Changing Lives One Player at a Time

One of the most successful coaches in Minnesota high school basketball history, Minneapolis North”s Larry McKenzie teaches a creed far removed from dunks or three-pointers.

Player chatter and squeaking sneakers provide the soundtrack at Minneapolis North High School on a Wednesday night in early October, two full months before the basketball team’s first official game.

This is music to Larry McKenzie’s ears.

He has a speech for the United Way to practice, a media guide for his basketball team to write and potential sponsors of the basketball program to contact among the priorities on his always-growing to-do list. Yet opening the gym in the offseason every Wednesday evening for two hours trumps all of that.

In this digital age, with disappearing “snaps” and streams of emoji-filled texts, McKenzie needs face time more than FaceTime.

One of the boys is failing a science class, and McKenzie reminds him that he risks his basketball eligibility, which is based not on the state’s standards but the program’s higher standards. Another boy is homeless, the pickup games providing him a respite from concerning himself about when he’ll get his next meal and where he’ll sleep later that night.

“I need to be present,” McKenzie says. “Young men in urban schools have different needs and challenges. I want to provide them consistency and an environment where they know people care about them.”

McKenzie, a Florida native, is one of the most successful coaches in Minnesota high school basketball history. He led Patrick Henry High School to four state titles, and he quickly revitalized North’s once-mighty basketball program; the Polars are vying to become three-time defending state champs this winter. McKenzie’s record over 17 seasons at Henry, Holy Angels and North high schools is 372-133.

In 2014, McKenzie was inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association (MBCA) Hall of Fame.

But titles and trophies aren’t McKenzie’s ultimate goal. Saved lives are, especially for a group many others believe is unsaveable: Young black men from the inner city.

Here’s a secret: Young Larry McKenzie wouldn’t have played for Coach Larry McKenzie.

Though talented, a teenaged McKenzie was often angry, selectively choosing when to listen, when to study and when to practice hard, if at all.

“I’ve been blessed with the understanding that I wasn’t a perfect teenager,” McKenzie says. “As adults, we erase all the things that we did, then we can’t understand how a 14-year-old can make mistakes. But I was not perfect, and I was given a second, third or fourth chance.

“I always remember that.”

So McKenzie takes no day for granted, driven daily by his Christian faith to honor God by helping others. And he doesn’t deem any young man too tough to reach and teach.

“That’s who coach is,” says former player Terry Pettis. “You can be the roughest, toughest kid in the ghettos in north Minneapolis, and he would find a way to tap into your heart. I have no doubt in my mind that I’m his son, that he loves me and believes in me.”

“Our fathers might not be in the stands, but when you see coach, you know someone cares about you,” Pettis adds. “That’s all you want as a kid, someone to believe in you.”

I’ve been blessed with the understanding that I wasn’t a perfect teenager.

– Larry McKenzie                            

Minnesota ranks in the top six for fourth graders in national testing scores yet also ranks in the bottom six when it comes to the gap between black and white students. In 2010, North High School was nearly shuttered, due to dwindling enrollment and plummeting test scores.

Currently, over 93 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. As for the basketball team, they’d finished last in the Minneapolis City Conference in the two seasons before McKenzie’s arrival, a far cry from a program that had won state titles in the largest enrollment classifications in 1980, 1995 through 1997 — led during that three-year stretch by Khalid El-Amin, who won an NCAA championship at the University of Connecticut — and in 2003.  

“It was a very tough situation, no doubt about it,” says Dave Wicker, one of McKenzie’s athletic directors at Patrick Henry High School and the current assistant director of the Minneapolis Public Schools athletic department. “He had a big rebuilding job. But I had confidence, having worked with him and witnessed his work firsthand, that it wouldn’t be too long before he would resurrect that storied program.”

McKenzie doesn’t allow excuses and doesn’t diminish expectations for his players, most of whom come from challenged circumstances. Players must sit in the first three rows of every class. Players must attend mandatory study hall, three days a week. Players cannot be on the team with an F, can only practice with a D and must maintain at least a C to play in games. While coaching Patrick Henry High School, he played one game with six players because the rest didn’t meet his academic standards.

