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The Transformation of Youth

A Conversation with Larry McKenzie

Larry McKenzie is an author, speaker, and six-time high school championship basketball coach in North Minneapolis. Larry connected with Chanda over Zoom to talk about what makes someone an effective leader, how to combat negative narratives in our communities, and the profound impact extracurricular activities have on our youth.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:01 

On this episode, we’re talking with legendary North High boys basketball coach Larry McKenzie. Larry is an incredible mentor to students in North Minneapolis. This episode was recorded several weeks back. This past week, Minneapolis has been reeling in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody. Our youth have watched the consequences of historic racial inequities unfold and now, more than ever, we need bold and empathetic leadership like Larry’s to help us through these traumatic times. Our hearts are broken for the family of George Floyd, and we are mourning and grieving the pain with our city. In lights of the horrific events surrounding George Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis Foundation has partnered with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx to help take a stand and help prevent further violence and heal communities. And lastly, I’m excited to announce that Conversations with Chanda Podcast has won the Sabre Award on May 28. The award stands for superior achievement in branding, reputation, and engagement. It’s an honor to share these important conversations with you. Thanks for listening. 

Chanda Smith Baker  01:27 

Thank you so much for being in this conversation with me. This is Conversations with Chanda, a podcast that we feature at the Minneapolis Foundation. Our goal of these conversations are to talk with leaders that are making a tremendous difference in community. To talk about topics that might be grittier, that might provide introduction to an old issue and a new way for our audience. So I appreciate you being part of this conversation today. So I’ve known you for a long time before our listening audience, I’m hoping that you might provide a just an introduction of who you are. How do you how do you talk about your yourself, your elevator speech? 

Larry McKenzie  02:06 

Well, you know, I mean, I guess I would say that I’m a long term community, youth and community advocate of someone who’s been involved in education, with a mission to really use sports and athletic as a way of inspiring young people, or all people I should say, to become champions, and not just champions in terms of the hard work, but champions in life, and so that’s a lot of what my personal mission is.

Chanda Smith Baker  02:36 

So you know, I’ve known you, I think the entire time I’ve known you, I’ve known you as a coach McKenzie, and I’m really curious on what was the journey to realizing that being a coach and being an inspiration to youth, in the way that you chosen to use your gift. When did you realize that that was something that was actually a special gift to the community? 

Larry McKenzie  02:59 

Honestly, part of my story is, I grew up in a household with two educators. So one of the things that I tried to avoid early on, and I always tell people, if somebody would have told me 20, 30 years ago that I would be involved with youth than any kind of education, I probably would have slapped them, in simply because so, you know, immediately after I got out of school, I spent my early part of my career in the insurance business. So I picked out very honest that, you know, I was concerned about trying to make all the money that I can, I mean, I thought that was the ticket, and so I did that for a while. And interesting enough, is I got involved with big brothers and big sisters at the time, and my little brother, Jules, who happened to, you know, be kind of a teenager, so long story short, Jules is over as Ascension in South Minneapolis, and he’s in the hallway, and he finds out that his team didn’t have, that there was possibly not going to be basketball because they didn’t have a coach. So Jules actually volunteered his big brother to become the basketball coach. And, and I always say that, simply, that I had got involved with big brothers and big sisters, simply thinking that I would impact the life of a 13 year old young man. And because of Jules, my life was forever changed, and so I got into it, I enjoyed it. And then I found myself, even when I was in corporate America, every weekend, I was involved in a mentoring program. I was always around young people doing things and I think for a long time, Chanda, you know, one of the things growing up, my grandmother always used to talk about ministry and me, you know, going down that road and for a long time, I thought that was actually like being in the pulpit, you know, and in front of the church. So I think, probably, you know, with the experience of Jules that I finally discovered that there was another way to serve. And I’ve always said that basketball for me have been more than a ministry and a true calling than anything else, and so it’s become a tool as a way of impacting lives, and so that, you know, I mean, that’s my story. 

Chanda Smith Baker  05:24 

We’ve talked a bit about the transformation of young people involved in athletics, and you know, I, I don’t have permission from Rylan. I want to talk about my son, who was at another school, and I made the decision to move him over to North High School, and he’s never been a student, right? So I’ve known of your work from a distance, and now I know of the impact up close and personal. And that within a very short amount of time of him being in the school, and being on a team and being part of something that was bigger, I’ve actually watched him transform into a stronger student, a more confident young man. I’ve watched him have a different level of agency about his decisions and his future than what we were able to do by ourselves here at home, and I would say that we’re great parents that have put him in front of a lot of opportunity, but it was clear that there was something transformative about his experience. And I’m sure that you’ve seen this before, but can you just speak to kind of the transformations that you have seen and, and the importance of sports? 

