By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
ENGLEWOOD — When Atiba Lyons graduated from Pace University in 2004, he thought he had his life planned out.
He assumed he was now a former basketball player, and was going to put his newly-acquired business degree from the college in New York City to use.
Lyons went on a pair of job interviews; One with Wells Fargo and one with Target, which had offered him a managerial position.
The 6-foot-5 guard/forward had just completed a successful career with the Setters, where he led the team with 12.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a senior.
Right around the time he was about to accept the job offer from Target, Lyons went to an exposure camp in Atlantic City where he made contact with professional coaches from leagues all around Europe.
Suddenly, Lyons was faced with a new decision: Stay in America and work for Target, or move to Europe and play professional basketball.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” said Lyons, who grew up in Englewood. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play basketball and see the world and travel. I got my first passport when I went to play there. It was too much to pass up when I was 21.”
Lyons has returned home this weekend to give other former college players a chance similar to the one he had. Now head coach and part-owner of the Sheffield Sharks, a team in the British Basketball League, Lyons is conducting an exposure camp at Lemon Bay High School.
Lyons’ involvement with that exposure camp in Atlanic City landed him in Kauhajoki, Finland, as a member of of the Kauhajoen Karhu. That assignment began a journey that a dozen years later has him settled in the United Kingdom coaching and running a professional team.
Going to college, let alone playing basketball while there, weren’t options Lyons thought he’d have as graduation from Lemon Bay approached. Long-time Manta Rays coach Tom Catanzarite thought otherwise.
“I don’t think he ever thought about going to college because that wasn’t something his brothers did,” Catanzarite said. “When I suggested he go to exposure camps, he said, ‘Why?’ And I told him, ‘it’s because you can play college basketball.’”
Added Lyons: “I didn’t really think I could do it until coach (Tom) Catanzarite motivated me to go to exposure camps. I went to one in Birmingham, Alabama, with about 400 other high school kids. I did OK, and a couple of weeks later I had a letter from Mobile University, and then I realized it was realistic.”
Catanzarite had known Lyons since he was in second grade, and watched him develop into one of the best basketball players in Manta Rays history. He never doubted his talents were worthy of college.
“He was a great leader,” Catanzarite said. “His senior season, he was starting with four sophomores, and we won 21 games. That’s a testament to Atiba. He can play at any position.”
When Lyons graduated from Lemon Bay, he was the school’s career leader in rebounds (622), and was third in scoring with 1,029 points.
Lyons has come a long way since that first season in Finland, where he spent his free time learning a language he knew he’d never need beyond that year. Since then, he’s spent time in France, Hungary and Israel, all for different professional leagues.
Some places were easier to live than others.
“I tried to stay busy,” Lyons said. “I volunteered to coach younger kids and some how communicated with them. It was fun. I took classes to learn how to speak Finnish. I tried to make myself learn the local customs, and go out and have dinners.
“Finland is always ranked the nicest people in the world. They’ll treat you like you’re an old friend.”
France was a different story.
“France was hard,” he said. “I had a french TV, but there’s no subtitles like it Finland. I had no phone, and I didn’t know any of my teammates.”
Eventually, Lyons made his way to England, where he played a few seasons for the Sharks. He quickly turned into a player-coach, and is now the full-time coach.
He’s made a life for himself in the U.K. He has a girlfriend and a daughter, and enjoys living in Sheffield, a city north of London.
“It feels like another state in America,” Lyons said. “It’s not much adjusting other than driving on the other side of the road. It’s almost kind of like in America how you have southern hospitality. Sheffield is like the country. Everyone is polite. It’s very scenic.”
Lyons admits his life is nothing like how he thought it would be when he was a 16-year-old unsure of his future plans.
Even when he was 21, being the CEO of Target seemed more likely than the part-owner of a British basketball team.
At least he still found a way to put that business degree to use.