By Michelle R. Martinelli
Bruce and Mary Alice Lyon enjoyed their holidays in an unconventional way.
They spent Thanksgiving at a basketball tournament in Texas and New Year’s Eve on a nine-hour drive home to Wilmette from Penn State.
It’s all been part of a four-year journey following the Northwestern women’s basketball team. The parents of senior guard Maggie Lyon traveled around the country — as far as California and Maryland — attending 126 of their daughter’s 127 college games and counting.
“We’re basketball geeks — we love it,” said Mary Alice, a former high school coach. “If we can see it live, we will because there’s a lot more you can see live than on the TV. It’s a whole different setting.”
They love being in a crowd of cheering fans, seeing their daughter’s improvements and emotions first-hand and even complaining about the officiating with fellow Wildcat parents.
Their travels, though, soon will be coming to an end. The Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament this week in Indianapolis will be one of the last times the Lyons see their daughter play for Northwestern (15-15, 4-14 Big Ten).
The Lyons will miss it. They said their travel adventures are always fun and give them an opportunity to see family members around the country and take them to their daughter’s games.
Maggie loves it too.
“I love my family, and I love where I come from,” the 22-year-old Wildcat said. “It’s been great that they’ve been able to see that part of me. I know how much my parents love it, but they don’t always tell me, but I think I get joy out of seeing them do it.”
After four years, they’re known as the traveling parents among the coaching staff, the players and their families.
“We have parents on the team who might not have come to the game,” Mary Alice said, “but they text or call us if someone gets hurt and to see what’s going on because they know we’re here.”
From Lincoln to Piscataway
With the advantage of living 10 minutes away from Northwestern’s home games at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Lyons have been attending men’s and women’s basketball games for more than two decades. But once Maggie joined the team in 2012, they decided to travel to her away games — occasionally taking her older siblings, Walt, 24, and Amy, 27, along — with the goal of seeing every college campus in the Big Ten.
Originally, that meant traveling to 11 schools, excluding Northwestern, but it became 13 when Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference in 2014. They usually drive to each destination, making exceptions for farther schools, like Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland.
As an attorney, Bruce was able to plan his flexible work schedule around their Big Ten adventures, sometimes working half a day, driving to the game and then returning to Wilmette the same night.
“We cover so much real estate now, [but] people can get to a lot of games,” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said.
Nebraska was the last school on the Lyons’ list because a Chicago blizzard led to the only blemish on their otherwise perfect attendance: a failed trip to Lincoln in January 2014.
Bruce and Mary Alice agree the Midwest winter weather always has presented the greatest challenges to their travel schedule. With the 2014 game against the Cornhuskers a few hours away, the Lyons were stranded at Chicago Midway International Airport, scrambling to figure out how they would see their daughter compete.
Worried about missing the game altogether, the Lyons decided to turn around and go home, Mary Alice said.
“We just sat at the airport for seven hours because of the weather,” Bruce said. “The game was on the Big Ten Network, so we were able to watch it. If I would have known [about the grounded plane] at the start of the morning, we could have driven.”
But with the Wildcats’ 76-67 loss Sunday to Nebraska in Lincoln, the Lyons came full circle and now have traveled to every Big Ten campus.
“We’d go to the games, say hello and then we’d leave,” Mary Alice said. “It’s [Maggie’s] thing. We’re just riding her coattails. We’re just passing through.”
The road to Indy
This week, the Lyons will be at Maggie’s final Big Ten tournament and were nearly speechless when thinking about her senior season coming to an end. Eventually, Bruce was able to describe it as “bittersweet.”
They remember the exciting buzzer-beaters and the team’s NCAA Tournament bid last year — the first since 1997. They agreed the best parts of attending every game were being able to support Maggie and her team through the highs and lows and watching her class interact and improve.
His daughter seemed to echo his sentiments.
“It’s pretty emotional just to put everything in perspective and all the great times I’ve had here,” Maggie said with watery eyes after her last regular season home game, a 70-65 loss to Michigan on Tuesday.
After years of planning their lives around the Northwestern women’s basketball schedule, Bruce and Mary Alice joked about how much free time they’ll have this time next year, likening it to a version of empty nest syndrome.
“It’s the end of a journey,” Bruce said. “It’s something that she loved and has always wanted to do, so it’s just been fun to follow her.”
Before the Wildcats’ first tournament game Wednesday, Bruce will send Maggie the same text he has sent her before every game for years.
“Play hard, and have fun.”