Championship Memories Still Resonate with St. Thomas Star Lillard
By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com
July 21, 2022
It took about four decades, but a couple of years ago, Len Lillard finally got to watch the 1974 Class D Boys Basketball Final.
The outcome, of course, was the same as when Lillard, a star 6-foot-7 center from Ann Arbor St. Thomas, dominated the game and led the Irish to the championship that March. But it was just as fun to watch it once more.
“It was great fun to watch,” Lillard said. “It was interesting, to say the least.”
Lillard had a sensational athletic career at St. Thomas, now known as Father Gabriel Richard. Not only was he an outstanding basketball player, but he also won Lower Peninsula Class D Finals high jump and shot put championships.
He earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan and played four years for the Wolverines, including the season they made it to the Final Four and faced undefeated and eventual national champion Indiana.
“Their top seven guys played professionally,” Lillard recalled. “That team was outstanding.”
Today, 50 years later, Lillard is a successful investment banker living just outside of Chicago. He hasn’t lived in Michigan since 1987, but still has close ties to teammates from the University of Michigan – and St. Thomas. He plans this month, in fact, to attend a Michigan basketball alumni function in Ann Arbor.
“We stay in touch,” he said.
Lillard said playing for the Michigan Wolverines opened a lot of doors for him professionally.
“It was a very good ice-breaker,” he said. “In the financial world I was in, you had to talk to people about tens of millions, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in investments. You have to prove yourself and be competent very quickly. But, the basketball, the Final Four … it was a good conversation starter.”
Lillard was part of an outstanding group of athletes that happened to attend St. Thomas during the same time frame.
“I think it was a case of the stars lining up,” Lillard said. “It was just a couple of really good classes that happened to be at the same school at the same time.”
St. Thomas moved from the Catholic High School League to the Tri-County Conference when Lillard was a senior. The TCC was a new conference and, ultimately, offered little competition for the Irish in almost any sport.
St. Thomas was heads and shoulders better than the rest of the league and easily went 10-0 to claim the first boys basketball league title under coach Mike Ramker. Lillard averaged 23.6 points a game in league play. In one of the most dominating performances in league history, Lillard scored 42 points and pulled down 31 rebounds in a win over Whitmore Lake.
In the Class D Semifinals he scored 31 points and had 13 rebounds. In the 68-53 win over Harbor Springs to clinch the title, Lillard scored 18 points and added 18 rebounds and six blocked shots.
Word around the MHSAA Tournament was Lillard was headed to Notre Dame. Instead, he accepted a scholarship from Michigan, which was located just a couple miles from the gym where St. Thomas played.
“He was a tremendous athlete for his time,” Ramker said.
Lillard was a member of the 1975-76 University of Michigan men’s basketball team that played in the Final Four and was defeated in the national championship game by the undefeated Indiana Hoosiers.
“It was a great experience,” said Lillard. “Our basketball fans, and some football fans as well, were very excited and a lot of them made the trip to Philadelphia, so we had a loud cheering section.”
The Final Four was a bit different during that era, but it still was a big deal.
“This was pre-ESPN, so there was not hourly coverage, but even though players and coaches try to be low key, it was a big deal to make it to the finals,” Lillard said.
Lillard could have gone to a smaller school and received more playing time, or perhaps another Big Ten school. Getting an education from the University of Michigan, however, was worth it. Lillard said making the transition from Class D to Division I college basketball wasn’t easy.
“It was difficult. I knew the competition would be much harder which it was, but there were other issues that I was not as prepared for,” he said. “At the end of the day, I was not going to play professional basketball, and playing for a highly-ranked University of Michigan team and earning a degree from Michigan was a great accomplishment.”
Lillard appeared in five games in 1975-76. He came back to the Wolverines in 1976-77 and appeared in 11 games, making 8 of his 12 field goal attempts, both of his free throws and pulling down 14 rebounds. Coached by Johnny Orr, the Wolverines were ranked No. 1 in the country, won the Big Ten championship and advanced to the Elite 8.
Lillard graduated from Michigan in 1978 and joined his family’s contracting business. At the same time, he started night school in pursuit of a Master of Business Administration degree. He got married and moved away from the Ann Arbor area.
He has more than 30 years of experience working in finance and capital markets as part of such well-respected firms as Merit Capital Partners, Banc One Capital Partners and The Prudential Capital Group. Today, at 66, he is managing partner with Glaucon Capital Partners.
He and his wife Karen raised three sons, now aged 29, 26 and 24. The middle child, Grant, was Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year while playing soccer at the University of Indiana. He now plays professionally in Major League Soccer.
“He was a much better athlete than me,” Lillard said.
Basketball and sports in Michigan are never too far from Lillard’s mind. He checks in with old teammates on occasion and once had coffee with an opponent who he battled in the Final from Harbor Springs who was a sheriff in a town where he vacationed.
“He was a great guy,” Lillard said. “We had a lot of fun with it.”
It was a former St. Thomas teammate who rediscovered the film of the championship game. He had the film converted to a DVD and gave copies to team members. Those Finals were played at Jenison Field House at Michigan State University – one of several interesting places St. Thomas played at during Lillard’s career.
“Some of my fondest memories are playing in some of the old Catholic League gymnasiums,” Lillard said. “Some of the second-floor gyms with a running track around them were so amazing, such tiny little gyms. Some of them had clocks that still wound. You never really knew how much time was left in the quarter. We had some great times, that’s for sure.”
