Minneapolis Edison basketball coach Ahmil Jihad led his team to a 15-10 season — its first winning record in decades. Photo courtesy Alex Conover
There was basketball in the Minneapolis Edison gym Saturday, a Class 2A, Section 4 playoff game between the host Tommies and Trinity of River Ridge.
It wasn’t terrific basketball, but it was exciting and hard-fought. In the end, the visitors emerged victorious, disappointing the Edison faithful who had turned out in the cold and rain and ice to support their team.
Less tangible but just as palpable for them, however, was hope. And pride. Despite the loss, the home team finished with a winning record — 15-10 — for the first time in more than half a half-century.
At Edison, a program that has spent more than 50 years as the Washington Generals of the Minneapolis City Conference, it’s worth crowing over.
“We’re trying to build something special here,” coach Ahmil Jihad said.
Edison’s proud athletic history is marked by names like Tony Jaros, Walter and Joe Dziedzic, and Jeff Moritko. But basketball has been largely forgotten. Word around coaching circles was Edison was where coaching careers went to die.
That was of little concern to Jihad. The position opened up there just as Jihad’s coaching job at Heritage Academy, a school with a large East African student body — “99.9 percent Somali,” Jihad said — ended due to a funding cut. When it was announced that Heritage would co-op with Edison for athletics, Jihad, who grew up in Minneapolis, jumped at it.
He discovered immediately why it had the reputation it did.
“It was chaos,” he said. “Kids doing what they want, showing up whenever they want. We had to change the culture.”
Jihad tightened up the program and, slowly, things have begun to change. Blending the Somali students from Heritage into the fold has been vital, giving them a place to play and invest themselves in the program. Edison has five students from Heritage on its roster.
“It’s so important,” said Jennifer Webber, a longtime teacher and basketball coach in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis, a strong East African enclave. “Having your culture represented and seeing yourself be successful means a lot. And coach Amil, being a Muslim, he epitomizes that.”
The team faced other adversity. Abdiwasa Farah, 17, a Heritage student and former teammate who had drifted from the team, was recently killed in a shooting in the Cedar-Riverside complex. His death solidified the Tommies’ unity.
“This is one of the only teams being coached by a Muslim who is really close with the Somali community,” junior forward Ibrahim Mohamud said. “That goes a long way. That brings a lot of people in the community together.”
Edison’s draw is not just cultural. The team is a mix of students looking for a fresh start and a place to belong. Guard Jeremiah Thompson came from Milwaukee. Forward Antonio Simmons is a transfer from Minneapolis North. Seventh-grader Hanif Muhammed, barely 5 feet tall, is a home-schooled student and a crowd favorite because of his shooting ability. And there are longtime Edison stalwarts, like senior Jackson Rusnacko, a three-sport athlete who grew up with Tommies blue-and-gold.
“I feel like this is my home,” Simmons said. “The community comes out and supports us, and it makes us want to play harder and do better.”
While Saturday’s loss ended the season, a feeling pervades that Edison’s days as a perennial basketball pushover are done. Athletic director Brett McNeal, a former Mr. Basketball at Minneapolis North, knows what it takes to be successful in the sport. He’s seen signs that Edison is on it’s way.
“Two years ago, when we’d have summer workouts, there were six kids there,” he said. “Last year, there were 67. I think there will be more this year.”
Jihad is convinced the team is moving in the right direction. “It’s about character and being able to persevere and fight through the fire,” he said. “Not everything is going to be peachy keen, and if you really want it, you’ve got to work for it. And we’ve got kids willing to do that.”