“Just knowing that I had an opportunity to come to the UK and play the game of basketball and travel the world, I was excited.”
As we sit (socially distanced) on the court following a practice at Sheffield Sharks’ Ponds Forge arena, Lillard speaks candidly about his initial lack of knowledge of the place he now calls home.
After all, it has been a long journey to get here. Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, Sheffield is not the first destination that would come to mind to ply your future trade – particularly if that trade is basketball.
Lillard, 25, was certain sport was his path, but was originally torn between two – until parental advice helped him choose.
“When I was in sixth grade, around the time I was going to the Rec [a local gym to play basketball], I was also playing football. I got hit very hard. My mom actually pulled me out.
“She was like “You know what? This is a bit too physical for me”, so I started putting all my attention towards basketball.”
Now solely focusing on basketball, he began to play in multiple county and state teams, including at the nationwide Amateur Athletic Union level, designed to promote amateur sport from a grassroots level across the United States. It was there where he honed his skills, and also met his current team-mate, housemate, and fellow Clevelander, Kipper Nichols.
“I started playing AAU and fell in love with the game,” says Lillard, who along with Nichols will conclude their first regular season as Sheffield Sharks players against London Lions at Ponds Forge tonight.
“I knew Kip since seventh grade actually, we played AAU together in a team called Friends For Life.”
Lillard played college basketball at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, and upon graduation, played his rookie year in the National Basketball League of Canada for the Island Storm, ending the season with Rookie of the Year honours.
That is when Sharks head coach Lyons spotted him, and the six-foot-five small forward joined the Sharks last summer.
Having adapted quickly despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he is now taking the league by storm. A regular starter for the team, and averaging 13.7 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game, he was named Molten BBL Player of the Month for February as his side won six of eight games in a hectic stretch of the season.
“It was a good experience, I actually didn’t know I was even in a position to get Player of the Month, I actually didn’t know they did that here. I saw it and was like “man, what an accomplishment”.
“It lets me know the hard work is paying off, it actually makes you hungrier.
“I’d probably say it’s solid,” he says of his first season in the BBL. “I’m very hard on myself. I feel like it’s been up and down so I’m just finding that consistency.
Sharks enter the play-offs as the fifth seeds next Tuesday and Thursday against Newcastle and Lillard adds: “Our goal is to win a championship. I would love to win one here. I’m surrounded by good people. It’s like a family.”
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