LYONS

Wildcat finds his fire in ashes of childhood

2013-03-23T00:00:00Z 2013-03-23T14:14:42Z Wildcat finds his fire in ashes of childhoodPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 23, 2013 12:00 am  • 

SALT LAKE CITY - Mark Lyons wears No. 2 on his back and a weight on his heart, a reminder of who's not there.

When the Xavier guard transferred to the Arizona Wildcats before this season, he chose No. 2 - his age when his father, Todd, was killed in a car accident, behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle, after robbing a liquor store.

Eleven years ago, Lyons and his mother, Jacqueline, were helpless as his aunt, Melissa Cash Smith, was stabbed to death by her husband, Anthony, just downstairs from them. Anthony Smith pled guilty to second-degree murder.

Lyons doesn't like to talk about the loss in his life, but it rarely leaves his mind, even before games. Today marks one of the biggest in the senior's college career, a 3:10 p.m. NCAA tournament game against Harvard for a Sweet 16 berth.

The Schenectady, N.Y., product will be emotional.

"I just think about the people that I lost in my life," he said, "And them not being able to be here to witness the things I'm going through now."

•••

Book Richardson has known Lyons since the younger player was 13, when his pudgy face had already earned him the nickname "Cheeks" that followed him to college.

"Bulldog cheeks," Lyons countered, with a joking sneer.

Richardson knew Lyons' upbringing and could relate. The UA assistant coach's mother gave birth to him when she was 15. He's met his biological father once.

But he, like Lyons, was able to find a welcome distraction in basketball - "An incredible situation of camaraderie, family and teamwork," Richardson said - and coaches as substitute fathers. Richardson still calls his high school and college coaches "Dad."

Richardson recruited Lyons, unsuccessfully, to play for his AAU team, the New York Gauchos, and then, successfully, to Xavier.

After Lyons committed to the Musketeers, though, head coach Sean Miller left for the Wildcats, taking Richardson with him.

When Lyons graduated from Xavier last year and had a season of eligibility remaining, he talked to Kentucky and other national powers about transferring.

He chose the UA because he knew Miller's system - but, more importantly, because he knew Miller.

"He's been a real father figure for me," Lyons said. "Coming here was basically because of him. All the coaches on this team are basically like father figures to me. …

"I can always trust 'em. They're always in my corner. Never lie to me."

Miller said Lyons "could have joined a lot of teams and he decided to join us" at Arizona.

"With that," he said, "we have a strong bond."

Miller and Richardson sometimes take turns barking at Lyons, a point guard with a propensity to, despite his scoring touch, frustrate fans with bluster and turnovers.

Both coaches are former point guards, and Richardson had a rebellious streak in college.

"The Basketball God, he is so funny - and he is so fair," Richardson said, "Because the thing is, he puts these guys in my life and says, 'That was you - deal with them.' "

Lyons tells him, "'I'm a grown man,'" Richardson said. "But you watch him from infancy now to being an adult - I think he's turned the corner a little bit.

"He's still got to pass the ball a little bit better."

•••

Lyons' 15 points per game leads the Wildcats, but fans of Point Guard U expect more from the position. His 2.9 assists per game barely outnumber his 2.7 turnovers.

More than Sabatino Chen's nullified buzzer-beater for Colorado and three losses to UCLA, Lyons has been the season's flash point for fans.

"They love me when I'm hitting game-winners, and they're going to hate me when we lose one game," said Lyons, whose late heroics led to wins against Florida and San Diego State.

"It is what it is. We're in the NCAA tournament, about to play for the Sweet 16. Eventually, they'll love me again.…

"I got family and friends who love me. That's all I really care about, at the end of the day."

That attitude might rub some UA supporters the wrong way. Lyons blames a translation problem between the two coasts.

"They think our hunger, sometimes they take it as, 'He thinks he's too tough. He's selfish. He's this. He's that,'" he said. "No, we grew up differently.

"We grew up with moms yelling at us to go shovel" snow.

"Y'all grew up with sunny days - every day's a good day in the beginning.

"That's one thing.

"That's one, out of a million things, that's different."

The key is to make that motor work on the floor, said Richardson, who joked that he sometimes shares fans' love/hate relationship with his guard.

"What you try to do," Richardson said, "is you try to channel that fire."

•••

Lyons' fire comes from those who have left.

His work ethic starts with the woman who never did.

"Growing up with a single mom who's always there for me, worked hard and things like that, that's where I get my work ethic from," Lyons said. "She wakes up every day at 6 o'clock in the morning to put food on my table, clothes on my back."

Jacqueline, a secretary at Albany Medical Center, talks to her son before and after every game. If the Wildcats advance to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles, Lyons wants to fly her out, but he knows she has to work.

"He's very generous, a very loving guy," said UA senior Kevin Parrom. "He's a good guy. On the court, he's a competitor."

Richardson describes Lyons as "sincere" and "lovable," words fans might not conjure from watching Lyons play a game.

"He's hit for being a bad, selfish guy, and I'm like, 'This is the one guy that will give you his last.'"

Lyons, who said he "had to find my own way out" of his New York neighborhood, already has his college degree.

Today, he can claim a Sweet 16 berth with an assist from those present, and those passed.

"No brainer," he said. "They'd be proud of me."

"I just think about the people that I lost in my life. And them not being able to be here to witness the things I'm going through now."

Mark Lyons, UA senior point guard

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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