EAST GARFIELD PARK — Bernard Lilly Jr. said he sometimes feels like three people, and it's easy to understand why.
He is the senior class president at Providence St. Mel School and the president of its chamber choir who starred in the school's fall musical, "West Side Story."
But he's also a standout basketball guard who has helped guide the Knights (24-6) to their third straight IHSA Class 2A supersectional, which takes place at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Hales Franciscan (19-12) at Joliet Central High School. The Knights are still alive only because Lilly beat the buzzer and Northridge, 38-36, with a 3-pointer in last Tuesday's Guerin Sectional semifinal.
"He truly exemplifies everything we want in a Providence St. Mel student," said Principal Jeanette DiBella, who has known Lilly since he entered the school in kindergarten 13 years ago. "He's a role model for all of our middle and lower school students."
Providence St. Mel's athletic director Teresa Cullen calls Lilly the school's "Renaissance man." His hoops coach, Tim Ervin said the 18-year-old simply "wants to make everyone happy around him." Choral director David Baar said the Austin resident "has outstanding character and a lot of talent." His father, Bernard Lilly Sr., said his son "has a passion and the desire to make his community better."
For his part, Lilly Jr. said he has tried to live by the virtues of the school's mission statement, which in part reads: "We believe in the creation of inspired lives produced by the miracle of hard work. We are not frightened by the challenges of reality, but believe that we can change our conception of this world and our place within it."
"When times get hard, you start saying those words," he said. "You only live once, so you need to get the most out of it."
'Moments Like That, You Live For'
Growing up, Lilly was a model who appeared in catalogs like Kohl's and Carson's. As a 10-year-old, he was pictured on a McDonald's Happy Meal bag. That year, he also acted and was featured in an ESPN NFL commercial that showed him dreaming about the start of the football season.
"But he never got big-headed with that," said DiBella, a Downtown resident.
Ervin said Lilly is "not cocky, but he walks around with a confidence that he's going to be successful." That's why, when Providence St. Mel trailed 36-35 with 2.1 seconds left against Northridge, Ervin called a timeout and knew he had to orchestrate a sequence that would allow Lilly to get the last shot.
"He was my No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 option," Ervin said. "If we were going down, we were going to go down on his shot."
The play was called "Oklahoma," which Providence St. Mel hadn't run in a game all year, but had practiced countless times. It required junior Mike Johnson to take the inbound pass and find Lilly coming off a screen at his choice of location on the court — at the top of the key or in the corner. In the huddle, Lilly wanted to catch and release from the latter.
When the ball hit nothing but net, Lilly first said, "Thank you God!" Then he ran to Ervin, where he said "Thanks for having confidence in me, Coach," Lilly recalled.
"I wasn't ready for our season to be over," Lilly said. "Moments like that, you live for."
Big Voice, Big Talent
Lilly said he wants to remain modest, despite the accolades and leadership roles that have come his way.
While he plays piano and writes music in his spare time, he had never tried out for a school musical until this year, yet earned the lead role of "Tony." When DiBella was being honored for her work at the school with a banquet and was asked to choose an emcee, she immediately selected Lilly.
"He was so smooth, and he did an amazing job," DiBella said.
Last year, Lilly became the first junior or boy from Providence St. Mel to be selected to the Honors All-State Choir. And that was only after he switched his singing range style from a bass 2 — the lowest of lows — to tenor 1 — the highest of highs.
"We found out he had another aspect of his voice, and he has a big, beautiful range, what you would call a 'lyric' voice, a sweet voice," said Baar, of Evergreen Park, who also directed "West Side Story" at the school.
"He's the kind of kid, too, who after he does a rehearsal, he's like, 'What can I do better?'" Baar added.
Lilly credits his family for his humbleness. His mother, Valerie, owns a day care facility in Austin. His father is an administrative pastor at Greater St. John Bible Church in the same neighborhood.
Lilly Sr. said it was important to keep his wife and four children in Chicago since arriving here from Alabama 24 years ago.
"I could have moved to Oak Park, but it's about our community," he said. "If our community is going to change, we're the ones who are going to change it. ... Bernard's success story will be he was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago. Hopefully, he'll come back and give back."
That's exactly Lilly's plan. He's applied to several top-tier schools like Brown, Carnegie Mellon, New York University, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Marquette. Regardless of which one he attends, Lilly said he'll major in business with a possible secondary major or minor in performing arts.
After graduation, his goal is to open a business in Austin that will provide a "safe haven" that will train the neighborhood's children and teenagers in the fine arts. Lilly, whose role model is Jamie Foxx, said he'll find talent agents to meet the top students and launch their careers.
"Kids need to have a structured environment, and our community lacks that, especially after school," Lilly said. "There's a lot of talented people that don't get discovered because they don't have the resources. I want to change that."
But first comes Tuesday's supersectional, where the Knights lost to Seton Academy at Joliet Central in 2012 and 2013.
For all his accomplishments at Providence St. Mel, Lilly said reaching the school's first state finals since 1985 would be No. 1 on his list.
Lilly has no doubt his team will come through this year.
"Same gym, same day, same result the last two years," he said. "This time, there will be a different result."