But since taking over at North in May 2013, 95 percent of his players have been A or B honor-roll students and 100 percent played basketball at a two-year or four-year college.

The emphasis on education comes from McKenzie’s parents, both of whom were educators for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the largest school district in Florida and currently the fourth-largest in the United States.

“He gets kids to not only perform well on the basketball court but also in the classroom. His team has one of the highest GPAs — and we’re talking about north Minneapolis!” says Clyde Turner, a longtime community leader who is currently the executive director at Past Athletes Concerned About Education (PACE). “I’m not putting other coaches down, but could you imagine if we had a coach like him in every high school?”

The eldest of four children, McKenzie cherishes the relationship with his family. But while playing basketball at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, he met a Twin Cities insurance agent named John K. Cameron through their historically African American fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi.

“He could have chosen anybody,” McKenzie recalls, “but he saw something special in me, and he became my mentor.”

Cameron was a model of manhood and servanthood, teaching McKenzie how to speak and how to dress, among other things. Cameron stocked McKenzie’s usually bare refrigerator, treated him to meals and Viking games, and transported him to fraternity functions. Most important, though, Cameron helped McKenzie get his temper under control.

McKenzie tried to show his gratitude by offering to buy Cameron Christmas and Father’s Day gifts, yet the mentor always rebuffed his mentee.

“He would say, ‘When the time comes, I want you to allow people to stand on your shoulders the way that you stood on mine,’ ” McKenzie recalls. “I am who I am now a lot because of John K. Cameron.”

When he moved to the Twin Cities, McKenzie signed up with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the century-old mentoring organization. At the time, Turner was a Big Brothers Big Sisters supervisor, and he was impressed with McKenzie’s knack for empowering African American boys.

“There’s something about him,” Turner says of McKenzie. “You feel good being around him. You know you’re going to be safe around him. He’s sort of like the Godfather. If you need something, you can go to him, and he’ll take care of you.”

McKenzie doesn’t know how many young men he’s coached over three-plus decades but the number easily tops 300.

“I feel God gives everybody a purpose, and he put me on Earth to make a difference in the lives of young men, particularly African Americans in the inner city,” McKenzie says. “I know my ‘Why’ and my ‘Who.’ But I can always learn about ‘How.’ ”

As if he needed more motivation, McKenzie remains inspired by the man, now deceased, who mentored him.

“For my young men, what I’m trying to give them is what John K. Cameron gave me,” McKenzie says. “I loved him that much, and he loved me that much. I’m motivated by that. I can’t pay him back enough for what he’s done for me.”

Jennifer Henderson wasn’t sure what to make of McKenzie when he approached her family five years ago. North High School had lost every basketball game in the Minneapolis City Conference the previous season, and its enrollment was dangerously low. McKenzie, along with new principal Dr. Shawn Harris-Berry, explained the dramatic changes happening at North High School, and they wanted Henderson’s son, Isaac Johnson, to be a part of the turnaround.

“They made a really good pitch,” Henderson recalls. “But McKenzie made a promise that he would keep on Isaac and help him play in college. No other coach came at us like that.”

So Johnson open enrolled at North High School, and he developed as a player and, just as important, as a student. McKenzie works full-time as a charter school liaison for Pillsbury United Communities, a nonprofit dedicated to working with “underestimated populations across Minneapolis.” But McKenzie regularly “pops up” at North High to check on his players.

“To me, Henderson says, “that’s what Isaac needed.”

McKenzie pushed Johnson, constantly challenging and motivating him to take his work, on and off the court, to another level. Some days start at 6 a.m., and some days end at 9 p.m.

“I admire his true commitment to these kids,” Wicker says. “Larry doesn’t coach basketball from 3:30 to 5:30. He’s coaching 24 hours a day because the kids can call him with their problems, they can share with him their joys.

