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High school coaches like Larry McKenzie are the bedrock of basketball

The retirement of the legendary Minneapolis coach is a warning for the game

The foundation of a building can be hard to see, but the structure will crumble without it. The retirement of Minneapolis high school basketball coach Larry McKenzie is a warning about huge changes in basketball that are threatening the foundation of the game.

McKenzie won six state championships – four in a row at Patrick Henry High School from 2000 to 2003, and two straight at Minneapolis North in 2016 and 2017. But that’s not why he’s a legend. He has the best winning percentage in Minnesota playoff history, sent 31 players to Division I, and is the only coach in state history to win four consecutive titles and multiple championships at two schools. But that’s not his greatest legacy.

“You’re not going to win a championship every year,” McKenzie, 65, told me in a telephone conversation. “If that’s your definition of success, you’re going to end up labeling yourself and a whole lot of other people as a failure.

“My definition of success has been creating champions in the classroom, in the community, in the family – and lastly, on the hardwood. We have to be mindful that less than 1% of all the kids we coach will ever get a paycheck to play basketball. They’re going to have to navigate this thing called life a lot longer than they played a game.

“Are we preparing them for life?”

I first met McKenzie in early 2021, while I was in Minneapolis reporting on the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd. McKenzie invited me to his home, which is a few blocks from both Minneapolis North and some of the areas devastated by the riots of 2020. We talked about how he called each of his players after Floyd’s murder, checking in on them during the subsequent riots, arranging for counseling for those who needed it, and encouraging them to take action by contacting police precinct captains or the mayor. We hardly spoke a word about basketball. When I saw the news last week that McKenzie was stepping down after 42 years in coaching, I felt his city’s loss.

McKenzie represents the coaches who use basketball as it was originally intended: to develop the mind, body and soul of young people. Without these coaches, there is no March Madness or NBA Finals. They are the bedrock of basketball, working for little or no money at the scholastic and community level, drilling the game into the hearts of children who happen to live nearby. And they are especially vital in disadvantaged Black communities like North Minneapolis, where basketball provides structure and motivation for countless youths who will never play in college, let alone the NBA.

In 24 years of coaching high school basketball, McKenzie says every single one of his players graduated on time, in a district that had a 28% Black male graduation rate when he arrived. In 2014, he was the first Black coach inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. But when I asked McKenzie about high school coaches as unsung heroes, he deflected praise from himself.

“The scary part and part of the reason I decided now was the time to leave is, we saw the impact pro basketball had on college basketball. And now I see what’s happening in college basketball coming into high school. We don’t have an official transfer portal, but you see the same kind of movement. We got kids leaving the state of Minnesota for prep schools in Arizona and New Hampshire and IMG. We just had name, image and likeness [NIL] approved for high school athletes in the state of Minnesota. So high school is the last frontier, but I think all that is coming.”

It’s not that McKenzie doesn’t want top high school players to pursue their best opportunities. It’s that the forces transforming college basketball, a multibillion-dollar business powered by the top 1% of high school players, is trickling down to high school and making it harder to coach in the best interests of the other 99%.

“For high school coaches, it’s not a teacher’s game anymore. It’s almost like you have to be a basketball-preneur. It’s so much about business now,” he said.

McKenzie describes that business as getting paid for games broadcast on TV, which only happens if you bring in top talent, which only happens if you promise NIL money, which means seeking deals through agents and middlemen. That talent is obsessed with posting individual highlights on social media to attract the followers that create NIL money – “sometimes the ball don’t even need to go in the basket,” McKenzie said. And that talent is quick to leave if shots, minutes or the offense are not to their liking. It’s a transformation that, at least in part, has encouraged college coaches such as Jay Wright to retire and made traditional college conferences as antiquated as two-handed set shots.

McKenzie also sees parents’ mania reaching new levels, as they seek immediate returns on pricey fees paid to trainers and weightlifting coaches. “This past season, in my first 20 games our record was 18-2,” he said. “I have a 24-hour rule for parents: Please don’t contact me for 24 hours after a game, give me time to process and reflect. I did not come home one time in my first 20 games without receiving a call or a text about playing time, shots, ‘Could you please clarify what my son’s role is?’ Not one single game. And I’m 18-2.

“At the end of the season, I’m sitting second in the state, I have seven seniors on the team, and I have the parent of a sophomore complaining about her kid’s playing time.”

Basketball is so celebrated in American culture, especially Black culture, that many of us rationalize the negative developments in search of the affirmation of buckets and scholarships. Neglecting life outside basketball becomes “the grind.” Jumping teams at the first sign of adversity becomes “betting on yourself.” Narcissism becomes “branding.” Selfish overdribbling becomes “skill.” Don’t hate the player, we say, hate the game – if you want to compete at a high level, you gotta accept basketball for what it has become.

McKenzie isn’t willing to make that compromise. In retirement, he plans to spend more time with his family and coach other coaches on how to turn boys into men. For those who might call him bitter – or say the times have passed him by – he’s just being honest about the cracks in the foundation of our game.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.