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
July 14: Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
July 12: Coaching Couple Passing On Knowledge, Providing Opportunities for Frankfort Wrestlers - Read
June 30: Hrynewich's Star Continuing to Rise with Olympic, Pro Sports Arrivals - Read
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).
HOWARDSVILLE - There is a sign that hangs inside Howardsville Christian School's tiny gymnasium that accurately depicts the mission for the Eagles during the 2023-24 boys basketball season.
It reads "In Jesus' name we play."
Ken Sparks and the eight players on his varsity basketball roster have challenged themselves to help one another understand what it means to give their season to God.
"My goal is to help these boys find gratitude in playing for a greater power than themselves," said Sparks, a varsity standout himself at Howardsville from 1996-2000, member of the 1,000-point club and an honorable mention all-stater his senior year.
Nestled on the border between St. Joseph and Cass counties along Bent Road, Howardsville Christian, a Division 4 school for its sports with fewer than 80 students, has enjoyed a rich tradition of spiritual learning both in the classroom and on the court and playing fields.
The contribution of many talented athletes from several families has been instrumental in Howardsville's athletic success for years, especially this school year.
Howardsville won District titles this fall in boys soccer and girls volleyball. Now the Eagles hope to carry that momentum over to the basketball court.
With four starters returning, Sparks is looking for Howardsville’s boys team to battle for supremacy in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph League and improve on a 13-10 record from last season. The Eagles finished 7-7 in the league last winter and endured a disappointing District Semifinal loss to Marcellus. Howardsville Christian had won its District the season in 2021.
"We competed well with all the teams on our schedule and lost to some teams we shouldn't have," Sparks said. "There are eight teams in our conference, and this season we need to beat Benton Harbor Countryside to be the top team. It's been a good league for us."
Senior twin brothers Colin and Dylan Muldoon return for Howardsville, along with junior cousin Kaden Sparks, son of the head coach, and junior John Paul Rose.
The Muldoon brothers both are beginning their third year as varsity starters.
"Working together as a team is something we really want to do well. A lot of teams set a goal of winning Districts. The last two years we've fallen short of that goal. It's definitely something we want to achieve this year," Colin Muldoon said.
Dylan Muldoon echoed that sentiment.
"Our success in soccer makes us want to attain the same goals in basketball. We know we are capable of reaching those, so I think it makes us want to pull things together," Dylan Muldoon said. "There's a lot of long-distance running in soccer, but there's also a lot of quickness and turning in basketball, especially when you're guarding or driving around someone. You just have to be quick."
Kaden Sparks, another three-year starter, will be Howardsville's best shooting guard.
"Winning Districts is achievable. We have to learn to work together. I played summer ball, and the biggest takeaway is that it taught me that I have to always give 100-percent effort out there. We had a great soccer season, and It’s taught us a lot about accountability," Kaden Sparks said.
Rose will be Howardsville Christian's starting point guard. He has been a starter since his freshman year, along with Kaden Sparks.
"The team chemistry and communication we had in soccer easily transfers over to basketball. As our point guard, it's important for me to try to get the ball to other guys who have open looks," Rose said. "I want to be more aggressive defensively, push the ball up the floor more and increase my scoring."
In addition, Ken Sparks believes the physicality a majority of his team learned from soccer will be a big benefit on the basketball floor.
"You build up your physicality from playing soccer with having to always body up. Watching them play sometimes hurts me, but that's what I want them to do in basketball. It helps them to want to draw contact and be physical on the floor," Ken Sparks said.
The lack of upperclassmen on Howardsville's varsity the last couple of years gave Rose and Kaden Sparks an immediate opportunity to play as freshmen.
"The fact John Paul and Kaden had that early chance at the varsity level is really paying off now,” Ken Sparks added. “Kaden is an excellent shooter. I want him to get the confidence that I had when I was in high school. He tends to be a little more passive on the floor than I like, but he's finally getting that aggressive nature that you need offensively.”
Kaden, Colin Muldoon and Rose all averaged double-digit scoring last season, while Dylan Muldoon is the Eagles' best defensive player. The Muldoon brothers will serve as Howardsville's team captains.
"Kaden is very self-motivated to become a better basketball player. His goal is to be the best player that he can be," Ken Sparks said. "John Paul is explosive and has really refined his jump shot to where he can be a scoring threat. He sees the floor very well and can really push the ball up the floor without turning it over. We're going to see big strides from him because of his determination and drive.
"Colin is a great overall player. He's a threat from the outside and can score inside with his height as well. If we're going to be successful, he and Dylan have to bring the same drive that John Paul and Kaden bring to the court.”
"I've coached all of the guys on our team for the last three seasons except one,” Sparks added. “We talk about being well-rounded. These guys are the best academically and spiritual leaders in our school."
Howardsville Christian’s most well-known alumni is Dylan Jergens, the third-leading scorer in state history with 2,782 career points.
During the fall soccer season, the Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose helped Howardsville win a second-straight District title. The Eagles then lost 5-0 in the Regional Semifinal to eventual Division 4 champion Muskegon Western Michigan Christian. Both Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose were named to the first-team all-BCS and District soccer squads.
The Muldoons were the two main catalysts in the Eagles' soccer run, along with Lukas Krueger. Dylan Muldoon had 28 goals and nine assists, while Colin Muldoon posted 14 goals and eight assists. Krueger added 19 goals to go with 16 assists. Kaden Sparks had five goals and four assists, and Rose added three goals and three assists.
Steve Muldoon, Colin and Dylan's father and Howardsville's head boys soccer coach, sees many correlations between soccer and basketball that will bring the Eagles success in hoops this winter.
"Communication is key. A team that doesn't talk on the field/court isn't going to win. They learn how to correct and encourage one another to deal with problems without getting too negative," Steve Muldoon said. "Individually, they learn how to anticipate. There isn't much difference between anticipating a pass and stepping in front of it in soccer or basketball or making a hard run down the court/field to get open for a layup/counterattack. They learn how to react and make the correct decision under pressure. The skills needed to do it in soccer and basketball are different, but most of it is mental and that carries over."
Determination was another big factor for Howardsville's soccer success this fall.
"We beat Lansing Christian this fall in a weekend soccer tournament and they are a much bigger and physical team than us, but we managed to beat them," Colin Muldoon said. "That win gave us a lot of confidence for the remainder of the season that we could beat anyone."
The family dynamic doesn't stop with Howardsville's boys basketball team.
Senior Kyla Sparks, Ken's daughter and Kaden's older sister, is one of three cousins on the roster for a Howardsville girls team that finished 12-11 last year. All five starters are back for that Eagles team as well.
"As a team, we want to improve on last year's record. With all our starters back, we feel we have a good shot to finish at the top of both our conference and District. Most of our basketball team also played volleyball this fall, and we view us all as family," Kyla Sparks said. "Being able to play with my two cousins makes good lifelong memories."
Kyla Sparks, who averaged 12 points per game her junior year, starts with sophomore cousins Kelsie Muldoon and Kate Evans. Those three also started on the varsity volleyball team that captured its first District title since 1997.
Coincidently, the mothers of Kyla, Kelsie and Kate were all on the 1997 District champion volleyball team.
Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Colin Muldoon drives to the basket against his twin brother Dylan Muldoon during recent Howardsville Christian boys basketball practice. (Middle) Eagles varsity boys basketball coach Ken Sparks, far left, is pictured by the school's trophy case with his four returning starters Colin Muldoon, Dylan Muldoon, Kaden Sparks and John Paul Rose. (Below) The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (Top and middle photos by Scott Hassinger. District championship photos courtesy of Howardsville Christian School.)