“Coaching isn’t his profession,” Wicker adds. “It’s really a lifestyle, a lifestyle in developing kids.”

Besides, those long days were welcomed by many of his players; they had chaotic lives at home, if a home at all.  

“A few of Isaac’s teammates could come to our house, or McKenzie’s, other than the streets,” Henderson says. “I can’t imagine them worrying about where they’re going to go after school or practice, or where they’re going to get their next meal.”

On trips, McKenzie integrates opportunities to expose his players to historic sites and different cultures. Wicker remembers McKenzie taking one of his Patrick Henry High teams to the Hoover Dam while on a trip to Las Vegas.

“He’s always looking at using basketball as a platform,” Wicker says, “but, through his work, teaching life lessons.”

So naturally, McKenzie did his part in fulfilling the promise he made to Henderson; Johnson is at Western Illinois University on a full basketball scholarship.

“I don’t think Isaac would be where he is today, if it weren’t McKenzie,” Henderson says. “Isaac and McKenzie had their differences, but they always came together in the end. And, honestly and genuinely, McKenzie cares about the players he coaches. He will be with them for the rest of their life.”

Terry Pettis is one of the greatest basketball players to emerge from Minneapolis. McKenzie’s top player at Patrick Henry High School, Pettis earned three state titles and was named a Minnesota Mr. Basketball finalist after averaging 19.6 points per game in 2002. With abundant choices, Pettis headed to Fresno State University on a full basketball scholarship.

“I wanted to play for coach because he made us feel like family,” Pettis says. “Whether in the gym or study hall, coach instilled in us things we had never experienced. Coach McKenzie took my game to another level.”

But while at Fresno State, Pettis fell into the wrong crowd, and he compounded poor choice upon poor choice until one cost someone their life — and Pettis his freedom.

In April 2004, Pettis murdered a teenage woman in a botched drug robbery. The following month he was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Pettis was 21 years old.

“Every day, I wake up to circumstances that are difficult and tough, being away from my wife and loved ones,” Pettis says. “But I have to keep moving forward.”

He wakes daily at 5 a.m., in a closet-sized cell in the Alpha 2 ward of Salinas Valley State Prison in northern California, and he recites from memory “The Creed,” something each of McKenzie’s players must vocalize before practices and games:

This is beginning of a new day, God has given me this day to use as I will, I waste it or use it for good, for what I do today is important, I am exchanging a day of my life for it, I want it to be good not bad, gain not loss, success not failure in order that I will never regret the price that I paid for it.

Twenty years ago, one of McKenzie’s best friends died of breast cancer. Struggling with loss, McKenzie’s brother sent him “The Creed” as encouragement.

“The Creed helped me realize that every day is a gift,” McKenzie says. “I tell my players, ‘When you get in a jam, go back to The Creed.’ ”

Imprisoned for 14 years, “The Creed” reminds Pettis to approach each day with hope, optimism and God’s grace. So he runs a basketball league at his prison, and he’s the proud chairman of the facilities.

In August, McKenzie, along with Pettis’ father Michael Tate, flew to the Bay Area to surprise Pettis for his birthday.

Upon seeing his coach, Pettis was overwhelmed with emotion.

“When I saw my coach, and my daughter, and my father, it hit me deep,” Pettis says. “I hadn’t seen him in 14 years. To see him and hold him, and see that look in his eye. …”

Pride. Respect. Love.

“Nobody is perfect,” McKenzie says. “I told him, ‘None of us get to choose how God wants to use us.’ But because of this situation, Terry’s dad got saved. Several people in his family got saved. And, even in his circumstances, he teaches and helps others.”

They spent six hours together on Saturday, and six hours together on Sunday. They talked about their families, and they talked about hoops in the Twin Cities.

“He told me he loved me and refuse to lose,” Pettis recalls. “But it’s not about losing a game. It’s about not losing in life. To have coach say he believes in me gives me strength. I can continue to wake up and believe I have life after this place.”

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