John Raponi bought a red Dayton Flyers T-shirt on Thursday morning at UD Arena. It wasn’t because his wardrobe lacked the color. He lives red, breathes red and wears red every. That’s his motto, in fact: “Wear red.”
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Raponi planned to wear the new T-shirt Friday and watch Dayton play in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. Instead, the Atlantic 10 Conference and then the NCAA cancelled their tournaments because of the coronavirus pandemic, ending one of the greatest seasons in Dayton basketball history before the Flyers had a chance to make it — once and for all — the greatest season.
The sad news won’t deter Raponi.
“I’ll still wear red tomorrow,” he said.
Raponi sits in the corner at UD Arena near the tunnel where the team enters and leaves the court. He has missed only a handful of games in decades. The fans define Dayton basketball. Raponi defines the fans.
“I was there for the semifinals and finals in ‘67,” he said. “Now I’m 70 years old. I thought this was going to be the year. The three saddest things for me in Flyer basketball were losing Chris (Daniels), Steve (McElvene) and now this. For all the Flyer fans and the players especially, this was our year. I don’t know what to say.”
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The loss may have hurt his son John, who followed his dad into the “wearing red” business, even more. He wore a complete Dayton uniform — top and shorts — to Senior Night on Saturday, not knowing at the time that would be the last game Dayton would play in the 2019-20 season. The season ended with 29 victories, a school record, and 20 straight victories, tied for a school record. Dayton played the entire season without losing a game in regulation time. No other team in the country or UD history could claim that special feat.
“What hurts the most isn’t that our season is over,” the younger John Raponi said. “We all know the NCAA is mayhem. Our season coming to an end like this is a statement on the fragility of humanity.”
If the Raponis have an equal in the fan base, it’s Dr. Stephen Levitt, who has held many preseason banquets for the team and the fans, and stands next to the same tunnel where the players enter the arena before every game, greeting coaches and players as they head to Tom Blackburn Court to warm up.
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If the Raponis together equal Obi Toppin in star power, Levitt is Jalen Crutcher — every bit as important to the fan base. Needless to say, Thursday was a tough day for him.
“I’m stunned,” Levitt said. “I’m depressed. But I understand that with the severity of the coronavirus that this had to be done. It was a prudent move by all the of the organizations concerned, and they did not want to be liable if someone got the virus or died. It’s just unfortunate, especially since this is a banner year. Of course, I’m hoping for many more banner years. I feel bad for the entire team, with a special emphasis on Ryan (Mikesell), Trey (Landers) and Obi and for the coaching staff and the administration and for the school and the fans, the Flyer Faithful.”
Levitt planned to go to the Dayton games if the games had continued, attending the A-10 championship game if the Flyers advanced and the NCAA tournament games next week. Dayton likely would have ended up in Cleveland in the first round.
“I’m probably a moderately high-risk patient because I do have some respiratory problems and I’m aging,” Levitt said, “but I am so committed to the program and the players. I would have been there rooting them on.”
For the younger fans, the “What ifs” about this season will sting, too.
“Obviously, it’s really, really disappointing we don’t get to see our team play (Friday) in Brooklyn,” said UD junior Taylor Genier, president of the Red Scare student section. “Everyone was looking to get over that hump this year and maybe get the chance to win our first A-10 (tournament) in a long time. That’s really upsetting. But it is what it is right now. With the COVID-19, you can’t predict what’s going to happen.”
Numerous other fans were shocked and saddened by Thursday’s news. Here’s a sampling of their reactions:
Aaron Cullers (Austin, Texas): "My dad (Jack) and I were slightly ahead of the curve and cancelled the night before the trip for the tournament, We are gutted. Season tickets in the family since the arena opened. Dad is 75, so this year felt like a gift. Just beyond bummed right now."
Tom Sweet (Chicago, Ill., 2019 graduate): "This all seems like a sick joke. Nothing has felt real this entire season and now this. … I am waiting for this bad dream to end but this will always be the season of what could have been."
Dylan Heitkamp (St. Henry): "As a Dayton fan, I'd rather have seen them lose to a 16 seed than for the historic season to end like this."
Tom Benecki (Buffalo, N.Y.): "I watched the Elite Eight team in my home city when I didn't know I was going to Dayton yet and fell in love with the team. I never felt the way I did with college basketball like I did that year and this year, and now it's snatched away. Brutal. Brutal. Brutal. Brutal."
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