Indiana Lyons clinch ABA title. Kind of. Championship game canceled due to leaky roof

The Indiana Lyons showed up Saturday night ready to pounce on the Burning River Buckets from Ohio and take home the state's first American Basketball Association title in 50 years, when the ABA Pacers won their third and final championship in 1973.

As forward Mike Carter warmed up with his teammates at Jefferson College Field House in Hillsboro, Missouri, he looked around and he noticed how "locked in" the Lyons were. They were in the zone. The Lyons had ousted the No. 1 seed in the tournament the day before and Carter was certain, by the end of this night, the ABA championship ring would be theirs.

"I was predicting a 20-point deficit (for the Buckets)," said Carter, who has played for the Lyons since the team was formed in 2018. "We were warmed up, we were waiting, you know, looking at the time like, 'Let's hurry this up.'"

But less than an hour before the championship game tipped off, a severe storm with high winds barreled toward the fieldhouse as players warmed up. When the tornado sirens wailed, everyone fled to the basement to wait it out.

As the minutes ticked by, as the players paced nervously ready to compete, neither team knew that the storm was wreaking havoc all around them.

Twelve miles away at Las Brisas Mexican restaurant in Pevely, the winds destroyed an outdoor patio. Fourteen miles away at Kade’s Playground in Herculaneum, a nearby pavilion collapsed. There were reports of downed trees all over Jefferson County with large branches covering roadways and numerous reports of roof damage to homes and businesses.

Neither team knew that this storm was about to end their chances to capture an outright championship. Not until the all-clear was given and the players walked upstairs to the court and they saw the water dripping. The roof of the fieldhouse had been destroyed and leaks doused the court, making it unplayable.

League officials quickly searched for another venue to play, but nothing was available late on a Saturday night. Instead of postponing the championship, the ABA commissioner canceled the game and declared the Lyons and Buckets co-champions of the 2022-23 ABA. It is the first time in the history of the league that co-champions have been crowned.

"The immediate scene was one of shock and raw emotion by both teams, having had their opportunity to compete for a title stripped from them," the Lyons said in a press release the next day.

The original members of the Indiana Lyons, an ABA franchise founded in 2018. From left, Mike Pugh, Kendric Lee and Michael Carter.

Lyons guard/forward Tee Williams said Wednesday "not being able to play, it definitely hurt us a little bit. We came in there ready to handle business."

But after the shock wore off, the "co" in co-champion didn't seem so bad. In fact, it seemed wonderful. And then the elation came.

"Honestly, it's somewhat surreal. I'm still kind of like taking it in. Like I still be calling my brothers like, can y'all believe it?" Carter said Wednesday. "And they're looking at me, saying the same thing like, 'Yeah, bro, we did that. We are champions.'"

'There should be a parade in this for us'

Winning a championship was the Lyons' goal from Day 1, said Tyrone Brown, the Lyons' coach and CEO, who owns the team with his wife, Deborah. But they are a young franchise, just five years in existence, battling other teams who have been around more than two decades.

The Browns launched the Lyons franchise in 2018, part of the current day ABA. This version is a semi-professional men's basketball minor league founded in 1999 by Joe Newman and Richard Tinkham, who was an executive with the Indiana Pacers when they played in the ABA.

Tyrone and Deborah Brown founded the Indiana Lyons in 2018. Five years later, they have built the team to ABA champions.

The original ABA was considered a major basketball league formed in 1967 to compete with the NBA. When the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, the ABA dissolved.

Since 1999 when Newman and Tinkham licensed the ABA name from the NBA, more than 100 teams have joined in cities all over the United States. The Lyons went to work five years ago to become an elite franchise in the league, just like their predecessors were.

"There's been a trajectory of building this and getting the word out to re-establish the old red, white and blue basketball here in Indianapolis," said Brown. "Our whole goal was to bring back a championship that has eluded us for 50 years, to let people know that the ABA is back."

The Lyons team is made up of Indiana-bred high school basketball players, from Manual, Brownsburg, Warren Central, Northwest, Bloomington North, Evansville North, Danville and West Side Leadership Academy. There are veterans and there are rookies.

Three players on the team this season were named to the ABA All-Star Team, Gerald Campbell, Jordan Hidleburg and Tee Williams.

Indiana Lyons players, from left, Tee Williams, Gerald Campbell and Jordan Hidleburg, were named to the ABA All-Star Team.

The Lyons play their home games at Bosstick Gymnasium in Danville. Most games have around 300-500 fans in attendance. It may be a a small following, but it is a fiercely loyal following, said Brown. And those fans are ecstatic to have an ABA title.

"There should be a parade in this for us, you know what I mean?" Mike Pugh, the Lyons' first recruit, said smiling. "I'm proud of all the guys, man, from the start to the finish. And I'm proud of the organization, too. They had a five-year goal that we met, like that's big."

A rocky start turns into ABA title

A championship wasn't looking likely for the Lyons as the season began. The team started 1-4 then three games later was 2-6.

"We just were all discombobulated," said Pugh, "and we all just managed to stay adhesive and believe in each other."

Even through the adversity of losing key players and a coach, the team forged ahead, said Deborah Brown. They relied on one another, they taught one another and they finished the season 20-6 and finished first place in their division.

"The adversity that they had to overcome to become a championship team this year? It would not have meant as much any other year," she said. "To see them come together and play as a team and overcome everything that they were faced with, it's crazy. I couldn't be more proud of each and every one of them. They are like my literal sons."

The Indiana Lyons celebrate after knocking the No. 1 seed out of the ABA tournament April 14, 2023. They were set to play the championship game the next day, but it was canceled.

Playing in the ABA is tough. Outside of basketball, players work full-time jobs. Pugh is a basketball trainer and runs his own business, DreamCatchers. Other Lyons players have jobs mentoring kids.

"We've been grinding this. Everybody has a schedule. Everybody sacrificed," Brown said. "And so to look at these young men and what they gave up and what they were willing to give is nothing short of amazing."

Lyons forward and center Gerald Campbell, known as "Cam," said he could not be more proud of his team.

"We fought through the ups and downs, tribulations with our daily lives and then came together and put those things aside," he said. "And we came as one to fight for this championship."

And to fight for those rings. On a Zoom call with IndyStar, the Lyons players smiled and held up their bare hands to the camera that won't be bare for long. Their ABA championship rings are coming and the Lyons plan to hold a ceremony in September to kick off the season.

Brown said he hopes the city gets excited about his ABA team – now a championship team ‒ that few seem to know even exists. He hopes that fans come out to games, rally behind the Lyons and see what all the excitement is about.

"You know, we don't want 500 (fans at games)," Brown said. "We want 5,000. We want people to see that the red, white and blue basketball is back in our city and get excited for what's to come."

Learn more about the Indiana Lyons. Meet the team. Follow their YouTube channel, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages.

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana Lyons clinch ABA title, kind of. Championship game canceled