Glen Gunderson

November 25, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 55th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.

Following the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright by local police officers, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice in our community and beyond will only accelerate. We are sustaining our voice for change, but we must continue the work.

My 25th guest is Larry McKenzie, one of the most decorated coaches at any level in Minnesota. He's a member of the Hall of Fame for Minnesota Basketball Coaches, Minnesota State High School League and both of his alma maters, the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and Miami Beach High School in Florida.

He's universally known as "Coach McKenzie" but he embodies the memorable quote from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden who said, "A good coach can change a game; a great coach can change a life."

Coach McKenzie has led Patrick Henry High school and Minneapolis North High School, both in North Minneapolis, to a combined six state championships. But more importantly, he's changed the lives of the hundreds of young men he's coached both on and off the court. For that impact, Coach McKenzie has also been named a Bush Fellow in 2018 and a "Living Legend" by the NCAA in 2019, and it's fitting that his book is titled, Basketball: So Much More Than Just a Game.

A resident of North Minneapolis, Coach McKenzie also works as a school liaison with Pillsbury United Communities and enjoys supporting the local sports teams. I hope you enjoy Part 1 of my talk with Coach McKenzie.

Glen: As a basketball-loving kid who grew up in Minnesota, I have admired you and your leadership for so long, and I thank you for taking the time to get together. I'd love to start with just your story. Where did you come from and what got you from there to here?


Larry: So I grew up in Miami, Florida, and I spent my upbringing between Miami and a small town of about 4,000 people in South Carolina. My mom was born and raised in a town called Walterboro, South Carolina, and so spent a lot of time with my grandparents, especially initially because my mom was 19 years old when she had me. And as grandma's thought back then, she didn't quite think mom was ready to take on that responsibility. So I spent a lot of my early years being raised by my grandparents. And my parents were still in college, and so as they got more stable, then my grandparents said, 'Okay, time for you all to take on the responsibility.'


Glen: Great background. So how did you find the game of basketball?


Larry: I grew up in a basketball family, so if you were a McKenzie, you played basketball. So my dad was a kind of a high school legend in Miami, at Booker T. Washington High School. I heard a lot of stories about his play growing up. 

And I was blessed because I had an uncle, Stan McKenzie, who I just recently lost. He played nine years in the NBA, and he was my dad's younger brother. So growing up, I got a lot of opportunity to see him play in high school and later at NYU. They were actually a basketball powerhouse back in 1965, 1966. And then, of course, I think he played for every single start-up team or expansion team in the league. Originally with the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards), and then he went into the expansion draft to the Phoenix Suns and played with Gail Goodrich and Connie Hawkins and Clem Haskins. Then he went to the Portland Trail Blazers to play with Rick Adelman and Geoff Petrie there. Then later traded to the Houston Rockets, and that's where he ended his career. 


Glen: What did that role model mean to you? 


Larry: He had quite a career, so one of the things is, what you realize, especially now as I'm older, the importance of mirrors versus windows, as a young African-American boy. I didn't understand it at the time, not only my uncle, but my dad and coaches and other people that I had in my life. I literally now understand I had mirrors. I didn't have to look out of a window. Like a lot of kids now say, 'I want to get to the NBA.' I actually had someone who was in the NBA, knew what it took.

I never got there but — I just shared this at my uncle's funeral — I remember going into my high school, at the time, a sophomore had never started on varsity. But I spent the summer with my uncle. Back then, in the NBA, you had a summer job; they weren't making a ton of money like now. But when he got off work, he'd come home, and we'd lace up shoes and hit the road for a 10-mile run. And so during my high school career, I never, ever finished second running kills or lines, or whatever you want to call them. And so, as a result of being first all the time, my high school coach recognized that, and it led to me getting the opportunity that, up until then, nobody had ever gotten, in terms of being able to start and play as a sophomore. 


Glen: Such a great example for young people today, to see themselves — and see their potential future in others — and, as a role model, you've had a powerful influence and impact, and you've been a decorated leader ever since.

What brought you from the Southeast to the Midwest?


