By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
Before the start of the MHSAA’s 2009 Boys Basketball finals, Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan director Tom Hursey stopped by my seat at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center to say hello.
Our chat would alter a decade of my Michigan winters.
Somewhere between hello and goodbye, our chat included conversation on one of my favorite BCAM ventures. In 1981, the Michigan High School Basketball Coaches Association, as BCAM was once known, named its first “Mr. Basketball.” I was two years out of high school when Lansing Eastern’s Sam Vincent edged Eric Turner of Flint Central for that first award. Designed to honor the state’s top senior, the award was named in honor of Detroit Free Press writer Hal Schram. “The Swami,” as he was nicknamed, Schram began covering high school sports for the newspaper in 1945.
The 2009 selection was 6-foot-9 Derrick Nix of Detroit Pershing. I mentioned my affinity for the Mr. Basketball program to Tom, but stated that I always thought it a crime that the award didn’t start years earlier, at least when Michigan hoop fans became infatuated with a kid nicknamed “Magic.”
Earvin Johnson prepped at Lansing Everett and was the talk of the state in basketball circles before becoming a household name during his time at Michigan State and with the Los Angeles Lakers. Earlier this year, ESPN named Johnson the greatest point guard to ever play the game. Tom noted that “Magic” was really the inspiration for the “Mr. Basketball” award.
Then I posed a question to Tom.
What about creating a “new” award, designed to honor those greats from the past?
As my hobby of researching the history of high school sports in Michigan and beyond had grown over the years, I’d found the Great Lakes state had always produced shining stars on the basketball court. The crime was that the “Mr. Basketball” award hadn’t been launched many years before.
Harry Kipke, was perhaps the state’s first true basketball star. He won 12 varsity letters at Lansing Central and guided the basketball team to the semifinal round of the state tournament in 1920 as a senior, before heading to the University of Michigan where he earned letters in football, basketball and baseball. After stops at the University of Missouri and Michigan State, Kipke would serve as Michigan’s football coach, guiding the Wolverines to two national gridiron championships.
As a junior, the basketball antics of Grand Rapids Union’s Royal “Red” Cherry captured the state’s attention when he led Union to the state basketball championship. Considered the best all-around player of the tournament, Cherry led the team to a second consecutive title as a senior. He, too, attended Michigan, earning laurels on the basketball court and the baseball diamond.
Many other legends of the hardcourt populated Michigan’s past: Saginaw’s Ernie Thompson; the Burton brothers, M.C. and Ed, of Muskegon Heights; Detroit Pershing’s Ralph Simpson and Spencer Haywood; Dave DeBusschere of Detroit Austin Catholic; Willie Betts and Blanche Martin of River Rouge; Ron Kramer of East Detroit; Benton Harbor’s Chet Walker and L.C. Bowen.
After a few weeks of research, discussion and thought, Tom agreed, and over the next several months the framework for the “Retro Mr. Basketball” project was developed
The idea was to try and mimic the current model. Only seniors, and their high school basketball careers, should be considered. While any “senior” player would be eligible, a ballot of the state’s elite would comprise the candidates for the award. Like their modern-day equivalents, where the events of life that would follow high school graduation had yet to occur, post-high school life would be disregarded as much as possible for “Retro” candidates.
Finally, the program would follow a 10-year arc, kicking off in the spring of 2010. This December marks my eighth year of research tied to the mission. Two more will follow.
Since the Schram “Mr. Basketball” award began in 1981, the “Retro” award would honor basketball players from the years 1920 through 1980. That first year, a ballot comprised of players from the years that ended in zero - 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970 and 1980 – was created. A senior for each year would be named the winner of the “Retro” award. That meant with the selection of “Mr. Basketball” and the six “Retro” winners for the years 1929, 1939, 1949, 1959, 1969 and 1979, scheduled for the spring of 2019, BCAM would be able to point to a combined list of Mr. Basketballs totaling 100 of the state’s finest.