Larry McKenzie  06:46 

Well, I mean, so first of all, I mean, it mean, you like you say we’ve had this conversation over years. One of the challenges, I mean, I just really feel like, there’s so many folks out there that don’t understand the true impact of sports, and, you know, arts and all of those extra curriculum type things, and the impact that coaches and music teachers and dance teachers have on kids. And I think the biggest thing is, I’m a firm believer, that kids will meet you at the bar. And so one of the things that we do is, you know, you set high expectations, but then you just don’t, you don’t, you don’t just give the kids a, you know, destination and say, I want you to get from here to Chicago, the best way they can. I mean, so part of what we do is not only do we give them, you know, set that bar and give them a destination, but we also help them plan on how to get there and create that own personal map. And so one of the first things that I always think is important, and one of the things that I’ll say to you, which is, you know, from coaching that I’ve learned, you know, I coach, my son, and it’s interesting that someone else can always, even though we have the same message, how someone else can say the same things in a different way to our kids, and it just resonates a little bit more. So I don’t, that’s not unique at all. I mean, I had that same personal experience with my son as well, you know, I had an assistant coach at the time, and Patrick Henry, you know, they had a great relationship. And so I would just communicate through him, you know, some of the concerns and stuff that I had, but it also, just going back, so one of the things that I always try to do is, first of all, get to know kids outside of being a basketball player. And I think once you understand their own personal why, like, okay, you playing basketball, you’re part of this, what do you want to get out of, you know, what I’m saying? So that it that it’s a win-win kind of relationship. And so once you understand those kids, why, then is simply come to me, it’s easy to hold them accountable. But I also think one of the biggest things that a lot of our kids need, particularly, you know, the kids that I’ve spent a majority of my time mentoring and been involved with is sometimes kids just need it’s, it’s interesting, but sometimes kids need you to believe in them before they believe in themselves. And I think I’ve just been blessed with that ability not to just say it, but to show the young man that I’m around like, you know, I mean, I don’t care about your point guard skills, or how many points you score, or any of those kinds of things. I mean, I want to get to know you why you’re doing this and what do you want to get out of it and I have to tell this story, because it’s a big part of who I am and what I do so I was blessed at 19 years old. I got involved with college fraternity, Cap Oversaw Fraternity Incorporated, and the, I had a gentleman by the name of John Kay Cameron and Darlene knows John Cameron. But John, for whatever reason, out of all the guys, I mean, some 30 plus young men, he decided to take me under his wing, and so as a mentor, I mean from day one, and I never forget, the first time he walked into my house on campus, you know, didn’t have a whole lot of food. First thing he did is went out, you know, got some groceries, filled up the refrigerator, you’re going to make sure, and I tell people, I mean, you know, I grew up in a two parent household, but nobody has impacted my life as much as John Kay Cameron. And so they’ve got me involved in leadership, and so in that relationship over the years, I mean, he became the Godfather of both of my kids. And I would always asked him, never let never let me pay for lunch, never will let me pay for dinner, never accepted a Father’s Day gift, or Christmas gift, or any gift at all, from me. And the one thing that he was constant in communicating to me at all times was he would always say, every time I made an offer, he would say, the only thing I want from you is, when the day come, I want you to allow other people to stand on your shoulders, the way that you stood on bottom. And that has always stuck with me, and I tell people in all of the work that I do, that is the only way that I’ve ever been able to pay him back, and so I haven’t taken that lightly. So a lot of what I do for the young men and young women that I come across, I’m just simply doing for them what somebody did for me. So when you talk about, you know, I mean, when, like, I understand what paying for look like, because I am who I am, because of John Kay Cameron. And I said, I mean, you know, there was 29 other people, you know, young men in the group that he could have chosen to, you know, spend that special time with it, and make a difference, but I was that chosen one. And like I said, I mean, so I’m obligated to him to allow other young men to stand on my shoulder, the way I stood on him, and I know the difference that he made in my life. So that’s a lot again, that’s part of that transformational journey. 

