Commentary

Niagara's Lewis still the All-American kid

Originally Published: February 3, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Joe Mihalich scratched the number 2,548 on a piece of paper and handed it to the newest member of his Niagara basketball family.

"Do you know what that number is?" Mihalich asked.

Tyrone Lewis shook his head.

"That's how many points Calvin Murphy scored in his career. That's the record you're going to break," Mihalich told him.

[+] EnlargeLewis
AP Photo/David DupreyTyrone Lewis has averaged at least 16 points per game in each of the last three seasons.

Recalling that conversation of four years ago, Lewis laughed.

"I ain't nowhere close to that record," he said.

It is perhaps the only goal Lewis hasn't reached.

The first freshman to be named MVP of the MAAC tournament, he led Niagara to the NCAA tournament in 2007. As a sophomore, he finished fifth in the league in scoring. By his junior year, he was the league's defensive player of the year.

This season he is averaging 16.7 points per game, third-best in the league.

Should his scoring continue at its current pace, he would finish third on that all-time list, hardly a shabby effort.

But it is off the court that Lewis has scored his biggest success. He has done the impossible -- convinced people they were wrong about him.

"When I got here, all I was known as was the kid who couldn't graduate, who was supposedly involved in gang violence," Lewis said. "Now people know me as the kid who has been through a lot, who always has a smile on his face, who fights through and makes things positive regardless of the situation."

The truth is, that is who Lewis always has been. An honor-roll student and class president, he was a shining light at his suburban Philadelphia high school, a kid so popular he was voted most likely to be famous by his classmates.

His size -- he is only 5-10 -- may have kept the big-time college programs away, but Lewis' scoring ability attracted the attention of Mihalich, a Philly native who had pickpocketed the suburbs of his old stomping grounds for Charron Fisher the year before. By the time Lewis finished at Harry S. Truman High School, he would set a county record with 2,211 points, a feat all the more impressive considering Truman isn't known for its hoops prowess.

Lewis was the old-school all-American boy: He was athletic (he also played football and was part of the 4x200 relay team that finished top 16 in the state), popular and bright and was selected to deliver the commencement address to his graduating class.

"I've been proud of him since the day I had him," said Lewis' mother, Marlene. "He's been a good kid since he was 5 years old. He was never a problem, not in school, not in the streets, not with any club he ever attended. Anywhere Tyrone has ever gone all I get is comments about what a wonderful young man he is."

Tyrone Lewis
AP Photo/Tim RoskeIn some quarters, Lewis' reputation was sullied. Guilt by association was the main culprit.

And then it all changed. All of those people who had hailed Lewis for being such a good kid insisted he was trouble.

In August 2006, Lewis' sister Rachael drove the getaway car in a drive-by shooting involving rival gangs. In exchange for a lesser sentence, she testified against members of the Bloods accused in the murder.

The Lower Bucks County area long had been on edge about gang problems seeping across the Delaware River from New Jersey. Trenton, once a cultural mecca dotted with ethnic neighborhoods, had been overtaken by gangs who had pushed into the city from nearby Camden and Newark. In 2003, according to New Jersey State Police records, there was one gang-related death recorded in Trenton. By 2006, that number had jumped to a staggering 23, and longstanding businesses and restaurants shuttered their doors, fleeing the city in fear.

Some of the problems were crossing the state border, with the Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings making inroads selling drugs in Lower Bucks County, according to local police. Rachael was just the latest victim swallowed up by the street.

She had attended college for a year before falling into the world of gangs, a sharp U-turn that her younger brother struggled to understand.

"She stayed in positive things for a long time, too," Marlene said. "But it was like I always told all of them: One bad move could damage you for the rest of your life. You make decisions, and those decisions you carry with you forever. Tyrone and [younger sister] Brittany had a hard time with that. For a long time, they couldn't understand why she made the decisions she made."

Eight months after Rachael's arrest, Tyrone was driving down an area street with his good friend Ahman Fralin. The two, who were leaving a multicultural event at the high school, were just weeks from graduation, with Lewis headed to Niagara on a basketball scholarship and Fralin ticketed to study education at Lock Haven University.

A car in front of Lewis stopped short, and Lewis, the driver, inadvertently tapped the bumper.

Lewis drove around the car but the other driver pursued him, eventually opening fire.

Fralin was shot and paralyzed. He would die of his injuries seven months later.

Lewis and his mother insisted the shooting had nothing to do with Rachael's arrest, but the police thought otherwise. They were convinced that because of Rachael's testimony, the Bloods had a vendetta against her family and that Lewis, the star athlete, was the primary target.

In the weeks and days before graduation, rumors swirled that the Bloods were going to attack Lewis as he spoke at the outdoor graduation ceremony, and frightened parents hinted they wouldn't allow their children to attend commencement.

[+] Enlargegraduation
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyThe only sign of Lewis at his high school graduation was a picture of him held by a teacher.

Worried that his friends would miss their own graduation, Lewis elected not to attend.

He videotaped his commencement address from an undisclosed location, with one of the teachers carrying his portrait in the procession. Fralin would receive his diploma in the hospital.

