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Minneapolis North coach Larry Mackenzie argues a call with a referee during the first half of the Polars 85-70 win over his former team at Minneapolis Henry on Friday, January 10. (Chris Kelleher, Special to the Star Tribune)

Larry McKenzie never intended to be a savior. In fact, he didn’t intend on being Minneapolis North’s boys basketball coach at all.

“I heard that the [Minneapolis] Henry job was open and I applied for that,” said McKenzie on his hopes of returning to the school he’d coached to more than 200 victories and four state championships. “But they didn’t hire me.”

Having spent the past five years coaching at Holy Angels, McKenzie was interested in getting back to Minneapolis’ north side. And it just so happened that Minneapolis North — his former archrival — was also in need of a coach.

“When they asked me to take over, I was like ‘Man, let me pray about it’ ” McKenzie said. “I was going through my devotions in the Bible one day and I turned to Matthew and it talked about how Jesus was rejected by his own people. I thought ‘There’s my answer.’ The rest is history.”

At North, McKenzie is doing more than coaching a basketball team. He’s reviving a community, attempting to add a future to a school that itself was on the verge of becoming history.

A hoops way of life

Few high school programs have been as interwoven with its immediate surroundings as the North boys’ basketball team to the north side. Minneapolis’ oldest high school has 19 state basketball tournament appearances and won five state titles. The program has turned out elite basketball players Ben Coleman, Bret McNeal, Khalid El-Amin, Jabbar Washington and Kammron Taylor. Many former players still live in the area and had long been fixtures attending games.

But things at the school changed for the worse in recent years with the north side’s embattled reputation. Neighborhood kids who traditionally might have attended North took advantage of multiple open-enrollment opportunities and deserted the school. It got so bad that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson proposed closing the school in 2010.

A plan for revitalizing the school was developed and put into place, but changing minds was difficult. Last year, North had just 62 students enrolled in the ninth and 10th grades.

Enter McKenzie, oozing with confidence and carrying a reputation as a builder of winning basketball programs. His hiring has given the school a jolt of momentum.

“I grew up in the neighborhood but I never really thought about going to North,” said sophomore forward Jamil Jackson, who attended Metro Tech in Minneapolis as a freshman. “When Coach McKenzie came, I changed my mind.”

Jackson and sophomore Tyler Johnson lead a talented corps of young players who make up the North roster. The Polars have just one junior and no seniors among their top eight players. With McKenzie as their guide, they have shown fans recognizable glimpses of the storied teams of old.

Through Monday, North was 7-7 and playing the type of up-tempo, high-pressure basketball the team was noted for.

“Oh yeah, things are a lot better now,” said Johnny Hunter, a guard on North’s 1976 state tournament team and the father of freshman forward D.J. Hunter. “The fans are coming back. People are excited.”

A wave of support

That excitement was evident Friday, when the Polars traveled to play Henry. What was once the best rivalry in high school basketball had become ho-hum. On this night, however, the stands filled in early, with North’s side of the bleachers overflowing. Among those in attendance was El-Amin, at home on a recent break from playing professional basketball in Turkey.

A supporter of North’s rebuilding effort, he saw McKenzie’s arrival and the raucous crowd as favorable signs.

“No one from the alumni to the community of north Minneapolis wants to see North go under,” El-Amin said. “We needed a coach who understands what North basketball means, not only for sports but the community in general. He brings fresh air to the program.”

There are signs that the positive vibe is paying off. There are 148 students enrolled in ninth and 10th grades, a 138 percent increase from last year. Freshmen D.J. Hunter, Isaac Johnson and Isaiah Poster all live in Robbinsdale but buck the trend and travel back into the city for school.

“The school has really improved, not only in basketball,” said Johnny Hunter, D.J.’s father. “They’ve cleared out the gangs and most of these kids are on the honor roll. We’re very happy at North.”

An agent for change

McKenzie, whose team defeated Henry in a rousing 85-70 victory, knows that there is still a long way to go. A basketball team might seem like a trivial thing compared to the problems generally associated with north Minneapolis, but, he says, it can have far-reaching effects.

“I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails and texts from people who are interested in coming to North,” he said. “There has been a lot of community support. Basketball is an opportunity to change the culture here.”

Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737

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