Chanda Smith Baker  12:22 

I mean, there’s so much that was rich in what you just shared. And there were a couple of emotions that I think came up for me and one is around, believe in the students before they believe in themselves. And, you know, we’re sitting in a climate, in academic climate, a climate of discussion of disparities, and what are we gonna do with these underperforming students, these marginalized communities? You know, and I’ve always been challenged by that language and what it does to the psyche of the young people in the communities that we’re trying to support? How are you able, number one is do you see that as a challenge? And then number two, you know, just, it’s just striking the importance of these more intimate relationships and helping to cut through that noise that says that you’re not anything and you’re from a place that’s not about nothing? 

Larry McKenzie  13:20 

Well, you know, one of the things that is interesting, you say that, because I always tell the, the young men and Rylan, I’ll probably share this with you, you know, one of the things that we talked about as a retreat, you know, my grandmother, who God bless her soul, she lived to be 104 years old, and, you know, at the time, I just thought this old lady was, you know, just voice, she should just get on my nerves, right? And as I got older, I discovered how smart and rich she was in wisdom, and so she would often say there’s nothing new under the sun. So one of the discussions that I have with all of my young men, and what you just said is very real, I mean, around the negativity and all the, all of that kind of narrative that they have to hear, but I always tell them that they’re not the first or the last. And so no matter what your situation is, you won’t be the first kid that did not know their father, you won’t be the first kid that grew up on public assistance, and none of those things and so then you have to now make a choice, and honestly, I just say, you know, so all of those excuses that you’ve been making, I want you to go over in the corner, cry, get it out of your system, come back and then let’s get a plan about how we’re going to change it because I just believe, again, so you know, we talked about our creed, and with my creed, what I’m, you know, the essence of that is that, let’s stop making excuses and take control over your life. It’s not about it’s not about who don’t like you, it’s not about, you know, what teachers are saying, or any of that kind of stuff. Here, you know, you can be the first one in your family to graduate from college. You can be the one to get a high school diploma, no matter what that thing of it is, is possible. Is it going to be easy? As a African American man, I can tell you probably not, but it’s not impossible. And one of the stories that I really use now is, I mean, if you take Barack Obama, I mean, didn’t know his father, raised by his grandmother, raised on welfare had all of the excuses in the world, right, but he didn’t let that prohibit him from going on to become the most powerful man in the world. And he looked like us, and so those are the kinds of things that I’m sharing with our young men, and again, I think I mean, it’s funny, because all of those folks that are other experts and educators, I mean, we’re constantly hearing this talk, and it’s funny, just got off a call. I mean, you think about when we label schools as low performing schools, and, you know, the achievement gap, and all of those are the kinds of things that kids have to listen to. And I guess I’m just wanting to say, oh, we’re not going to believe it. And we’re going to prove it, and I’ve been blessed through my, through the efforts and support of people like yourself, and others in the community, to put kids in a position to disprove that. And I think we’ve done that, I mean, when you look at, you know, our kids and, you know, people talk about African American boys, and I tell people when I first got into coaching, and I inherited my first team at Minneapolis, Patrick Henry, I have more kids that was headed to prison and headed to college. But I can tell people in 21 years, we’ve had 100%, graduation, 100% of our kids gone on to a two year or four year school, and there’s nothing magical. To that is accountability, and believing in them and helping them believe in themselves. 

Chanda Smith Baker  17:10 

Do you think that the local community understands the importance of the statistics that you just stated, because I still will often hear sort of the stereotype of people talking about our ballplayers and our athletes in schools, in a couple of ways. One is that they’re making poor decisions, or they’re involved in gangs, or they’re prioritizing sports over academics. Do you think that people are understanding and embracing the success that you’ve had with them as students over the success that you’ve had with them as athletes? 

