By CHRIS LARICK
A short time after he finished his sixth-grade year at Southeast Elementary in Conneaut, Anthony (“Tony”) Lyons and his father were visited by Gary Coxon.
Coxon, the father of Dan Coxon, wanted Lyons to join his son and a group of other basketball players from Chestnut Elementary school on the seventh-grade basketball team at Conneaut.
Lyons, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Apr. 7, remembers walking into the gym to meet with his new teammates for the first time.
“There weren’t a lot of African-American kids in Conneaut, and I was pretty tall,” Lyons recalls. “They probably said to themselves, ‘This dude is like Michael Jordan' — until I took my first shot."
That’s when his teammates found out that Lyons, who had always enjoyed football, didn’t know the first thing about basketball.
“I didn’t know the rules,” he said. “I was completely clueless. I didn’t even know how to dribble. It kind of came to me pretty quickly, but it took a lot of extra time.”
To expedite the process, his teammates suggested he shoot free throws underhanded, an experiment that failed.
Lyons learned that when he received the ball, he should get rid of it as soon as possible, preferably not by shooting it.
“I focused on rebounding and blocking shots,” he said. “I could jump a bit and was pretty quick.”
Lyons (1,026 points), Coxon (1,065 points) and Pape (1,166) became the first county trio of players in the same class at the same school to make the 1,000-point club. That is still so and is unlikely to change.
They got plenty of help from the other Spartans of the time — Tom O’Connell, Chris Anthony, Jason Tharp, Nick Armeni, Joe Swigunski, Brent Kananen, Travis Hayes and (as a junior and senior) Jeff Grubke. But the Big Three of Lyons, Coxon and Pape were the headliners. Each was named first-team All-Ashtabula County and All-NEC their last two years, when Conneaut went 19-1 in the 1993-1994 and 1994-1995 regular seasons.
Lyons high school basketball start was put on hold when he was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse (leaky valve) in his heart. Two weeks into the season he was back on the court primarily on the JV team, and as needed played clean-up for the varsity team.
Greg Mason was head coach for that Conneaut class for their freshman and sophomore seasons.
“Mr. Mason definitely played a big part in my development,” Lyons said. “He believed in me. He was tough but definitely fair.”
During their junior and senior seasons, the dominated most of their opponents.
When they got to the tournament after Lyons’ junior season, though, the Spartans got a taste of their own medicine, getting beaten badly by Cleveland St. Joseph’s-Villa Angela.
Lyons recalls VASJ having many talented athletes who went on to careers at Division I schools.
The next year in the tournament Lyons recalls playing Cleveland Benedictine, another talented team.
"It was a difficult game, and compounded by the knowledge it was the last time I'd be suiting up with this team, it was definitely a heartbreak,” Lyons said.
The next year in the tournament, after beating, as Lyons remembers it, West Geauga and Cleveland Central Catholic, Conneaut ran into Cleveland Benedictine.
Although several Division I schools expressed interest, Lyons opted to spend his last two years in Division II at Gannon to ensure the opportunity for significant playing time.
During his senior year, Lyons discussed playing professional basketball abroad, possibly in Portugal or Australia. He was set to go to Melbourne, Australia, but wound up in Madeira, a tropical Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco.
He played there for a year, then headed to Germany, where he wound up playing on teams against and with his teammate from Gannon, Steve Moyer.
After a year in Germany, Lyons planned to go to New Zealand to play.
“Three days before I was scheduled to leave for New Zealand my dad had a stroke,” he said. “I saw this as a sign it was time to move on from basketball to the next phase in my career."
After completing his degree at Gannon, Lyons held several jobs in the non-profit sector, and then spent some time working with Columbus City Schools.
He also earned an MBA, and has spent the last ten years in the Employee Assistance Program industry. He is currently Vice President of the Student Division.