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).
Little Provides Major Stride as 1st Woman to Officiate Boys Hoops Final since 1995
By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com
April 13, 2023
Delonda Little was already a trailblazer to many before this year’s MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals.
But what happened last month at Breslin Center made her even more of one on a statewide level.
A referee and assigner for 20 years in the Detroit area, Little is a female boys and girls basketball official who mentors both male and female referees – no matter the gender or level, as she officiates high school and college games.
Officials often go to Little for guidance, direction and assignments, which has made her respected for years throughout Metro Detroit in the prep basketball community. Then, her status as a trailblazer grew even more.
Little was assigned as an official for the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis, and she became the first female referee to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since Traverse City’s Barb Beckett 1995.
“It was a very good feeling to know I was the one selected,” said Little, who officiated the Final with Matt Olson and Zach Porritt.
In fact, while attending a Semifinal game the Friday before the Final, Little received a phone call from an area code she didn’t recognize.
She answered, and it was Beckett.
“At first I didn’t know the name,” Little said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t know you, but that’s fine.’”
Beckett then explained she was the first female referee to be assigned a Boys Basketball Final, and just wanted to offer support to Little.
At that point, Little became excited and thankful she answered the call.
“It was very nice to hear from her because she wanted to reach out and if not pass the torch, to congratulate me,” Little said.
Little, 51, said she found out she was going to be refereeing the Division 3 boys championship game just before the start of the postseason when she received an email from the MHSAA.
“I’m looking at the email and I’m like, boys?” Little said. “I was shocked.”
But she was shocked in a good way, and obviously excited for the honor.
Little didn’t find out until a couple of days before the St. Francis/Beecher contest that she would be officiating that specific championship game, but the Monday of boys championship week was when she really started to receive congratulations from friends and colleagues.
That’s when an article came out in the Detroit News detailing her selection, which led to countless calls, texts and congratulatory messages on social media.
“I couldn’t even (keep up with the comments),” she said. “That’s how overwhelming the actual tags were. It came from all across the state with officials, men and women, because I do women’s college (games). Some of the college ladies were reaching out. I was getting all the hoopla before the game.”
Little said she normally doesn’t get nervous for games, but not having some nerves became a bit harder once so many people knew of her achievement.
However, she settled into a normal routine quickly once the game started.
“I wanted to get it done, get it over with and do well,” she said.
Little did do well, which is no surprise to everyone who knew her before she officiated on the boys championship stage.
It was just another feather in the cap for Little, who in 2016 became the first woman to officiate a boys Detroit Public School League championship game.
“Delonda is one of the top officials in the Detroit area, and our staff doesn’t look at Delonda as a female working a boys game – we see one of the top officials in Detroit working a basketball game,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are females officiating in the NBA and female officials in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The aspect that made Delonda’s selection for this MHSAA championship game nearly unique will soon be the norm at all levels of athletics.”
Little graduated from Detroit Osborn in 1989 and starred on the basketball court at Wayne State, earning induction into WSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.
Her day job is as an officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, but her passion is officiating. She’s been an MHSAA-registered official for basketball for two decades and also was registered for volleyball for four years. This past fall she registered for football for the first time.
“I get something from it because it keeps me in shape, I love the people I work with and I like the kids,” Little said. “You are always teaching, and I like training the newer officials. I just enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t refereeing.”
Going forward, Little hopes her championship game assignment will now be an inspiration for other female referees.
“There aren’t very many women who would like to work boys basketball or feel comfortable,” Little said. “If that’s something they desire, I’m hoping more women are selected to work the games if they feel comfortable.”
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTOS (Top) Delonda Little takes her position on the court during the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final on March 25 at Breslin Center. (Middle) Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.