Larry: Hindsight is always 20/20, and I laugh about it now. But I was a very talented player, and let's just say I didn't have the same rules as a lot of the other players — and I took advantage of that. But I also had some real personal challenges. Some people don't understand this, but I always say I grew up in a two-parent, single-family household. My dad worked two to three jobs, all my life, and, as a result, my dad didn't attend my games and all of those kinds of things. I took a lot of anger to school every day, and that showed up on the basketball court. So even though I was recruited by some Division One schools across the country, what it always came back to was, 'If you could deal with his issues.' And when colleges are investing money in you, they don't have to deal with your issues. So I ended up at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, which was a small NAIA school, at the time. And I also brought those same issues there. Again, I laugh about it now, but I say, 'Larry McKenzie could have never played for Coach McKenzie.'

But in hindsight, Glen, you realize there's a season for everything, and by going through those seasons, I was really being prepared to become Coach McKenzie. And so for the last 20 out of 25 years, I have coached Larry McKenzies. So I know what it's like when a young man comes to me with different challenges. I spent the early years of my life in the projects, so I know the challenges of wanting and not having, and all of those kinds of things. And while I didn't understand it at the time, I was going through those seasons to become who I am now.

They say be careful what you pray for? Both my parents went to school and got degrees. My dad taught Special Ed for 34 year, and my mom was an elementary school teacher for 32 years. And so watching that, the last thing on earth I ever thought I wanted to do was work with kids. 

So coming out of school, God gave me everything I wanted. I went to work for a major corporation in the Twin Cities, Prudential, and then later Blue Cross Blue Shield, and had the company car, the credit card, traveling the country and staying in hotels during the course of the week.

And I hated it. 

I hated it.

So I have to tell this story. You know Clyde Turner? He was one of the first people that I met, when I got to the Twin Cities, and he became like a big brother to me. And so Clyde was constantly on me about joining the Big Brothers program. And so finally I decided, 'Okay, I'm tired of this.' But at that time, I really questioned how much of an impact could a 21-year-old have on anybody? I'm still trying to figure it out myself!

And at the same time, I was trying to make as much money as I can. But I got involved with Big Brothers and started hanging out with my little brother, a 13-year-old named Jules Dunbar, who was from a single-parent household. And so Jules and I were getting to know each other, and we discovered that we had a common love for the game of basketball. He was going to a school in South Minneapolis, and in the hallway, he overheard the principal telling other adults that they would not be able to do basketball because they didn't have a coach. So Jules volunteered his big brother! 

And so I always say I became a big brother with the expectations of changing the life of a 13-year-old young man. But because of Jules, I fell in love with coaching and my life was changed forever. 


Glen: That's a powerful story. So I'd love to have you elaborate on what I've heard you say before, that basketball has been a love of your life, but it's also a vehicle to move young people from one place to another. Would you share more about that?


Larry: It's a tool. But I remember probably one of the hardest things I had to do was on March 20, 2020. I got the call that the state tournament was being cancelled. We were on a nice little streak, and the principal said, 'Coach, you need to come over and talk to your guys.' And driving over, I'm like, 'What am I going to say?'

Then it just hit me: Basketball is something that you do, it's not who you are. And for me, I've used that magic, little, round orange ball as a tool. It's a connecting piece, a beginning of a conversation. 

My personal mission statement is this: To use basketball as a tool, to influence young men to become champions, first in a classroom, in their families, in the community, and then on the hardwood. And because I have a captive audience, I can influence those 13-year-old boys for four years and, sometimes, it's a seventh grader, or, like, an Odell Wilson at 12. And many times, I am the only adult male who may be in their lives. 

So in my journey, it was a discovery. I was challenged early on about ministry, and what God really wanted me to do. Then one day the light bulb just came on: 'Larry, this is your ministry. You don't have to be in a church.' And someone once said, 'Coach McKenzie has touched more lives than Reverend McKenzie probably ever would have because Reverend would have gotten in the way, but the coach opens the door. And so it is a tool, and I'll tell you the magic of it is in 2011, I took a group of college students from the U.S. on a tour of South Africa. And part of the tour was doing clinics. And when I saw those kids running out to a clinic on dirt courts, no shoes, just because of the appeal of basketball, it just really kind of helped me understand the power of that little orange thing, and we've used it to change lives ever since. 


Learn more about Coach Larry McKenzie by clicking here. Look for Part 2 of our “A Conversation on Race" with Coach McKenzie next week.