Beyond X’s and O’s: Prep basketball’s Larry McKenzie spreads his creed, players become believers

Larry McKenzie
Larry McKenzie has given each of his players “the creed,” his chief message about choices and results that transcends basketball.
(Submitted photo)

Anyone who has played for Larry McKenzie has heard “the creed.”

Former Minneapolis North two-sport star Tyler Johnson heard it before he was a Division I athlete at the University of Minnesota. Former Minneapolis Patrick Henry player Johnnie Gilbert heard it before he was playing basketball for the Oklahoma Sooners. Nick Anderson, a former student manager for McKenzie at Academy of Holy Angels whose abilities were doubted by many due to his cerebral palsy, has heard it and not forgotten it.

“It is something that I still live by today,” said Anderson, now a college student. “That is one thing that really sticks out about coach McKenzie is that when you are done with his program, the things he says before or after practice, during games, things that are life lessons, not just X’s and O’s, they stick with you.”

Since the 1990s, when McKenzie first began as a high school basketball head coach in Minnesota, hundreds of high school basketball players have heard “the creed” that he uses to contrast choices and results to his players. It’s his chief message, one that goes well beyond sports.

Larry McKenzie gestures to the crowd
Minneapolis North head boys basketball coach Larry McKenzie gestures to the crowd during the Class A state boys basketball tournament last season at the Target Center. McKenzie led the Polars to their first state title since 2003. (Submitted photo)

“I tell my players if you don’t ever get anything out from me, I want you to take this with you,’’ McKenzie said. “I have been blessed with this day to use as I will. I’ve got a choice: I can waste it or I can use it for good. For what I do today is important, I am exchanging there my life for it. I must decide good or bad, gain or loss, success or failure, and in order to never regret the price that I pay for it.”

McKenzie, who coached Minneapolis Henry to four consecutive Class AAA state titles in the early 2000s, has built a reputation as one of Minnesota’s top high school basketball coaches. He coached at Henry from 1997 to 2006, then moved to The Academy of Holy Angels in 2008 to coach basketball. McKenzie returned to the city in 2013 to take his current job as head basketball coach at Minneapolis North.

At North, which nearly closed several years ago when enrollment fell, McKenzie immediately began to change the mentality of the struggling program.

“I watched from 1980 to 1997. I watched kids come through, win championships, and then I’d drive down Plymouth Avenue and see them on the block selling dope,” McKenzie said. “They were winning games, coaches were getting accolades, but the game was using them. They weren’t using the game.”

McKenzie tries to help his players use the game positively, often keeping their hearts in the community. He requires his players to be active in the community, hosting basket- ball camps or reading to kids on the North Side.

“You have to change the culture,” McKenzie said of his transition to North. “We actually started fresh. I kept one kid, I only kept one kid from the previous program. My first year there, we started an eighth- grader, two ninth-graders and two sophomores.”

McKenzie likened it to coaching at the varsity level with a freshmen or junior varsity team.

But once his program was implemented at North, the team’s success took off. The Polars finished with a 29-5 record and defeated Goodhue last March to claim the Class A championship, the program’s first state title since 2003.

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Fortune is a person that sees a need, recognizes the responsibility, and actively pursues becoming the answer,’” McKenzie said. “For me,

I recognized the need, and it was beyond basketball. For a lot of those young men, it’s not just about X’s and O’s, it’s about really learning how to be a man.”

Since McKenzie took over, the Polars have a team average GPA of 3.0, with 21 out of 28 basketball players making the A or B honor roll last year.

Leo Lewis, North’s athletic director, arrived at the school after McKenzie, and has noticed the interactions between McKenzie and his players. “I think it is imperative that not only you get a coach who knows how to manage student-athletes at this level,” Lewis said, “[but also] a coach who at this particular time in his career is overseeing primarily kids of color and to understand what makes them tick and to get them to play as a team.”

Isaac Johnson, a senior guard at North who has committed to play college basketball for Western Illinois University, said McKenzie often asks how he is doing, and has even invited him to have dinner and talk through any struggles he might be having.

“Most coaches, they don’t care about players out of class, off the court,” Johnson said. “Coach McKenzie does.”

But the improvement of the basketball program is not only felt by McKenzie’s team. Since McKenzie took over nearly four years ago, enrollment at North has grown exponentially. The school had about 400 students on the first day of school this year, a big increase from the 52 it had five years earlier, according to a Star Tribune report. It’s a change that school officials credit to both athletic and academic improvements.

The futures of North’s athletes have brightened – the football team also reached the state tournament last season – and the North Side community has rallied behind the success.

“After having won the championship, I’ve had 90-year-old ladies come up to me and giving me a hug and say, ‘Thank you for doing some- thing positive in the community,’’’ McKenzie said. “So I know the community respects the program, they respect what our kids are doing, they look to our kids to represent the community.”

The Polars will open their basketball season on Dec. 6, McKenzie’s fourth season at the school.