All-time Hoops Winner Leads Another

By Tim Robinson
Special for

March 20, 2018

HARTLAND — When asked how many seasons he’s coached basketball, Don Palmer always is up front.

The reactions are variations of shock and awe.

“How many seasons? 104?” a reporter asked after his most recent victory March 8.

“Seventy,” Palmer said.

Seventy?” said the reporter, not suspecting a number that high.

Told the same number, Hartland senior Graysen Cockerham could only giggle in disbelief.

“That’s crazy,” sophomore Whitney Sollom said, joining in the laughter.

Seventy is quite a number at first blush, considering Palmer is only 67 years old.

But he coached boys and girls at Milford for 29 years and has been a head coach for 41 overall, the last nine at Hartland.

He has won 935 games, 588 with the girls, which has enabled him to become the winningest overall basketball coach in state history. The old record, 922, is believed to have been held by Ed Mehlberg of Auburn Hills Oakland Christian. As it turns out, both Palmer and Mehlberg were inducted into the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame last September.

Palmer has coached countless players and their children as well as against coaches and their sons. On this year’s team he coached Sollom, whose mother, Dianne Hall, played against Milford while at Walled Lake Western; and Kamryn Gerecke, whose mother, Lori Montante, is Milford’s second-leading scorer all-time.

He’s won with and without talent on offense. And on defense, opposing coaches have learned to prepare in advance.

“I learned to do some prep work for those games,” former Brighton coach Jason Piepho said. “We would mix in different defenses in practice throughout the year. You couldn’t prepare for him for just two games a year, because you didn’t know what he would throw at you.”

Piepho learned that first-hand while playing for Howell a quarter-century ago.

“I remember the first time I played against him,” he said, laughing. “I was Howell’s point guard, and they threw a box-and-one against me. It was frustrating. It was the first time I’d seen that defense.”

Coach to the core

His Hartland girls finished 20-6 this winter, advancing to last week’s Class A Quarterfinals before falling to Wayne Memorial.

Palmer started coaching at Milford in 1974, the year he graduated from Michigan State University.

“I coached football a couple of years, freshman football,” he said. “I liked it, but I always wanted to be a head coach, so when the (girls basketball) job became open at Milford, I applied and got it. About a year later, the boys job came open and I applied and got it.”

For the next 29 years, until girls basketball moved to the winter beginning with the 2007-08 season, Palmer coached both sports.

“It became a lifestyle,” he said. “We had girls in the fall and boys in the winter. We would do our boys (offseason) stuff in June and the girls stuff in July, and it just kept going.

“When they switched the seasons, I had to make a choice,” he said. “I chose girls because that’s where I started. It gave me a chance to be a coach at a young age. So that’s where my allegiance was. As I grow older, I could never do two seasons back-to-back.”

Palmer’s Milford teams of both genders were known for defense and an offense that could be described as patient or painfully slow, depending on one’s perspective.

“When we started out with the boys, it was a program that struggled mightily,” he recalled. “We would do whatever we had to do to stay in games, whether that be ball control or setting the tempo.”

“I think the biggest thing that Don has done is that he adapts how he plays the game to his talent,” said Lee Piepho, who coached girls basketball at Howell. “Sometimes you don’t like what he does in terms of his strategy, but his idea is, ‘I’m going to play whatever strategy on the court to help my team win the game. If that’s standing out there and holding the ball, putting my arm under it and go into the quarter tied at zero or leading 2-0, I’m going to do that.’”

Last season, Palmer adjusted to a team than loved to run up and down the floor and was good at it.

“I don’t mind the running game,” he said. “You weren’t holding (that team) back. You were doing a disservice if you did.”

Both Piepho and Palmer are fiery competitors, but Palmer once made Piepho laugh during a game.

“One night we were playing Milford with Sara (Piepho’s daughter, a point guard at Howell),” Lee recalled. “I got a little upset with Sara and I pulled her out of the game and was talking to her and Don hollered over, ‘If you don’t want her, I’ll take her.’

“We had her graduation party and invited Don over, and he brings Sara a pair of Milford practice shorts.”

Palmer, at 6-foot with a shaved head and glasses, is an intimidating presence on the sideline during games. HIs players soon learn to look beyond that persona.

“I think most people, from a distance, see him and think he’s crazy,” Cockerham said. “But as players, we know he cares and wants us to be the best we can be. We appreciate it, because we need a coach to push us, and that’s exactly what he does. He expects nothing but the best for us, and that’s the way he gets it out of us.”

Mike McKay coached under Palmer at Milford for many years. He now is the varsity coach at Grand Blanc.

“He can be intense,” he said. “But off the court he does things he doesn’t want recognition for but does them for the betterment of his players. He takes care of the whole program.”

New challenge, no let up

After 32 seasons coaching at the only place he’d ever worked, Palmer’s contract was not renewed at Milford after the 2008-09 season.

He wasn’t out of coaching for long.

