V.J. Beachem finds strength in sadness

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Playing pickup with his former high school pals back home is an annual rite of passage each spring for Notre Dame senior- and captain-to-be V.J. Beachem.

Every May, Beachem and his New Haven High School buddies return to Fort Wayne for a couple of weeks off from college and arrange nightly pickup/workout sessions to clown around a little and compete a lot.

One night in the middle of the month, Beachem took note of someone whose game was getting better. The big kid with the happy-go-lucky attitude had gotten serious about his game. He was running the court with a purpose, finishing around the rim on one end and blocking some serious shots on the other.

Beachem made sure to mention that his buddy was on track toward becoming something special. Soon. Give him another year, and who knows where his game might go.

On the morning of May 12, hours after leaving a pickup session with Beachem, 20-year-old University of Dayton sophomore center Steve McElvene was dead of an apparent cardiac issue.

McElvene’s death hit Beachem hard. That night, he and his family visited McElvene’s mother. He later went on a local television station to remember his friend, but did so in a haze.

Even now, it still doesn’t seem real that McElvene's gone. One night, Beachem was praising McElvene for his game. The next, he was offering prayers for his memory.

Back on campus and preparing to have what many expect to be a bust-out 2016-17 season, Beachem’s thoughts are seldom far from his fallen friend.

“It’s really sad,” Beachem said Tuesday night following Notre Dame’s final team practice of the summer. “We’ll just try and do things now for Steve. It’s extra motivation for me and everybody who knew him, just how great of a person he was.”

Anytime Beachem and McElvene were matched up on opposite teams for pickup, Beachem would drive it to the hoop wondering if the 6-foot-11 McElvene might swat his shot. He tried to block everything. Get it up high on the glass, Beachem would remind himself, because the guy they called “Big Steve” likely was lurking.

Beachem may get a tattoo of something McElvene-related to honor him.

“I’ll always have him in the back of my mind,” Beachem said. “Now it’s just about doing it for Steve and trying to take advantage of the opportunities that I have and the opportunities that I thought he’d have as well.”

Opportunity will knock — and likely loudly — for Beachem this winter. Coming off a solid postseason that saw him score double figures in all six Irish games (two Atlantic Coast Conference, four NCAAs), Beachem has raised his potential bar.

How good can he be? First team all-league? First-round NBA pick? Anything is possible for the team’s leading returning scorer (12.0 ppg.) after going for 18, 15, 19 and 18 points in Notre Dame’s second straight run to the Elite Eight.

“That’s what I’m really hoping for, just using that confidence and the things that I learned in March and putting them into my game this year and completing my game overall,” he said.

Beachem was so scary good in March that he toyed with the idea of joining good friend and former classmate Demetrius Jackson in the NBA draft a year ahead of schedule. Unlike Jackson, Beachem did not sign with an agent after declaring 10 days after the loss to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament East Regional final. Though not invited to the mid-May Combine, which was in progress on the day McElvene died, Beachem collected enough pro feedback to feel good about his decision to return.

Through the Irish coaching staff, the NBA decision-makers gave Beachem a to-do list on what he needed to do to improve his stock for 2017 — be better defensively, play offensively the way he did in March and better round out that side of his game, be it off the dribble, in screen-and-roll and maybe even more creative in the halfcourt. Not be just a spot-up shooter, albeit a very good one.

He’s put in the work in those areas. He’s also worked to add a few more pounds to his lanky 6-8 frame. Thanks to a root canal needed after the ACC tournament, he played at a rather light 190 pounds in the NCAAs. He wants to add at least five more pounds before fall arrives and play this season at 205.

Once Beachem accepted that the chance to be a first-round pick was a year away, he was all in returning for his senior season.

“I love it here,” he said. “I love this team and I love the opportunity that’s ahead of us to finally get over the hump.”

Doing so will require Beachem to lead. With his play. With his voice. With showing the way when the coaches aren’t around. Becoming one of the main guys every day was an adjustment after Jackson left early and former captain Zach Auguste graduated.

“It was kind of weird at first not having Zach or Demetrius around,” Beachem said. “I’ve just been trying to voice myself as much as I can and show them my work habits. That’s the number one thing for me.”

As is just being there for the freshman, who after six weeks of summer school are a long way away from having it all figured out. Sometimes, Beachem will show them the way. Other times, he’ll tell them what’s expected.

“Whether you need a pair of socks or help shooting in the gym late at night, I’ve really learned from him,” said freshman guard T.J. Gibbs. “He’s just a great guy, an unselfish guy.”

Beachem took that lesson from McElvene, who seldom seemed to have a bad day. Beachem likely will have his share of them in the coming weeks and months, but they won’t seem as tough as they once were to take. Anytime he’s now down, he thinks of McElvene and can’t help but smile. McElvene seemingly always did.

“His spirit, man, that’s what I’ll miss the most about him,” Beachem said. “He just had so much potential.”

Time for Beachem to tap into his.

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