Former Air Force great Michael Lyons waiting for his chance to again shine on the court

By Brent Briggeman Published: December 16, 2013 | 7:15 pm 0

Michael Lyons retreated to a tunnel at Clune Arena during halftime of a recent Air Force basketball game to conduct an interview for this story, but along the way he was stopped by an usher in a yellow jacket.

The man in yellow was not looking to offer Lyons praise or ask for an autograph, as likely would have happened had this situation played out the year before. Instead, he needed to see some credentials before Lyons could step on the floor.

It was as not-so-subtle reminder of how quickly life has changed for Lyons. In months he has gone from the man who dominated in this building as few - if any - had before, to a fan making almost anonymous appearances in the stands behind the bench. The games that were once so monumental for him now provide little interludes in what otherwise is a holding pattern in his life.

***

The end for Michael Lyons was quick and painful.

It was just 94 seconds into Air Force's Mountain West Tournament opener in Las Vegas when UNLV's Bryce Dejean-Jones reached around the 6-foot-5 guard in a steal attempt near midcourt. The contact caused Lyons' knee to buckle and tore the medial meniscus. The disk-shaped piece flipped inside the knee and lodged itself in such a way it locked his leg in that position until surgery in Colorado Springs the next day. The pain was excruciating. Lyons flew back in coach class but was fortunately given a seat in the front row with leg room.

"I felt like my world was ending at that moment," he said.

A few days later the Falcons learned that, despite going 17-13 overall and 8-8 in an unusually strong Mountain West, the NIT was not taking them.

Word soon came from a source within the selection committee that Lyons' injury weighed heavily against Air Force's case.

"I didn't think tournaments like that were so political, but it turns out that they are," he said. "I felt bad because my team couldn't go, but at the same time you can only feel so bad because you know there's nothing you can do about it."

That snub illustrates just how good Lyons was last year. He led the conference in scoring average (18.3), eclipsed 30 points three times and dropped 45 on Colorado State in a memorable, sold-out game at Clune Arena.

He became just the fourth Air Force player selected to the Mountain West's first team. Two of the others - Antoine Hood and Dan Nwaelele - went on to play professionally. Lyons planned to follow that path, and all he could think about after the injury was how that chance may have slipped away

***

Lyons had long envisioned playing in front of NBA scouts and surprising them with the moves, creativity and leaping ability that were unique for a player at a military academy.

Instead, the first scout he spoke to wasn't from the NBA but a representative of a German team that Lyons played against last month while touring Europe with an all-military squad.

Lyons led the U.S. team in scoring.

"A team from Germany scouted me, but I told them there's nothing I can do now," said Lyons, who has at least 18 months remaining on his military commitment.

That would have been all Lyons could have told the NBA scouts last year, but he wanted at least make an impression that could lead to future opportunities. He could have done that at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a showcase for select college seniors in his native Virginia. Losing that chance was the most difficult part of the injury for Lyons.

Now he sees that other doors may be opened to him. He is going to explore the chance to perhaps get back into the Portsmouth tournament this year as a special case, or he'll see what NBA camps he might be able to attend.

He was encouraged in October when the San Antonio Spurs trained for a few days at the academy. Lyons was introduced to Spurs coach and fellow Air Force graduate Gregg Popovich, who told him to give him a call if ever he needed anything.

"When summertime rolls around, I'll probably be taking him up on that," Lyons said.

***

Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich has fielded several calls from scouts and pro personnel wanting to discuss Lyons.

"It's mostly agents who want to not only find out about his injury," Pilipovich said, "but also about the military side of it."

This is the major roadblock for all high-level Air Force graduates as they contemplate their professional sports options.

In some cases, athletes can finish their time on active duty in just two years with a longer stint on reserves following it. Sometimes, as was the case with Nwaelele, who served five years, there's simply no getting out of it until the military determines you are replaceable.

Lyons is serving at the Air Force prep school, where he is in charge of a squadron and is an assistant basketball coach. The assignment has allowed him to play ball nearly every day and square off against his brother, Trevor, who attends the school.

"We've always been close," Lyons said. "We played basketball together all the time. We'd go around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and saying, 'You want to play? Me and my brother against all y'all.'"

Lyons has no idea if he'll be assigned to the prep school again next year, but he's expecting to serve two years in some capacity.

"It's two years, but I'm working the system as much as I can," Lyons said. "If I have to stay in and do the full time, then I'll do it. But I'm going to stay in tiptop shape so that when my number is called I'll be ready to perform and perform well."

In the meantime, Lyons has been catching several Air Force basketball games.

He sits, watches and often reminisces.

"When I'm here it makes me realize some of the things that my team and I did," he said. "I try to think about the good times - San Diego State, New Mexico and fans storming the court and stuff. But it's hard not to think about the injury. I do think about that a lot."

Whatever he's thinking about, Lyons just better not forget his ticket. Because for all he once was and may again be in the sport, right now he's just another spectator in the stands.

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