“When I left Milford, the Hartland coach, Brian Ives, had to leave because of work obligations,” Palmer said.

After years of struggling, the Hartland program was on the rise.

“We could beat them at the varsity level, but just barely,” Palmer said of coaching against the Eagles near the end of his Milford tenure. “The lower levels were just getting murdered. So we could see it coming.

“I told my coaches, ‘There’s going to be no excuse for not winning. None,’” Palmer recalled.

The Eagles have thrived under Palmer. In his nine seasons, his teams have won 20 or more games three times and got to the Quarterfinals twice over the last four seasons. He won 62 percent of his games at Milford. In nine seasons at Hartland, the Eagles have won 78 percent of their games.

“There just doesn’t seem to be any let up for a while,” he said, referring to the talent stream at Hartland. Indeed, five sophomores and two freshmen saw extensive time during the postseason for the Eagles this year.

But, he jokes, some old habits die hard.

“Even now, frequently, I’ll still write ‘Milford’ in a scorebook or something like that,” Palmer said. “I’m much, much better now. I’m a Hartland guy and a Livingston County guy, but it took a while. I coached 61 seasons over there. That’ll always be my school, but I do think that getting hired at Hartland was the best thing that happened to me under those circumstances. It’s been fabulous.”

Palmer’s coaching tree is expansive, and his list of admirers much more so.

“When we were winning and making runs in the state tournament, he went to all of our games,” Jason Piepho said. “He was always a coach you could call and talk to about things in your program. He’s an open book, willing to help and mentor. He’s what you want in a high school coach.”

“There are a lot of challenges that come with coaching,” McKay said. “A lot of people don’t like hearing the truth, and it’s hard to tell them. But he’s always honest and up front with his players and staff. He’s a first-class person and coach, and I admire him and try to emulate what he does.”

McKay just finished his second season with the Bobcats, and they beat Hartland in December in a key victory.

“I didn’t like losing, but losing to him took the sting away a little bit because he was so happy and it was a big win for his program,” Palmer said. “So that helped. I’m proud of him, and he’s turning it around and he’ll be fine.”

Told this, McKay replied, “That tells you all you need to know about Don. He’s a class act. It was a great win for our program, but bittersweet for me. I look on him as a second father, and you always want to please your father. I know how badly he wanted to win and compete and how much I do, too.”

Howell girls coach Tim Olszewski had previously coached the Howell boys against Palmer’s Milford teams. In his last regular-season game as Howell coach, Olszewski’s Highlanders beat Milford 97-86.

“He was so mad at me,” Olszewski said, laughing. “He and his players were all red-faced, for different reasons.

“He’s a great coach and I love listening to him talk and pick his brain for things. He’s very well deserving of the record. Hopefully he’ll be around a lot longer.”

March continues

A lot has changed since Palmer’s first season as a varsity coach with the Milford girls back in 1977.

“As we kind of march on in time, you’ve got people playing 60 games in the summer,” Palmer said. “I think if we get in 30 games, that’s plenty. I do think this: More than ever, you’ve got to let kids be kids a little bit. We’re going to that specialization stuff, and I don’t think that’s great.

“People love to go to the next level, but it becomes a job,” he continued. “So this is the time to be a kid. This is the time to enjoy sports. Basketball is always my love, but I enjoyed football. I enjoyed track, and I think kids, well, it’s just how it is. There are outside forces. Everyone says they have a college athlete, and the percentages say they don’t.”

Specialization, he adds, not only cuts into individual opportunities to learn, but also hurts teams that could use those athletes.

“Unless you have a gigantic high school, all of your athletes have got to play a couple of sports, or you don’t survive,” he said.

As he gets older, Palmer sees the end of his career approaching, although he’s not there yet.

“I just go year-by-year,” he said. “Part of the compromise my wife and I made for me to continue (coaching) is that we’re going to travel a little bit more. She likes that, and so we’ve got some plans. After the season is over, we’re going to take a trip to Dallas. I’m a Kennedy assassination buff, and she just wants to see Dallas.”

Asked if he will be back next year, he nods his head.

“Right now, that’s the feeling, I guess,” he said. “If everything works out, I would like to at least finish with Whitney. That’s a gift, to coach a kid like that. But eventually you have to make a decision. Right now, my energy is up, but when the season is over, I go into a meltdown for a month where I don’t do much. Just don’t have the energy. It takes more and more out of you every day.

“But it’s still fun when you’re in the heat of battle. It’s still fun.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Hartland girls basketball coach Don Palmer stands for the national anthem before a game at Howell last month. (Middle) Palmer, also during the game against the Highlanders. (Below) Palmer talks with his team during a timeout. (Photos by Tim Robinson.)

Little Provides Major Stride as 1st Woman to Officiate Boys Hoops Final since 1995

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

April 13, 2023

Delonda Little was already a trailblazer to many before this year’s MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals.

Greater DetroitBut 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 monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.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 DunlapKeith 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.