Larry McKenzie coached pointedly during the state tournament in March 2022. (Photo by SHARI L. GROSS, Star Tribune)
Larry McKenzie found himself at a pinch point.
One of the most successful high school basketball coaches in state history, he was getting older — entering the “fourth quarter” of his life, as he put it — and felt that the game he loved, what he called his ministry, was passing him by.
So, on Monday, McKenzie retired as coach of the boys’ basketball team at Minneapolis North, capping a 24-year head coaching career that included six state championships with stops at North, Minneapolis Henry and Holy Angels.
He said he wanted flexibility to spend time with his children, his granddaughters and his mother, who are spread across the country. But he also felt that the game had changed.
“It is moving from what for me was a team sport to more of an individual sport pretending to be a team sport,” McKenzie said. “Especially now with name, image and likeness — and it’s coming to high school — it’s really more about building your social media brand, getting likes, trying to get paid and those kind of things. To me that’s just challenging in terms of being in the locker room and being who I am.”
Who he was in the locker room was undeniable.
McKenzie, 65, was inducted into the Minnesota High School Basketball Hall of Fame this year and retires with a career record of 481-166. The past nine seasons at Minneapolis North included state titles in 2016 and 2017. Before that he became the first boys’ coach to win four basketball state titles in a row when he led Minneapolis Henry to championships from 2000 to 2003. He was the first coach to win multiple state titles at two different schools.
“I have my head up high,” McKenzie said. “I am really, really proud of what I’ve accomplished. I can walk away. ... I don’t think there’s a kid that played for me that can ever say Coach McKenzie didn’t give it his all.”
Giving it all meant more than coaching. He served as a mentor and father figure to many, had players move in with his family and became a revered community leader in Minneapolis.
Trent Witz, director of basketball operations for North, has known McKenzie for 30 years, since he played for him in third grade. He coached with McKenzie for over a decade.
“He’s not only helped me in the basketball world but in life, raising two young kids myself — the leadership role with my kids — he has helped me become a better father and a better person in the community for the North side,” Witz said. “... He is more than a coach to me. He is more like a dad.”
It took Witz time to realize how valuable McKenzie was off the court.
“I started with him at Holy Angels 12 years ago, and I was on the younger side — when you’re younger you don’t really realize the impact he has. You’re just a kid,” Witz said. “But as soon as we came over to North in 2013 I saw how much he meant to the community. Not just as a basketball coach but as a mentor to these young kids.”
That leadership included helping players cope with trauma — including such recent events as the murder of George Floyd, the killing of North athlete DeShaun Hill Jr. and the impact of the coronavirus on high school students.
“To be honest, the championships, all that other stuff, was just a byproduct of something that I never got into coaching for. It was really about changing lives,” McKenzie said. “Basketball is a microcosm of life. My personal mission statement has always been I used basketball as a tool to be a champion first in the classroom, in the community, in the family and lastly on the hardwood.”
He wants to keep spreading that message, to work clinics around the country to teach young coaches the “secret sauce” of his success. And he wants to do those things while he’s still physically able.
Enthusiasm about his plans didn’t make it any easier to leave his players.
“There is never a right time over the years,” he said. “Because there is always another one coming and another one coming and another one coming.”
Until, finally, there isn’t.