Tyrone Lewis’ Long Road To Niagara (Part 1)

This is a guest post from Ronak Patel and part 1 of 2. Come back at noon for the second half. Contemplation. Reflection. What to do with the rest of your life? These are questions that everyone asks after college. And for former standout college basketball players there can be a bevy of options.

Tyrone Lewis coaches the Niagara Purple Eagles during a game against Rutgers.
(Ben Solomon/Niagara Athletics)

That was the case for Tyrone Lewis, who starred at Niagara from 2006-10. He went through all of the aforementioned when he tore his ACL just a few months into his first playing stint with Maccabi Beer Yaakov. Then came rehab, and then innocently enough, he stumbled upon coaching.

“When I got home from Israel, I needed a gym to rehab and a good friend from Bensalem High School (my rival school from my high school days) heard I was back in town,” Lewis said. “Their coach needed help on the junior varsity team and since I had free time time in the gym, I took him up on his offer. I helped the JV coach and they ran similar sets to what we did at Niagara, so I assisted the squad on what I was taught in college. I came in early and stayed long after the games.”

In one season, the team qualified for the state tournament, the first time in nearly two decades. After rehabbing his ACL, Lewis went to Germany to play his second season overseas. He played for the Itzehoe Eagles in the German fourth division and led the league in points, steals, and blocks.

“Playing in Germany, I found myself missing the coaching experience that I had at Bensalem,” Lewis said. “I started to coach a program in Germany and asked for a youth team, 17 and under. What I noticed is basketball is an universal language and I helped coach them to undefeated season. If I can teach kids who didn’t speak English, I wonder what I can do when I got back.”

With his success overseas, Lewis said the pull of coaching versus playing was a hard factor to weigh.

“I tell people when I played there, I kind of felt like what LeBron James feels here in the US,” Lewis said. “In Germany, people loved me and everywhere I went, they knew what I did at Niagara. It was a great place to play and live.”

Lewis continued, “Everyone from college wants to play in the NBA, you reach for the moon, I fell short, but overseas opened up litany of possibilities for me. I got to see Germany and Israel.

Lewis went back to Germany for a second season, but had an epiphany while watching an NFL game. He rang his mom.

“I was watching a NFL football game with the seven hour time difference. I called my mom,” Lewis said. “She was excited but also worried because I love basketball and she was afraid I would miss playing the game.”

“I missed a lot of sacrifices and missed my family when I was overseas and I put basketball in front of it all,” Lewis continued. “I left overseas on my own terms. Once got what I wanted, I then wanted to start a new life.Coaching wasn’t in the plans and first plans was to play professional ball. Second was to be a teacher.”

So in his mid 20s, Lewis decided to quit the game he loves and embark on a coaching career. He first landed in Boston and was working an 80-hour job at Verizon when he got a call about an opening at Widener, a Division III school located in Chester, Pa.

“I packed my car and drove overnight from Boston to Philly for the interview,” Lewis said.

He landed an assistant coaching job at Widener. It was a very humbling experience for Lewis.

“First I was scared and I had a reputation to live up too,” Lewis said. “I wasn’t playing anymore and people may have thought, ‘Look at him, he’s 24 and living at home and making $600 a month as an assistant coach at Widener.’“

Lewis continued, “I recruited all over New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and parts of Baltimore. Our budget was sparse—it was nearly $5,000 roughly for recruiting—and no reimbursements.”

After one year at Widener, Lewis became the head coach at Bristol Barrow High School in Bristol, Pa. In two short seasons, he turned around the program, leading them to consecutive district titles.

“I remember when I became the head coach at Bristol, I was going to rely upon my old Niagara coach Joe Mihalich,” Lewis said. “I was assuming he’s going to direct me to books and websites on coaching. He’s going to give me books about coaching since he’s done it for 35 years. He didn’t do that, he told me, ‘Trust your gut.’ You want people you can trust and people that won’t undermine you.”

Lewis learned during his time at Bristol that not each player can be prodded or coached the same way.

“I got good coaching from Mihalich and I know what good coaching is with the success he’s had. When teaching kids basketball, they are not you. Its different for myself utilizing a ball screen than it would be for John Smith.”

“Bristol played in a public league,” Lewis said. “So we had players of different abilities. I found what they were good at and used them in spots where they would take advantage of the skillset they had,” Lewis said. “You can find kids at the Division I level and teach them the game of basketball since they are heavily invested. At the high school level, you have to trust your gut and understand kids are not going to feel or love the game as you did. Everyone is disciplined differently and handled differently. They can’t take to coaching the same way I did when Mihalich coached me.“

After two seasons at Bristol, Lewis got a call from coach Casey to return to his alma mater. Initially, he was coming aboard to help Niagara’s transition after losing a bevy of players to transfers.

“It wasn’t planned for me to become the director of basketball operations,” Lewis said. “Coach wanted me to help out the new players who were coming in after the transfer losses. But the guy who held the post left and I was suddenly thrust into the position.”

It’s a position he holds with great pride but he wants to eventually become an assistant coach, and one day a head coach.

“That’s the plan,” Lewis said. “I don’t plan on being a director of basketball ops forever but I know this job is grooming me for when that call comes.”

When it comes, Lewis will be ready—there will be no contemplation. He’s found his calling.

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