2021-22 Made in Michigan
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PHOTOS (Top) At left, Len Lillard as the standout on the Ann Arbor St. Thomas boys basketball team in 1974; at right, Lillard today as a father of three and successful investment banker. (Action photo courtesy of Doug Donnelly, current photo courtesy of Glaucon Capital Partners).
Hart Teammates Reunite After 80 Years Now as WWII Vets, Great-Grandfathers
By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com
June 7, 2023
Walter “Stretch” Hansen and Harold Tate were good friends and high school basketball and baseball teammates at Hart High School, graduating in 1943.
No one could have guessed that less than two months after graduation (on July 2, 1943), the two friends would head to Fort Custer in Battle Creek, the first stop on their way overseas to fight for their country in World War II.
No one could have imagined how many twists and turns their lives would take over the next 80 years – from the battlefields in the South Pacific, then back to West Michigan where they both were married with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and now Harold even has a great-great-grandchild.
And, certainly, no one would have believed that the two young boys from Hart – who forged a friendship through high school sports long before the days of computers, microwave ovens and cell phones – would still be alive at the age of 98 for an emotional reunion last month, on May 22, seeing each other for the first time in 80 years and, to cap it off, the reunion took place in their hometown of Hart.
“It was such a great day,” Hansen said about the meeting, which was set up by Muskegon-area World War II historian Richard Mullally.
“We picked right up, talking about sports and the service and everything else.”
The conversation came easy for the two old friends, who played for Hart during a “golden era” at the school – particularly in basketball, as the Pirates won 11 West Michigan Conference basketball titles between 1940 and 1954.
Perhaps the best team during that time period was Hansen and Tate’s as seniors in 1943. That team lost only once, to rival Scottville (31-25), but more than made up for it with an 80-10 trouncing of the Spartans in the final regular-season game.
Hart then crushed Scottville and Newaygo to win the District championship, only to have Michigan’s prep basketball season stopped abruptly at that point because of World War II.
That 1943 team featured four starters over 6-0, led by the duo of Hansen and Stan Kapulak (both 6-6), Joe Mack (6-2), Lyle Burmeister (6-1) and Stanley Riley (the lone starter under 6-foot at 5-11).
“The newspapers called us ‘The Hart Skyscrapers,’” said Hansen, who will be 99 on Nov. 6. “We were taller than most college teams at that time.”
Hansen and Tate’s friendship continued to blossom on the baseball field, only to have their lives turned upside down shortly after graduation 80 years ago, when all Hart senior boys who had been drafted headed to Battle Creek as a brief staging area on their way to the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific.
Hansen served in the Army Specialized Training Program and was part of the 52nd Signal Battalion and the 4025th Signal Battalion in the Pacific Theater.
“I had an all-expense paid tour of the South Pacific,” Hansen said with a chuckle. “The Philippines, New Guinea, Okinawa, Hawaii, all over the place.”
Tate did his service in the 24th Infantry Division and the 19th Infantry Regiment, and was stationed in Japan.
During their visit last month, Harold showed off the Japanese Samurai sword and Arisaka rifle which he had sent back from Japan to Hart. The week after their visit, both took part in Memorial Day parades – Hansen in the Lakeside parade in Muskegon and Tate in his 77th Memorial Day service in Hart.
Hansen, who still has a home on a small lake in Holton and lives at a senior care facility in Muskegon, played many years of semi-pro basketball and did some coaching. He worked at GTE and has five children and 10 grandchildren.
“I have been so blessed,” Hansen said, sorting through one of his many scrapbooks. “All five of my kids are great and I have grandkids that are just amazing, everything they are doing. I don’t even know all of their names, but it’s sure been fun watching them.”
Tate returned to Hart after his military service and has been there ever since, at first working as a carpenter with his father and then becoming a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, retiring 26 years ago at the age of 72. He has lived in the same home for 75 years and has three children, six grandchildren, seven great-grandkids and now one great-great-grandchild.
Tate laments the demise of his beloved American Legion post in Hart, a town with just over 2,000 residents, as the number of members has steadily declined.
One topic that brings a smile to both of their faces is the recent resurgence of the Hart High School athletic program, which drew media attention not too many years ago for all the wrong reasons – notably a football program which went 24 years without a winning record.
That string was snapped with a 6-3 mark and the school’s first earned playoff appearance last fall.
But that was just the start.
This winter, Hart’s boys basketball team finished the regular season 22-0, the girls basketball team made it to the Division 3 Semifinals at the Breslin Center, wrestling qualified for the Team Finals for the fourth-straight year and competitive cheer placed fourth in Division 4. This spring, the Hart girls track & field team won its second-straight Division 3 Finals team title, and the boys placed fourth.
“It’s a great place to call home, a great place to live, always has been,” said Hansen of his hometown, which got its name from its central position in the “heart” of Oceana County.
And who would have imagined that these two high school teammates could still come home again for a reunion at the age of 98?
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Members of the 1943 Hart High School varsity baseball team gather together, preparing for a team photo. Among those are Harold Gayle Tate (far left) and Walter "Stretch" Hansen, at 6-6 the tallest player in the back row. (Middle) Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. (Below) Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. (Top photo courtesy of Stretch Hansen. Middle and below photos courtesy of Richard Mullally.)