalization and American manufacturing decline. In 1900, Dayton claimed more patents per capita than any other U.S. city. In 1940, it was the 40th-largest city in the U.S. and home to a handful of Fortune 500 companies. After World War II, Dayton was home to the largest group of General Motors employees outside Michigan. Since the 1970s, though, the same factors that ravaged cities like Detroit and Cleveland have played out in Dayton: Factory and automobile jobs have gradually disappeared. The population has shrunk from 260,000 in 1960 to 141,000 in the 2010 census.

The city has proved economically resilient in the past decade: Surrounding suburbs have grown, and the business community has pivoted to high-tech and health services industries. But the past five decades haven't been a walk in the park.

And still, the town's obsession with its Flyers has lasted. In 2012-13, the Flyers' average attendance of 12,438 ranked 26th in Division I college hoops. For the past 17 seasons, Dayton has ranked among the nation's top 30 programs in average home attendance. Flyers fans haven't ranked outside the top 35 since 1969 -- when UD Arena opened for business. Every year, when Dayton hosts the First Four, it packs the house for 15- and 16-seeds with no stars.

In a state mostly fixated on football, Dayton fans are unique in another way -- both hungry for success and patient for its arrival. And very, very appreciative when it comes around.

"It's a little bit of a double-edged sword," Miller said. "Because if you're doing well, they make you feel like you're doing better than you really are. You may show up and eight cakes and 19 boxes of cookies are going to be in your office or in your locker room after you get a great win.

"In some places, winning is an expectation, but they love to see our guys do well."

Dayton's players are enjoying a chance to repay the favor. This week, Oliver casually name-dropped Roosevelt Chapman, the leading scorer in Flyers history, and legendary coach Don Donohor, who steered the program from UD Arena's first season to the Flyers' 1984 Elite Eight run. This week, Dayton Daily News beat writer David Jablonski noted the similarities between that 1984 team and its 2014 counterpart: Both teams struggled in January, both barely snuck through the NCAA tournament bubble and both wreaked havoc on the bracket once there.

The 2014 Flyers are an especially easy group to root for. On Thursday night, Miller's team diced up Stanford's defense to the tune of 1.15 points per possession. Its ball movement was brilliant. Its off-ball cuts were beautiful. Eleven players scored. Dayton's bench outscored Stanford's 34-2. The Flyers assisted on 68 percent of their field goals. They were constantly moving, whipping the ball around the floor, keeping Stanford guessing. It was controlled, unselfish, egalitarian chaos.

In front of a crowd so loud Miller later called it a "home game," the Dayton Flyers unleashed the basketball equivalent of 8,000 people singing in the streets.

On Saturday night, Dayton will face the best and most complete basketball team in the country -- a No. 1-seeded Florida team perfectly designed to suppress any offensive style. They will have to play their best game of the season to win.

"It's not about them," guard Jordan Sibert said. "It's about us -- about what we bring to the table."

If the Flyers do bring it, if they do shock the proverbial world, Dayton fans will take to the streets again. If they don't, rest assured, the cookies and cakes will still show up at Miller's office. The gratitude will overflow.

Whatever happens Saturday night, Dayton will stand and applaud its best group of Flyers in decades.

Win or lose, Oliver's phone will be buzzing.

"[In Dayton] you get to know people," he said. "It's all interconnected. There's a bond of friendship between everyone, really.

"It's the perfect thing for this team and for the community. It all fits into one."

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