SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Lyons wears No. 2 on his uniform because that was his age when he lost his father. When he was 12, his aunt was murdered in the home Lyons and his mother shared in Schenectady, N.Y.
His mother, a hospital worker, began every day at 6 a.m. and made sure her sons did the same. Lyons gets his work ethic from his mom and his toughness from experiences better left shielded.
While smooth Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers will be a challenge when Lyons and Arizona meet the Crimson on Saturday, it will hardly be his first. He was the man of the family at an unfairly early age.
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He does not talk about it much, and who can blame him? As he said once, “I’m just a kid who overcame the problems of the ghetto.”
Lyons’ special bond with UA coach Sean Miller and assistant coach Book Richardson brought him to this point, his final college stop. He turned down Kentucky last summer, when he decided to transfer from Xavier, because he felt much more at home in Miller’s system, and it showed with his 23-point game in an 81-64 victory over Belmont on Thursday that was every bit as lopsided as the score made it seem.
“He has been a real father figure for me. A lot of the coaches here are like father figures,” said Lyons, a senior whose every next game could be his last at the college level.
Richardson was first on Lyons after seeing him at age 13 or 14, and Richardson tried to get Lyons to play for his AAU program, the New York Gauchos, who were made up of primarily players from New York City, about three hours away from Schenectady. That is how much Richardson liked Lyons, who was known as “Cheeks” back then.
A few years later, Miller offered Lyons a scholarship to Xavier after seeing him at an AAU tournament in Rhode Island. It was during a period of transition in Lyons’ life. He left Schenectady High before his junior year when things soured on the court and played at two prep schools in two years. He rejoined Miller at Xavier, although he was forced to sit out his first season as a partial qualifier.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Lyons said of his meeting with Miller in Rhode Island. “He has always been in my corner, somebody I can really trust.”
Richardson has established a trusting relationship through common life experiences, and he has seen Lyons mature along the way.
“My mother used to say, ‘Whatever I don’t teach you, the streets will,'” Richardson said, and she could have been speaking directly to Lyons.
The challenge is to channel that inner toughness, and it has been a work in progress. Lyons and his Xavier teammates got into a brawl on the floor during a game against inner-city rival Cincinnati two seasons ago. A Bearcats player threw a punch, and he was not going to get away with it.
“At the end of the day, if somebody put their hands in your face or tried to do something to you, where we’re from, you’re going to do something back,” Lyons said at the time. “We’re not going to sit and get our face beat in. We’re not going to let that happen.”
Those are the kinds of things that have made Lyons seem hard, unapproachable. But teammate Kevin Parrom said it is more the New York way, a style more direct than those in the West are used to.
Fellow senior Solomon Hill and Lyons play one-on-one after practice — battling hard, not giving an inch, and the aggressiveness of the competition make both better.
Richardson said Lyons is a considerate teammate. Some people might consider him a hired gun brought in for one season, but nothing could be further from the truth.
“He is so sincere in his approach. He’s given his last. He’s the one guy that is always encouraging,” Richardson said. “I wish we had him another year.”
Miller embraces the bond that started with Lyons years ago, as he does with the Wildcats’ other senior starters, Hill and Parrom.
“These guys mean a lot to us — to me, because a long time ago, when we ventured out to Arizona, we needed people to believe in us without a lot of evidence,” said Miller, who left Xavier for Arizona for the 2009-10 season.
“Mark had a lot of choices last spring. He could have joined a lot of teams. He chose us. I believe that’s part of the strong bond that I hope can continue to let us play. Clearly, we started this process a long time ago. It all builds toward this tournament, but I believe this relationship, you can feel it in moments like this.”