CHICAGO – This is supposed to be some kind of mission impossible for Tyrone Lewis, a moment that should swallow him and his Niagara teammates.
They're seeded 16th in the West Regional of the NCAA tournament, a matchup with the mighty Kansas Jayhawks awaiting them Friday night, and they're assumed to be just another tiny school from a mid-major conference who'll shrivel up at the sight of a national power. Yet somehow, this challenge has to seem so small for Lewis, a freshman guard out of gritty, little Bristol, Pa., and the most valuable player of this year's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Hell, after what Lewis has been through, the prospect of standing tall against Kansas is pretty much Reese's Pieces.
"I had a cloud over my head," Lewis, 19, said Thursday. "I'm on Cloud 9 right now."
Once, such a statement from him didn't seem possible. It certainly didn't in June, when a confluence of terrible circumstances swelled into a national media tempest and turned Tyrone Lewis – according to his local police department – into a man marked for death.
The story is complex, dark, so let's start with a sliver of light.
In his four years at Harry S. Truman High School, located 20 miles north of Philadelphia in Bristol Township, Tyrone Lewis scored 2,211 points. No one at Truman had ever scored more. No one in the county had, either. He played football. He was voted senior class president. "The best athlete ever to come out of our school district," said George Collins, a teacher there for 37 years, now the school's athletic director, "and an outstanding representative of our school."
His face soft-featured, his disposition friendly, he could jump out of the gym. Still, he was only 5-foot-11, frustrated that higher-profile programs wouldn't recruit him. But how many Division I programs search for a 5-11 combo guard? His high school coach, Mike Stock, found one. Stock had played at La Salle University in the early 1990s under Joe Mihalich, then an assistant for the Explorers, now the head coach at Niagara, located near Buffalo with less than 3,000 students. Mihalich agreed to travel the 425 miles from upstate New York to take a look at Lewis.
"I remember the first game Joe watched," Stock said. "I don't think Tyrone played particularly well, I was worried: 'Oh, man, Joe came down here from Niagara. He's going to think I'm misleading him.' But Joe couldn't stop talking about him."
Soon, it seemed everyone else was talking about him, too.
In 2005, Rachael Lewis, Tyrone's older sister, and several members of a Trenton-based gang were arrested in connection with a fatal shooting in Bristol Township. Eventually, Rachael took a lesser plea in exchange for testifying last September against the shooter. It was the first punch of a one-two combination that seemed certain to flatten Tyrone Lewis and his future.
This was the second: Last April, Lewis was driving in Bristol Township, his friend Ahman Fralin, also a senior at Truman, alongside him. According to police, Lewis' car accidentally rear-ended another vehicle, and moments later, a gunman in another car fired shots into Lewis'. One of the bullets hit Fralin in the back of the neck, paralyzing him. He died on Oct. 31. No one yet knows who killed him.
In the aftermath of these two incidents, Bristol Township police suspected that Lewis was in danger, saying they had received "credible threats" against his life. Who was the source? Was it gang members wanting to retaliate for Rachael's decision? Was it the mysterious gunman? The police said they didn't know, and they couldn't take any chances. In conjunction with the Bristol Township school board and state police, Bristol Police Chief James McAndrew announced that Lewis could not attend his graduation ceremony on June 9, that he would have to deliver his commencement address as class president via video feed from an undisclosed location (which turned out to be the police's headquarters).
With that, the story sparked into a nationwide issue – the New York Times, "Good Morning America," so many media outlets wanting to talk to Lewis, using the situation as the fulcrum for a debate on the need to keep teenagers safe versus the value in standing up to terrorist-like threats.
"I didn't think it deserved all that," Lewis said. In the end, nothing unusual happened at the Harry S. Truman Class of 2006's commencement, except that the class president didn't attend in person. Stock, a social studies teacher at the school, manned one of the metal detectors at the football stadium, where the ceremony was held. "The place was so secure that day," he said. "I wasn't concerned."
Mihalich was. He had offered Lewis a full scholarship, and though he said he never once considered rescinding it, he made sure to call him every day, just to make sure he was all right.
"He's just a good human being," Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who worked with Mihalich at La Salle, said in June. "If I had a son who was a basketball player, I'd like him to play for Joe. [Niagara] seems to be a great situation for Joe and, hopefully, for Tyrone as well."
It has been. Lewis is averaging 12.3 points a game this season, scoring 23 and 24 in Niagara's final two victories in the MAAC tournament, becoming the first freshman in conference history to be named the tournament's MVP.
"If he could give all this back and get his friend back, that would be most important to him," Lewis' mother, Marlene, said in a telephone interview Thursday night. "He carries Ahman in heart."
Lewis has maintained that he has no idea who might have wanted to kill him. As she has since this story broke, Marlene insisted that there never was any real threat to Tyrone, that the Bristol Township Police Department was, in her word, prejudiced, trying to tie a good kid to a bad situation – Rachael's case – with which he had no involvement. McAndrew did not return a phone call to his office Thursday, but Bristol Township Lt. Chick McGuigan, who met with the Lewis family in the days before Truman's graduation, said that McAndrew "thought [his decision] was in the best interest of everyone."
Lewis said that he can see that now, too. When it finally came time to deliver his speech, he stood there sequestered in a room at the police station, his family around him, and started to cry, the tension and strain of the previous months pouring out of him. He stopped the tears after 15 minutes, just enough to get through the speech. Now, he said, he realizes that "a lot of people were just looking out for my safety. There are no hard feelings for anybody."
Just the other day, Ahman Malin's brother, Amir, called Lewis, thanking him for the way he's handled the questions from reporters about the shooting, for the deference and respect he's shown to Ahman. And he stopped into Mihalich's office recently for a private meeting, just so he could tell his coach:
There was a lot of talk about me and my recruitment, about how I didn't get recruited by this school or that school, how I was overlooked. And I just want you to know I don't think I'm better than anybody here or I don't deserve to be here. This is the greatest choice I've ever made in my life.
"I really believe is that Niagara University was the perfect place for Tyrone Lewis, almost a godsend," Mihalich said. Really, he knew it in June, just two days after Lewis arrived on campus for summer classes.
"He said, 'Coach, I'm home now.' I'll remember him saying that as long as I live. It kind of gives me the chills."
Remember, then: No matter what happens out there on the United Center floor Friday night, no matter if the Jayhawks start pressing and trapping and maybe overwhelming the little school without a hope in hell, don't dare call the Niagara Purple Eagles scared, because for damn sure, the youngest of them won't be. Not on Friday, not ever again. No, after all the darkness, Tyrone Lewis doesn't fear a thing.
- Joe Mihalich