Lil Preston: Successful On The Court And Behind The Camera
Feb. 25, 2008
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-American football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-American basketball star whose contributions have a major impact today, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of Spartan profiles, longtime writer and radio broadcaster Jack Ebling will present some of the greatest of the great in 2008. The fifth is early 1980s basketball star Lil Preston.
It's always good to know what you want to do in life. It's even better when you know you can do it.
Lil Preston is 2-for-2 with that stat line. She picked Michigan State from a deep pool of schools, wanting a strong communication program and a shot to play big-time basketball. Since arriving in East Lansing in 1979, Preston has parlayed those opportunities into success on the court and behind the camera.
"I grew up just outside Syracuse, N.Y., and was really a tomboy," said Preston, whose appearance suggested otherwise. "I was into a lot of sports - soccer, volleyball, track and basketball. I didn't concentrate on just one thing, and neither did our coaches."
Preston decided what to study first, and then picked the place to study it. Fortunately for her and the Spartans, a computer spit out the perfect match.
"Our high school had a different way of helping students find colleges that fit them," Preston said. "I said I wanted to study broadcasting and wanted a great communication department. I wanted to be near a big city but not in one. And I wanted a chance to play basketball. The computer spit out a lot of Big Ten schools."
I didn't hurt that the Spartans had just won an NCAA championship in men's basketball with Earvin Johnson and Gregory Kelser. Though MSU had yet to play a recognized regular season of Big Ten women's basketball, it was seen as a big-time basketball environment.
The Spartans first saw Preston in a summer tournament in Hamilton, Ontario, but didn't offer her a scholarship immediately. After a campus visit and a tryout of sorts, she knew what she wanted to do before Coach Karen Langeland gave her a chance to do it.
"I was really impressed," Preston said. "I thought the campus was beautiful and just fell in love with it. Syracuse had already offered me a scholarship. But I came to Michigan State as a walk-on. Karen said if I worked hard, getting a scholarship wasn't far-fetched. That's exactly what happened."
"I remember her being a quick jumper who got to the ball before anyone else," Langeland said of her team's top scorer in 1981-82 and 1982-83. "She was a real finesse player. And she always reminded me of a model. She was one of the best-dressed students on campus and always looked beautiful. Lil carried herself elegantly. She had a presence whenever she entered a room."
Preston entered MSU with a strong sense of self and a determination to make the most of her chances. She wasn't aware of the struggles that Langeland and others on campus were enduring each day to gain respect and inch toward parity. But the same was true all across the league and the country before Title IX's enactment.
"Karen really fought for us and wanted us to have what we could," Preston said. "The training, the coaching and the way the program was run at a level so much higher than I'd ever seen. But I didn't know what to expect or how to compare it. We didn't understand all the sacrifices being made for women's athletics to grow."
Preston and her teammates were told to concentrate on their studies and skills. They were never used as pawns in a political chess match that valued kings AND queens.
"I never felt discriminated against, but I knew some of that existed," Preston said. "We were all shielded from it. We understood there was a struggle in progress and the treatment wasn't equal. But we enjoyed what we had and were protected from the rest."
Preston, a center-forward in high school, was a prototype forward for women's basketball a quarter-century ago. She and Jackie Carter came to MSU at the same time and formed a potent combination, with Preston leading the team in points twice and Carter leading in rebounds three seasons.
"All I played in high school was zone defense," Preston said. "I had to make a big adjustment. But the program met all my expectations. And I hope I did the same. I don't think I'd change anything I did sports-wise, except win a championship."
Preston had 34 of the Spartans' 69 points against Kent State her junior year and 27 against Michigan a few weeks later. Her 15 baskets against the Golden Flashes set an MSU record, as did her 12 free throws as a senior against Northwestern.
"Karen was really an exceptional coach," Preston said. "Her professionalism and knowledge of the game were at another level. She worked with players who had different skill sets and was very approachable. At the same time, you had to respect her. She deserved that. She helped us grow on and off the court."
Preston also grew professionally with help from trustee Joel Ferguson and the television station he owned, WFSL (channel 47) in Lansing. There, she polished her broadcast skills and began a long, diverse career. "Joel was one of my mentors," Preston said. "I still talk to him occasionally. Besides the business things, he taught me how to say no to people and when to say it. It took me a while to understand that. But that was very important for me."
Preston moved on to WJBK (channel 2) in Detroit and developed her skills behind the scenes, writing, directing and producing newscasts and other programs. Later, she worked for Grace & Wild, a production company in Farmington Hills and did her evening graduate work at the University of Michigan.
"The only games I ever went to there were with Michigan State," Preston said. "I might've been in school there, but my blood runs green."
After a stint with the Detroit Empowerment Zone, she had an internship with Johnson & Johnson and discovered her passion was still broadcasting.
"I loved television, loved sports and loved being healthy," said Preston, a devout Christian. "I saw a show, `Accent Health,' and everything clicked for me. My mom had just gone through two of her four hip surgeries, and I wanted to do a health-and-wellness show for African-Americans. I love it. And I do it all - everything but host the show."
Her creation, "Our Health," has run on Detroit Public Television and Comcast.
"I want to be in control," Preston said. "Sports were important that way. College basketball shaped me. I know who I am and Whose I am. Life is a team sport, too."
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