To identify each year’s award winner, a committee of veteran BCAM members was formed to study a ballot of candidates and select a winner.
Technology, combined with scanning old-fashioned reels of microfilm, has helped with research of potential candidates. In those very early years, personal statistics were rarely kept. Rather, an assessment of a player’s skills, tied to the position he played, often served as a means to identify an area’s top athletes. Tournament play was often the only time an athlete’s abilities were on display to a larger audience. Scouring newspaper articles for all-tournament teams and yearbooks for additional details and years of study helped uncover the state’s top senior players. Understanding the game and its evolution was important. The center jump after each basket emphasized the importance of a tall, skilled center in those games played before the winter of 1938-39.
Beginning in 1935, all-state teams began to appear in state newspapers. Eventually, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Times, the Detroit News, The Associated Press and even United Press International became involved in identifying the state’s top basketball players and naming all-state squads. Much work is involved in parsing the 15,811 names (not including honorable mentions) found in those lists. When duplicates are removed, the names of 8,430 prep players remain spread over the 61 years that mark the “Retro” field of possible candidates.
Research to identify seniors, players named by multiple media outlets, and mini biographies are compiled for the top players. The field of candidates is then narrowed to 10 or fewer. Over state championship weekend, the ballots are brought to the BCAM committee for discussion, and finalists are named for each year. Finally, one player is named for each eligible season.
Like the modern day award, the selection may create some controversy. Some amazing ballplayers have landed on the finalist list, but were denied the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball award: Traverse City’s Dan Majerle, Roy Marble of Flint Beecher, Detroit Southwestern’s Jalen Rose, Detroit Northern’s Derrick Coleman and Draymond Green of Saginaw are among a few.
The same applies to the “Retro” list. Fennville’s Richie Jordan, Robert “Bubbles” Hawkins from Detroit Pershing, Dennis Bankey of Detroit St. Thomas, Bill Chmielewski of Detroit Redeemer, Highland Park’s Terry Duerod and Detroit Kettering’s Lindsay Hairston all have been honored on the finalist lists, but fell short of the top prize.
In many cases, Michigan was loaded with prep talent – it’s tough to name Roy Marble Mr. Basketball when Flint Northwestern’s Glen Rice was on the same ballot, or Rose the state’s best when Country Day’s Chris Webber was another candidate. While the “Fennville Flash” amazed the state with his eye-popping statistics in 1965, Bowen led Benton Harbor to back-to-back Class A titles. Named an all-state basketball player as a junior, Hairston grew an inch and improved his game as a senior, but Pontiac Central’s “Campy” Russell dominated headlines that season, and was the “Retro” Mr. Basketball selection for 1971.
In some cases, it’s a challenge to look at the final balloting results without judging selections based on future basketball success. That certainly is the case with 2008. That season, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award went to 6-foot guard Brad Redford, who posted incredible back-to-back high school seasons at Frankenmuth. Runner-up to the award that year was Saginaw’s Green. Considering Green’s success in the NBA, that’s hard for many to believe.
While the debates may never be settled, the beauty of Schram and “Retro” Mr. Basketball balloting can be found in the argument. With those disputes, people recall, research and learn about Michigan’s incredible prep basketball past.
The remaining three years of the “Retro” project will include many more legends of Michigan High School basketball, including, among others, DeBusschere, Walker, Haywood and Simpson.
This season, that “Magic” kid will be one of the names among the mix. Forty years after high school graduation, will he earn the honor that eluded him in high school, only because the honor didn’t yet exist?
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lansing Everett’s Earvin Johnson drives around a defender during his celebrated high school career. (Middle) Grand Rapids Union’s Royal “Red” Cherry. (Below) Detroit Austin Catholic’s Dave DeBusschere drives to the hoop as an opponent gets in position to rebound. (Photos from MHSAA and Ron Pesch historical files.)
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.)