Weekend Interview: Long-serving Atiba Lyons determined to ensure bright future for Sheffield Sharks is realised

Ten years in any line of work is a fair old stint.

LEADING THE WAY: Sheffield Sharks' head coach Atiba Lyons gets his message across in the recent BBL encounter against Glasgow Rocks at EIS Sheffield. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

But given the cut-throat nature of top-level sport a decade of unbroken service at one club is even more of an achievement.

Atiba Lyons arrived on these shores as a relative journeyman in the world of basketball. His career had taken him from New York to sporting outposts such as Israel, Finland and Hungary.

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Now, 10 years after first being handed the coaching reins at the Sheffield Sharks, Lyons is firmly rooted in the Steel City.

The club, one of the most successful teams in England, afforded Lyons the opportunity to make the challenging transition from player to coach back in 2008.

Not only is he thankful for the opportunity, but he admits he is determined to ensure the club witness a return to the halcyon days of the early Nineties.

“When we lose it feels like 10 years, but when we win it feels like yesterday,” Lyons told The Yorkshire Post when reminiscing about his elevation to becoming head coach.

“It’s been a great decade and it has flown by really. I’ve been embraced at this club and made to feel a part of it from day one.

Sheffield Sharks' head coach, Atiba Lyons. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“Being a coach is hard and the management above you is so vital. It’s the unspoken and unseen part, but it’s important they let you grow and make mistakes. Without that it wouldn’t have been possible to be here for 10 years.”

Lyons was born in New York and after moving to Florida for high school he returned to Manhattan to study at Pace University, graduating with a business degree.

All the time that he was plotting for a future career in the boardroom he kept basketball in his thoughts and attended a couple of try-outs.

This in turn led him to moving to Europe – although he admits his family were not convinced at first that he would follow through with his plan.

ON TARGET: Mike Tuck scores for Sheffield Sharks in the recent BBL clash against Glasgow Rocks at EIS Sheffield. Picture Bruce Rollinson

He said: “I had just graduated from university and I was going for job interviews for business management roles.

“I was playing basketball at the time and got a letter from an agent who told me about being able to play over in Europe. I went to a few exposure camps in America and said, ‘why not?’

“Then came the move to Finland, which at 21 was quite daunting. My family thought I was joking when I said, ‘I’m going to Finland’.

“Then when I was packing my bags they were like, ‘Oh, okay you’re serious about it’.

“For me, flying from JFK New York to Finland was a bit of a shock, seeing field after field after field. But the people there were so welcoming and made it easy for me.

“I love trying new things – that was the part that kept me wanting to do more. I enjoyed travelling while playing professionally.”

His travails across Europe eventually led to his arrival in South Yorkshire and his love for the Sharks has grown with each year that has passed.

Originally signing forms as a player, he was eventually asked to combine his on-court skills with coaching the side in 2008 before taking over as the team’s head coach on a full-time basis four years later.

He says the Sharks are a perfect fit for him as the management of the club can recognise talent and quickly saw he had the necessary leadership skills to succeed in his new role.

“I’ve always tried to be a leader since I can remember,” the 36-year-old said. “The club picked up on that quality, I think.

“When we lost I was the first one to speak up and when we won I was the first one patting people on the back.

“I think that good management can identify things in you before you even see it.”

As someone who grew up with basketball ingrained in the national sporting psyche, Lyons admits he still struggles with the sport’s continuing battle to win interest on these shores.

He does, however, believe that the rise of technology has opened up new avenues for the sport to explore – most notably through the proliferation of smartphones and increased access to on-demand TV services.

“Britain is a great country, but I still miss the sporting culture of America,” he says, “especially the fact that basketball is a really big thing over there.

“It is kind of disappointing that it isn’t huge everywhere. It’s on TV all the time in the States.

“When I first came to Britain it was just after the time the sport fell off satellite TV. It’s always going to be a niche sport and I don’t think anything will ever top football in this country.

“It’s never going to be second nature for folk here, but it can certainly grow. Young people are so digitally-focused now so basketball is getting a lot more light.

“Basketball to young people is becoming fashionable. It’s bubbling in that demographic of 15- to 25-year-olds – it’s not plastered everywhere, but they know it’s going on.”

Barring football, almost every sport in this country is jostling for its own portion of column inches, air time and exposure at grass-roots level.

To this end the Sharks should be commended. They run popular coaching workshops in schools across the city, have linked up with Sheffield Hallam University and have a burgeoning youth section of the club.

Lyons is particularly passionate about knitting this all together and wants the Sharks, and basketball in this country in general, to help the sport grow.

He said: “In other European countries basketball is the main sport so they have lots more funding

“Basketball here tends to be found by kids later on. But if you grow up with it from a young age then that’s when you tend to get more talent.

“But we’re seeing our junior, Under-15 structure is swelling big time. We want to create more intelligent, loyal fans that love the sport. We have a family feel about us and it’s important that we create that.”

Key to being able to grow is the club finally having their own stadium. Their current home is the English Institute of Sport, but the Sharks share this facility with a number of other teams and are currently in the process of agreeing terms for a new, basketball-specific arena on the site of the old Don Valley Stadium.

Lyons admits the process has been frustrating for all involved – “It’s crawling along” – but he believes once the team are in their own arena it could pave the way for future growth at a much quicker rate than expected at present.

“When you have your own stadium and your own home then you have the infrastructure,” he added.

“Clubs that own their own assets can generate more money, which can then be invested in players and academies.

“If we can do it in-house then you’ll see a spike in skill level and also participation.

“It’s a brilliant move and we’re looking forward to the future.”

Ability not to ‘crash the car’ brings belief for Lyons

ATIBA LYONS will always be grateful to the management team at Sheffield Sharks.

Lyons was still playing for the club when he was asked to take over coaching duties back in 2008.

For the then 26-year-old it represented a big opportunity – and he has repaid the faith of the owners with a steady supply of success in the decade that followed.

Lyons led the Sharks to British Basketball League play-off victory in 2016, two BBL Cups (2010 and 2011) and a BBL Trophy (2014).

Despite this success Lyons admits he was unsure of his own credentials when first handed the reins.

“The board gave me the keys to the car, so to speak, and I didn’t crash it straight away,” said Lyons, now 36. “To win a trophy in my second year as a coach was a huge relief to me.

“It told me that I can do this and that I’m capable. I’m still learning though and I’m only 36, which is a baby in coaching years.

“I’ve bought into this club and I want to make it reach new heights.”

Regarding the current campaign, Lyons is positive about the team’s chances and is hopeful they can deliver more silverware in what is the club’s landmark 25th year in the BBL.

“We’re getting better and better,” he added. “I like how we’ve gelled and feel that we have the right components.”