"I don't think it really hit him until that day," Marlene said. "He had taken the bigger-man step and said, 'Well, I'll suffer for the sake of the rest of my class,' but when the day came, he finally broke down. He couldn't understand why this was happening to him. He hadn't done anything wrong."

Instead of leaving town in triumph as the all-American boy off to college, Lewis quietly left for Niagara three months later. He chose the school tucked on the Canadian border in part because Mihalich was the only coach willing to take a chance on him but also because he knew he needed to get out of the area if he wanted a fresh start.

Except even there, he couldn't escape. National newspapers and morning TV programs had picked up his story, so when Lewis arrived on campus, everyone knew all about him.

Against everyone's advice, Lewis read every story written about him, as well as the reader comments attached. The attacks on his own character stung, but what hurt worse were the people blaming his mother, convinced she was a bad parent with two kids now in gang-related shootings.

"I know people were thinking, 'What kind of guy is coach Mihalich bringing up here?'" Lewis said. "They knew me before I knew them, or they thought they knew me. That first year I just tried to show people who I was, that I didn't deal with those types of people and that my family was not what they thought it was."

Lewis paused.

"Winning the MVP, winning the MAAC helped," he said. "It sort of made it all better."

Indeed there is no cure like good news, and Lewis supplied it in bunches. He came off the bench to average 19.7 points and 4.7 rebounds to lead the Purple Eagles to the MAAC tournament title and the NCAA tournament. The story that had so long been a negative was spun around, with Lewis rightly becoming the kid who had overcome so much.

Once the NCAA tourney spotlight faded, for the next two years Lewis declined interviews about his past. He wasn't ashamed. He just needed to move on.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Lewis and mom
AP Photo/Jessica HillLewis immediately embraced his mother Marlene after Niagara won the 2007 MAAC tournament title.

And he has, as has everyone else.

Marlene, who still believes police mishandled the situation with her son, is raising Rachael's daughter, 3-year-old Nevaeh ("Heaven" spelled backward). Though raising a toddler after one's own children are grown has its challenges, Marlene calls Nevaeh a blessing. Nevaeh wasn't a week old before she attended her first basketball game, swaddled and packed off for her uncle's AAU tournament game in Conshohocken, Pa.

Now she, along with her grandmother and great-grandmother, makes the six-hour trek to Buffalo every time Lewis plays. In four years, Marlene figures she's missed maybe five games, despite a ride that can be flat-out harrowing through the winter months.

"We've been through snow, rain, coming and going -- you name it," Marlene said.

Sentenced to 5½ to 20 years, Rachael is in prison in Erie, a quick ride from the Niagara campus. Lewis visits every year on Rachael's birthday. She is expected to be released next year.

"She's doing fine now," Lewis said. "I know she felt especially bad for me because I took the heat for it, but I told her that it was no problem and that I'll always love her."

And a year ago, five men were charged with the murder of Fralin.

Unsealed grand jury testimony revealed that Kendrell Cottrell, a neighborhood resident who considered Fralin a "good kid," packed a .357 revolver in the car that night (in a cruel twist of irony, an acquaintance of the Fralin family had supplied Cottrell with the gun), intent on robbing someone. When Lewis tapped the bumper, Cottrell was worried that his girlfriend's car was damaged and, intent on earning respect, had his driver follow Lewis while he shot at the car from behind.

It had nothing to do with gangs, nothing to do with Rachael Lewis and nothing to do with Tyrone Lewis: just a random act of violence with fatal consequences.

But if there is any vindication to be had in proving that he had nothing to do with gangs, Lewis isn't feeling it.

"To me, it's lose-lose situation," Lewis said. "I lost two friends, one who was shot and one to the system."

[+] EnlargeLewis
David W. Hahn/CSI PhotoIn recent years, Lewis and the Purple Eagles have been at their best in the month of February.

Yet Lewis doesn't play with a heavy heart or a burden. He plays with freedom and joy. He is inspired by Fralin and even by Rachael, knowing that making wise choices has afforded him an opportunity he doesn't intend to waste.

His college career is drawing to a close, with the real world just around the corner -- bills to pay, a job search, a girlfriend who would like to get serious -- but rather than shrink, Lewis is ready to embrace it head-on.

First, however, he has a few more pieces of collegiate business he needs to tend to.

For starters, there is the basketball season. Most everyone has penciled in league favorite Siena as the MAAC champion and NCAA tournament qualifier, but Lewis would like to have something to say about that. He's been injured at two different points this season and has missed a total of six games. So the 12-12 Purple Eagles have never quite gotten on track.

But Lewis is back to full strength now and is hoping Niagara will take a familiar path during the stretch run. During his college career, the Purple Eagles are a remarkable 20-4 during February.

"We lost a few, and I know everyone was saying 'stick a fork in them,'" Lewis said. "But everybody knows when it comes to February, that's when Niagara plays its best basketball. I hope everyone does count us out."

And there is one more important date on the calendar.

On May 23, Niagara will hold its commencement exercises.

Tyrone Lewis intends to be there.

There's no way he would miss it.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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