A Superfan Is Ready for the Game, if They’ll Only Let Her In
Rosie Miller, 74, a devoted Dayton fan since the early 1950s, has red sweatshirts and navy slacks ready for the Atlantic 10 Conference men’s basketball tournament, which begins Wednesday. She has worn her basketball earrings all season. Her tree, still up from Christmas, is decorated with lights and ornaments in the Flyers’ red and blue team colors. Her arm is decorated with two vaccinations against the coronavirus.
“I’m dressing as if I’m going to the arena,” Miller, a neighborhood preservationist in Dayton, Ohio, laughed in a phone interview last week.
Instead, she planned to sit at home in front of the television. For a year, a reporter has followed her story as she has come to represent the agony of sports fans everywhere separated from their teams by the pandemic, which has intervened for a second consecutive college basketball season.
The restructured A-10 tournament will stage the preliminary rounds in Richmond, Va., through Saturday, take a hiatus and conclude March 14 in Dayton. Last season, the tournament was halted just after it began, when the Flyers were 29-2, angling for a No. 1 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament and seeking to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1967.
This season, spectators were limited to 300 for games at the Dayton Arena. Miller’s only presence was a cardboard cutout that she bought for $55. Even if the Flyers were to reach the A-10 final next week, Miller initially thought, she would not have the connections to get a ticket. She might have been inoculated against the coronavirus, but not against frustration.
“Screaming in my house is not the same as screaming in the arena,” Miller said of watching games on her sofa. “And I don’t think my cat is very happy.”
She began watching the Flyers on TV in the early 1950s. Hers, she said, was the only family in her first-grade class with a TV. She began attending Dayton games as a freshman there in 1964. On Sundays, she did not hesitate to stop then-Coach Don Donoher in the parking lot outside church to query him about a particular play. Her former companion, Dan Obrovac, started at center for Dayton in the 1967 N.C.A.A. title game against U.C.L.A. From 1985 through the 2019-20 season, Miller figured she missed about only a dozen home games in person. And she caught those on the radio or television.
Even now, she planned her vacation around the college basketball season. Her hobbies, she liked to say, are basketball and gardening and “thank God they overlap.”
Last March 11, Miller wore a throwback Dayton sweatshirt as she boarded a flight to New York for the Atlantic 10 tournament. The Flyers were a fashionable pick to win the national title. Forward Obi Toppin, a Brooklyn native, would be named the national player of the year and become a lottery pick by his hometown team, the Knicks.
The Ivy League had canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments on March 10, but the Atlantic 10 was still intending to proceed at the Barclays Center. Miller and her traveling companion, a friend from high school named Angie Hellwig, landed at La Guardia Airport in late afternoon and took a chartered bus with other Dayton fans to the Hampton Inn on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.
Miller had bought new clothes for the trip, including sweatshirts and a pair of red slacks. She also carried Obrovac’s Dayton letter sweater from the 1960s. But she was wary of the coronavirus outbreak. Miller and Hellwig carried wipes and disposable gloves, swabbed down their plane seats, their hotel room and the table at Junior’s restaurant in Brooklyn, where they went for burgers and cheesecake at dinner.
Somehow, they missed the news later that night that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for the coronavirus and that the N.B.A. season had been suspended.
At breakfast on March 12, talk about the pandemic filled the hotel lobby. The A-10 tournament planned to continue, but without fans, except for families and guests of the players. Miller tried to rent a car to drive back to Dayton, but it was never delivered to the hotel.
The news got worse. Before noon, as Massachusetts and Virginia Commonwealth were set to meet in a second-round game, with the winner to face Dayton in the conference quarterfinals, the tournament was canceled. “Are you sure?” Miller kept asking in the hotel lobby. “Are you sure?”
Hours later, the N.C.A.A. men’s and women’s tournaments were also canceled. Deflated, Miller and Hellwig made their way to La Guardia Airport. With the help of an understanding American Airlines agent, they booked a flight back to Dayton that evening.
“Well I’m bummed,” Miller texted a reporter. “I feel so badly for the team. Our first big chance in years.”
Her son, Gregorio, found out that she had flown during the growing pandemic. He was not happy. Miller said he messaged her from Portugal, telling her “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but” and cursed.
Miller arrived home after midnight. A night owl, she checked online to see if, somehow, the decision to cancel the N.C.A.A. tournament had been reversed. It had not.
“I’m superdepressed,” Miller said over the phone on the morning of March 13. “I live for March Madness. It’s like my Christmas.”
That afternoon, she sent a text: “Been thinking about my Flyers all day. And also about the ’67 team and it just occurred to me Obi was our Kareem.”
Her former companion, Obrovac, had outjumped Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, on the opening tip of the 1967 N.C.A.A. final. Everything then went wrong for Dayton as U.C.L.A. won the first of seven consecutive championships. But, for fans of a certain era, the tip remained the most iconic play in Dayton basketball history and was commemorated with a stained-glass mural in the university library.
Decades later, Obrovac and Abdul-Jabbar developed a brief, poignant relationship when both men developed cancer. Obrovac died in 2010 at age 62. A photograph of Obrovac winning the tip was fashioned into a Christmas ornament and hung on Miller’s tree every year.
“I may put a sheet up over it to keep from crying every time I walk past,” Miller said.
On March 14, Miller asked on Facebook, what does one do in March without basketball? She replied, “My house is going to be so clean it’s going to be disgusting.”
She watched as many replays of college games as she could find. She also watched a DVD of Obrovac’s glory days. On March 31, she texted a reporter to say that she had finally taken down her Christmas/basketball tree, adding, “Thank God for gardening. That will carry me through ’til the season starts again.”
On Dec. 3, she texted to say that her tree was up again for the 2020-21 college season. It now included an ornament featuring Toppin and a shrine to the unfulfilled 2019-20 season. Anchoring the shrine was an old pair of Obrovac’s size 19 sneakers, fashioned into what were surely the world’s largest elf shoes, and a rock from a garden center etched with the words, “Life begins when the season starts.”
“People walk in and look at me like I’m nuts,” she said. “I probably am.”
Dayton, 13-8 after winning Monday’s regular-season finale at St. Bonaventure, will likely have to win the A-10 championship to reach the N.C.A.A. tournament. But at least the Flyers would play for the conference title at home. On Sunday, Miller got some good news. One thousand spectators will be allowed for the A-10 final. She began to think aloud.
“I’ve got a couple heavy-hitter friends,” she said. “Maybe they can get me in.”
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