Everyone loved McElvene. He was big — 6-11 on the roster or 7-foot, depending on who you asked. He was funny. He could dance. He was talented, setting the school’s single-season blocks record last season. He was a hard worker who made so much progress on the academic side in two years at UD.
Few people at UD were closer to McElvene than Griffin. The former Syracuse star looked at McElvene as a son. He was the first UD coach to hear about the big man from Fort Wayne, Ind. He was the one in charge of recruiting him. He was the one who got the phone call May 12 from McElvene’s mom, Jenell Shoals.
Something was wrong
Griffin relived that terrible moment last week. May 12 fell between the end of spring semester at UD and the start of the first summer session. All the players had gone home for a few days. McElvene and most of his teammates were scheduled to return to school that weekend.
Griffin was preparing to take a short vacation with his three sons and was picking up one son at school when he got a call from Shoals. He didn’t answer the first call because he was driving, thinking Shoals wanted to ask him when McElvene needed to be back at school.
Griffin’s phone rang again as he arrived at the school. He told himself he’d call her back as soon as he got home. He picked up his son, asked him how school went and before they returned to the car, Griffin had received three or four more phone calls from Shoals.
“Now I knew something was wrong,” Griffin said. “When I answered, I said hello, and all I could hear was screaming in the background. Jenell was screaming, ‘I think I lost my baby.’ I’m like, ‘Huh.’ I’m all confused. She said, ‘Griff, he fainted, and they’re trying to bring him back now.’”
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Griffin told her, “You should get off the phone with me, pay attention to what’s going on and pray. When you hear something, you let me know, but just make sure you keep me updated.”
Griffin had never received a phone call like that. He put his son in the car, and his hands were shaking, He couldn’t move. Somehow he drove home, where he waited by his phone. Meanwhile he called Bill Comar, Dayton’s director of basketball operations. They decided to wait to call Miller before they knew exactly what had happened.
“I got the phone call 15-20 minutes later,” Griffin said. “She said, ‘Steve’s gone.’ Then I got stiff and quiet, and I couldn’t really think straight.”
Griffin called Comar again and then called Miller, who was at Atlantic 10 meetings in Naples, Fla.
“I broke the news to him,” Griffin said, “and the rest is history.”
One of a kind
Three years earlier, Griffin first heard the name McElvene while talking to coaches with the Spiece Indy Heat, a team on Nike’s EYBL circuit. Griffin met the coaches two years earlier before McElvene had moved back to Fort Wayne from Alabama.
Now the coaches told Griffin, “We’ve got one for you. He’s going to be a little bit of a handful at first. If he can ever get through it and lose some weight, he could be a really good player.”
“OK, who is he?” Griffin asked.
“First, let me tell you how big he is?”
“What? Is he 6-9, 280?”
“No, he’s 7-foot, 300 pounds.”
“Yes, thank God,” Griffin said. “We need him.”
Griffin knew how hard it was to find big men like that and recruit them to the A-10.
“You might get a 6-9 athletic kid, but a true 7-footer with a 7-foot wingspan, you only see those kids at Duke, Kentucky, Purdue, stuff like that,” Griffin said.
Griffin drove to Indianapolis to see McElvene play. He saw a coach from Ball State there. They quickly determined they were both there to watch McElvene.
Griffin didn’t have to see much from McElvene before he texted Miller. Griffin told him McElvene could move well with his weight and could catch passes in traffic. From there, the recruitment began.
Griffin hit it off with Shoals by being straight with the family when a lot of schools were giving them the runaround because they knew McElvene was going to be a project.
“I called them every day, all day, as much as I could,” Griffin said. “When we got a chance to go down there and meet them face to face, it took it to another level.”
At that time, Griffin had a hard time getting McElvene on the phone, and when he did, McElvene wasn’t exactly focused on the conversation because he was always busy with things at school. Griffin knew he had to get McElvene to come to Dayton for an unofficial visit, and he’ll never forget when McElvene showed up and Miller got his first look at him.
“I think Coach had seen him in the EYBL in April probably once,” Griffin said. “It was by a glance. We weren’t recruiting him at that particular moment. He gets out of the car, and Coach didn’t know how big he was. Coach looked at me like, ‘This kid is huge!’ It was crazy. Coach’s face kind of lit up.”
That’s the effect McElvene had on all who met him.
“Steve was one of a kind,” Griffin said. “When all was said and done and the tragedy happened, he was better than his problems.”
Don’t give up
McElvene verbally committed to Dayton in September 2013. He arrived on campus a year later and was declared a partial qualifier, meaning he could practice as a freshman but not play. That turned out to a good thing as it gave him time to get his body ready for college basketball and adapt to college classes and life away from home.
“Once he started to lose some weight, he started to gain a little confidence,” Griffin said. “He worked at it. He watched what he ate. A couple times I took him to a pizza places around town, and instead of eating pizza, he wanted salad. He really bought in. He wanted to be a good player. He knew he would have to shed the pounds if he wanted to even play here.”
McElvene weighed close to 315 pounds when he arrived at UD and was listed at 268 pounds on the roster last season. He battled foul trouble most of last season and saw his minutes rise and fall but when Dayton needed him on the court in the final moments of the regular-season finale against Virginia Commonwealth, McElvene was the one running at Melvin Johnson to hurry a missed 3-pointer in the final seconds.
UD clinched a share of the A-10 championship in what would turn out to be McElvene’s final home game. He celebrated with the rest of his teammates with the Red Scare student section.
“He had his ups and downs like every kid we have on our team,” Griffin said. “They have their good days and they have their bad days. I was just happy Steve was able to get to the point he got to in terms of being able to play and help us and do some really good things and show a lot of promise. I was really proud of that. In the classroom, he worked. He tried. He really really tried.”
Griffin said he had his shouting matches with McElvene, who would always tell him, “Coach Griff, don’t give up on me.”
“I never would give up on him,” Griffin said. “Not just him or any kid. Our whole staff had hands on him. It took a whole staff.”