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John’s Journal: “I worry. These are my kids. These are my kids”

On The Heels Of Pain And Racism, Emotions Flow At State Tournament

Posted: Monday, March 28, 2022 - 3:39 PM


Statements posted by Minneapolis North coach Larry McKenzie and the MSHSL after a racist social media message was sent to a North player.

Postgame media gatherings generally fall into two categories, especially at high school state tournaments: Sorrow or joy.

After MSHSL state tournament games in football, girls and boys hockey and girls and boys basketball, formal postgame interviews are held after quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games. Coaches and a few players from each team sit at a table in front of media members who ask questions.

Generally speaking, the losing athletes are downcast and their coaches stress the positives of how they played, the pride he or she feels in them and how hard they worked. Winning players and coaches are all smiles, especially after a state championship game.

I have attended hundreds, maybe thousands, of postgame media sessions, many of them in the professional sports world in my career as a newspaper sportswriter before joining the MSHSL in 2010. These sessions, whether on the professional or high school level, don’t really vary. They are all but routine.

That’s why I was so caught off guard at having tears in my eyes on Saturday afternoon at Williams Arena. And the emotions rose again after the final game of the day that evening.

For this year’s state basketball tournament, the postgame sessions were held in a small theater-like space; it’s a room where the Gophers men’s basketball team watches film. After Annandale defeated Minneapolis North 60-49 in the boys Class 2A title game, 26-year Annandale coach Skip Dolan and several of his players smiled and talked about their season and the joy they were feeling at winning the school’s first boys basketball championship.

As they left the interview room, they crossed paths with Minneapolis North coach Larry McKenzie and the Polars’ six seniors, who were being ushered in for their session with the media. Dolan and his players congratulated the North coach and players, which is commonplace on the high school level.

The North contingent sat down in the interview room at 3:20 p.m. As is pretty standard, players from the losing team don’t have a lot to say so their coach does the bulk of the talking. One of the questions to McKenzie, who’s been a head coach for 24 years, was this: What did you say to your team in the locker room after the game?

“I told them, first and foremost, they’ve got to keep their heads up,” he said. “Basketball is a game, it’s something that you do, it's not who you are. I'm proud of these young men in terms of what they've gone through.”

The interview session lasted a little more than 11 minutes, and it was 11 remarkable minutes. The coach and the players talked about what they and the entire North Minneapolis community have dealt with. There was Covid-19. There was a teacher’s strike that will see kids finally back in school this week. There was the February murder of teammate Deshaun Hill, 15, on a sidewalk after school. Not far away in Brooklyn Center, Daunte Wright, 20, was shot and killed by a police officer last year. And then there was a bigoted, racist social media message sent to one of the North players after their semifinal win on Friday night.

“Nobody has been through what we went through,” said Polars senior Rio Sanders.

I felt my eyes welling up when McKenzie -- who coached Minneapolis Patrick Henry to four state titles and has won two at North -- talked at length about what his team has dealt with.

“Being a teenager at 17 and 18 years old, and losing a classmate and a teammate? I mean, that's not common,” the coach said. “Missing almost a year and a half of school (due to Covid) and then teachers decide to walk out and not having school for 10 days? I mean, that's different.

“They've gone through more adversity than any other group of kids could probably see in a lifetime. … It has not been easy, but to my point, I'll say again, on and off the court, I'm proud; (they are) 100 percent A and B honor-roll kids, 3.45 GPA as a team. My seniors don't know where they’re going to go to college, but they will all be going to college someplace.”

Asked specifically about the vile social media message sent the previous evening, McKenzie said, “Obviously we don't have a United States of America. There's a lot of divide, even in 2022. I'll tell you, as somebody who's 60-plus years old, the more things change, the more they stay the same and I think it's an issue that is getting worse. And it's not just a High School League responsibility, but it's all of our responsibility as a community. That cannot be acceptable behavior.

"I believe that there is no greater tool in terms of fighting racism and the divide than athletics. Athletics bring people together. And it’s not the athletes, but it’s those folks out there that allow young people … where did (the young person who sent the social media message) learn that? Do you think that’s the first time he did that? Where did he learn that type of behavior? And from my understanding from people that I’ve talked to, this wasn't the first time that he's done it and it probably won't be the last time.”

I asked the coach, “With everything these kids have gone through, what’s been your level of just worrying about these guys and taking care of them?”

Larry’s answer: “To be honest with you, it’s crazy, it’s stressful, it's painful. I mean, I live and work in North Minneapolis and every time I hear about gunshots in the community, every time I hear about something going on, I worry. These are my kids. These are my kids. It hurt last night for (the player who received the racist message) to come to me and share that message. Because I want to believe that we've gotten better and we're behind that stuff.”

Shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday, in the final game of the state tournament, Park Center won its first state title with a 58-53 victory over Wayzata in the Class 4A final.

In the interview room, I mentioned to Park Center coach James Ware what Larry McKenzie had said earlier in the day, how emotional he was, and asked how the Park Center team has dealt with similar issues. James nodded knowingly and said …

“Yes. Thanks for that question. We talk to these guys about the realities of life and what's happening in the world right now. And these guys are some of the smartest kids that I've ever been around. They're emotionally intelligent. We absolutely talk about everything that's happened with Daunte Wright, to be honest, and we've kept this in-house, but the amount of times that we've played games this year where the N word was used at our players ... these guys have kept their composure and we’ve talked about those moments. It's an unfortunate reality that not everybody everywhere is good. But we're trying to do something different. We're trying to rewrite the narrative in the state of Minnesota. We wanted the state of Minnesota to see this basketball team play because hopefully they saw something different than maybe what they were expecting.

“And they did rewrite the narrative. They're unselfish, they’re humble, they have empathy. These guys are super emotionally intelligent. I'm just super proud of where these guys are going to go in their life. With all the players who have come before these guys, we've been experiencing this for a long time. As coaches we’re more than just basketball coaches; we're mental health professionals even though we're not being paid for it, we are all the things, we feed them; that measly $5,000 that we get to do this, we're paying to coach. I understand 100 percent why Larry was emotional. And again and again, these guys have overcome obstacles and this moment, overcoming another obstacle, is something they will never forget.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]  

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