Glen Gunderson

December 2, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 56th 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. He recently was named a recipient of a 2021 John Wooden Legacy Award by the National High School Basketball Coaches Association and the Wooden family.

A resident of North Minneapolis, Coach McKenzie also works as a charter school authorizer liaison with Pillsbury United Communities and enjoys supporting the local sports teams. I hope you enjoy Part 2 of my talk with Coach McKenzie. (you can read part 1 here)

Glen: You develop relationships that flourish over a long period of time. I've watched you stay connected to these young men. That's got to be pretty powerful.


Larry: My thing to all of the kids: When they walk into the gym, this is not a year, two-year, three-year, four-year thing. Once you have Coach McKenzie, you become a part of my family, and it's a lifelong commitment. And so one thing my wife, and I pride ourselves on is staying present and visible in our kids' lives. We drove to Iowa a couple of weeks ago to watch a couple of our kids, who are former basketball players playing football in college now.

And it was just amazing. (My wife Pam) always gets a kick out of how the kids just light up when Coach McKenzie is present. And even the moms and the grandmas say, 'You didn't have to do this.' But yeah coach does have to do this. So it's a lifelong relationship, and I stay in contact with guys who played for me from starting back in 1996 to present day.


Glen: So summer of 2020, Minneapolis becomes the global epicenter for this racial and social reckoning after George Floyd's murder. I'm just curious, where were you, and what were you thinking? And where do you think we are now? 


Larry: I'll never forget that morning. It's May 26th, and obviously we're in the midst of a pandemic. The world was on pause, and I always say, 'God called a timeout.' We're all sitting at home, with two things to do: Either in a Zoom meeting or watching TV. Then this incident happens. So I remember my wife running in about 6:30 a.m., that next morning and saying, 'You gotta see this video.' And I remember looking at the video, and when he got to that part where he said, 'Mama...' I couldn't take anymore. I couldn't take any more. 

To that point, as a Black man, particularly being in Minnesota, there were so many times I've been the only one in the room, or you get in a situation where you become passionate about something, and you become the angry Black man. And for me, after 60-plus years, because of George Floyd, people started to hear me now. All of a sudden, the phone started ringing from coaches and other people all around the country, and things that I had said most of my life about disparities and some of the challenges and even my own experiences got people's attention. And so I think George Floyd showed not just Minnesota, not just the United States, but the world the disparities that exist amongst African-Americans.

It opened eyes.

And a lot of people were like, 'Oh, I knew there were some challenges, but I didn't know that they were that bad.'

I'll never forget several years ago, talking to a group and talking about when you think about Black boys, in particular, we're in last place in every single category around success. We're in last place.

So George Floyd had to be tapped on the shoulder and to lose his life so that the world could see that things were not equal. And a lot of people dismiss things because, 'If it doesn't happen in our community, it don't really matter.'

George Floyd’s death came into every person's living room, live and in living color. And we saw (Derek) Chauvin... Even now, it hurts. For me to even think about that little smirk on his face, as he had his knee on George Floyd's neck, and how inhumane that was. So for me, I think what George Floyd did was take our eyes off of Black and white, and make us focus on what's wrong and what's right.

And the pain of that — and we can just be real — even the discussion now about Critical Race Theory, and should we be talking about the true history of America? The pain of George Floyd was so painful that there's a large group of people in this country that decided, 'We don't want to know anymore.' You know what I'm saying? But all of a sudden, I have a group of friends who are coaches that watched "13th,' which is about the 13th amendment, and read about Black Wall Street. So for the first time in my life — 60-plus years — we were having conversations that people did not want to have. And so it's unfortunate. 

And let's remember, just right here in Minnesota, it wasn't the first time. Tycel Nelson. Jamar Clark was my first day of practice at Minneapolis North. Jamar Clark was killed by the police that weekend, and I had to walk into a locker room and look at a group of young men — that I didn't even really know at the time — and see the pain. And the pain was, 'Yeah, so what's new.' 

Minnesota had this history. Philando Castile. But the difference this time was, there was a young lady brave enough to use her cell phone, and not just one or two people witness it, but the world got to see how inhumane and different that a man got treated, not because of his crime but because of his race.

So to go back and really answer your question, what did George Floyd do for me at the time? One, I immediately called my son and a number of my players, and I apologized. I apologized because I — like so many other people — know that these things are happening, but I got too busy and forgot about it. I told them, whatever happens —coaching, education — I'm never going to get too busy to stop fighting this cause. I promise you all that. 

So what George Floyd did for me, it was an alarm, a wake-up call, that my voice needed to be heard. And because of the success that I've had as a high school basketball coach now — not just in the state of Minnesota but some of the respect that I get around the country — it was time for me to use that platform and step out and help educate people, and be a voice, and help people understand that we got some work to do in this country, even in 2021. So that was a good part, and we've seen a lot of organizations make these promises. And I have to say, I'm not one of the people that (gets distracted) when they're talking about taking Aunt Jemima off the syrup, taking Uncle Ben off the rice box. What I want to see is organizations make a commitment. What percentage are you going to increase the diversity within your organization in the next five to 10 years? What's going to be different? So there were a lot of promises made after George Floyd, and now I'm using my voice to hold organizations and companies and anybody that will listen accountable, in regards to the promises that they made around the disparities that exist. And for me, at this stage, I don't know if I'll see the benefits, but I have four granddaughters that I have to fight for, and a bunch of young men that are counting on me to not be quiet but be vocal.


Glen: Coach, there are so many ways I want to go and follow up on that, but that was so inspiring. I want to first go back on what you said about, finally there was a seminal moment, where the things you've been saying were being consumed and being heard and maybe being acted upon, and I think that's interesting because sometimes it takes this jolt. Here you were, a Bush Fellow, a multi Hall of Famer, a championship coach, who had earned respect in so many dimensions, and yet, as you said, your insight is maybe falling on deaf ears, and then this happens, and you're starting to see traction. So I want to just move forward a little bit on that basis. Are you more hopeful now? And if you are, why?


Larry: I don't know if I can honestly say I'm more hopeful. I grew up on the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. So I have to honestly say, I've seen how this movie ends before. Let's go back to the celebration of Juneteenth, the 40 acres and a mule... We're still waiting. Things that were promised in the Civil Rights Movement.

And I'm gonna tell you what I struggle with, and it's very current. If you think about the most recent presidential election, one of the things that was loud and clear from communities of color: Police reform and then some forms of reparation. And so the two things that we were very vocal about are the two most challenging things that this current administration have trouble pulling off. We finally got the one bill passed, which benefits all, to build a better America. 

But John Lewis voting reform, police reform, all of those things are still on the table. And so reflecting, even a year and a half ago where people were listening, you begin to question, 'Has the window closed?' Because none of those things has come to fruition. 

And when we talk about reparations, what I see in terms of the, Build Back Better,' is everybody gets two years of college free. What does that do? Early childhood education. What does that do? So a lot of things in there that begin to level the playing field, but there are those that still say, 'Oh no.' 

I have nine-year-old, eight-year-old, seven-year-old and six-year-old granddaughters that I want to be hopeful for. But I also just remember my mom and dad, and (spending time growing up) in rural South Carolina, and seeing things. So sometimes, there are days that I get up and — just depending on what's going on — I just come to the conclusion that the more things change, the more things stay the same.


Learn more about Coach Larry McKenzie by clicking here. Look for Part 3 of our “A Conversation on Race” with Coach McKenzie next week.