Larry McKenzie  17:50 

Not at all? I mean, because I think one of the things is, it’s easy to get caught up into the media hype and the message, you know, and that, and that messaging is is very, very intentional, right? Because if you communicate those things, and you don’t have the right kind of support systems around, then you intend to, you know, play I mean, you you become that which you hear, right, and that which people are constantly saying. So I don’t think people are the standard, and one of the things that I say, often time, that people are forgetting that, you know, and I’m looking at the young men that I’ve been involved with, okay, yes, you look at that they have them on the court and the success they’ve had as basketball player, but what you fail to realize is that they do have to meet requirements to get into college, right? You still have to have GPAs. You still have to have ACT and SAT score. So, but I think that’s the piece, of course, nobody wants to talk about, and the reality of it is I mean, I don’t want to I mean, I mean, I’ll just be frank, our kids, one of the speeches that I do, with my young men is are you a player, or are you being played, and we followed $1. You know, a kid going to the University of Minnesota, it’s a 15 to $20,000 a year investment, right, in that young man, but if they’re going to Oak Park, or Stillwater, it’s a $65,000 investment into that young man. So whether you have most, the most valued asset, right, it’s being locked up, and so this is why it’s important, you know what I’m saying, not to become part of that narrative. But always, I remember in college reading a book called don’t believe the hype, and it just talks about all of those stereotypes that you hear, you know? I mean, and one of the things that you talked about athletic, but we also hear, you know, that there’s more black men in prison than in the college, but then, on the flip side of that, if you really do the research that’s missing as well, and so we don’t want to talk about the positive and the danger in our community. But when you ask that question, it’s oftentimes, I mean, and I hate to say this, but it only takes a little bit of something for them to run with. So instead of, you know, really researching and getting the facts, you know, and the thing that I, you know, even prior to, you know, I hear everybody talking about, well, Coach, you know, about the basketball program, but what they, what they haven’t talked about, you know, and talk about the academics of North High what I tell them, you know, I look at the kids that they  was there when I first got there in 2014, who are now graduating this year. Anoah Walker’s gonna get a degree from Morehouse. Yeah, Jamil Jackson’s graduating from IUPUI. Tala Johnsons graduating from the University of Minnesota. You know, Pat Dem Lee’s graduating from Texas Basin. I mean, so all of those kids, all five of those kids that were seniors are getting degrees and graduating on time, and Jamil is, actually, gonna leave IUPUI with a master’s degree. So you know, obviously, it’s not about, you know, I mean, those kids were athletes, but they also had the ability to take care of business in the classroom. So a lot of that is about the kids, their families, and the support systems that they have around them. So, but to answer your question, I just think that, again, I don’t think a lot of people really understand the impact of athletics or other extra-curriculum, activities and being involved with them. 

Chanda Smith Baker  21:50 

Yep. I have, kind of, two tracks of questions, and I think I’m gonna go with that the last point that you just made, and that I think that what I see is that in suburban are better resource school districts, extracurricular activities, are part of the fabric of the school, that those parents, those communities, those districts see them as necessary for students to have a well-rounded experience and for them to build the type of academic community that they aspire to have that they see that as a necessary component. I often am in conversations in our urban settings, where people are saying, well, no, they just need to do the academics. Right? Like the extracurricular is extra, we need to just double down on education, and it’s unrealistic. There’s a small percentage of folks that go to the NBA, the NFL, so why, why have them have the hoop dream? And I know that you hear that, I think that it’s incredibly damaging to tell a child not to dream big, but we hear that and so, you know, what have you seen, or how has the investment or lack of investment in sports been challenging for you? Or what are your observations about that? 

Larry McKenzie  23:16 

Well, I mean, obviously, and again, I mean, in the district that I coach in, they give one half of 1% in terms of athletics. I mean, you can say what you want to say, but I don’t have a problem of saying that. In my opinion, it’s not a priority to them. I agree with you, in terms, so here’s the thing, if you look at common day practices, right, and being on the education side, as well, I mean, can’t go to school six hours a day, and anywhere from 190 to 196 days, during a calendar year. Most of that time is spent preparing to take a test, and so the question that I ask is, you know, when you’re building a well rounded person, and you’re a former athlete, when do you learn about teamwork? When do you learn about integrity? When do you learn about time management, all of those other kinds of things. I mean, I was just having a conversation with my daughter last night, about the very time that we’re in. I think being a former athlete has much prepared me more to get through these difficult times, because I was saying, I mean, as a coach, you know, I come out in a game and I prepared to play man to man office and the tea comes out in its own, I have to make an adjustment, really, really quick. You know, you win, you lose in, so there’s highs and lows. All of those kinds of things come from being an athlete, and it’s interesting, because as I’m watching leadership right now, I’m watching a lot of folks that we’ve looked to for leadership actually, in a sense, they’re in panic mode, because they’re not used to dealing with adversity. And so, as a athlete and a coach, it’s something that we’re dealing with all the time. And so, and I also find it very, very interesting, I’ll say this is that, you know, the person that’s out front on this Dr. Parcy, you know, just reading the other day, he’s a former point guard, right? And so, but so, so those are the things that I think people miss in terms of athletics. It’s not just about the, you know, throwing the ball out and running up and down the floor or on the football field, it’s all of those other intangibles that goes into, you know, what, what if, and I would say, I would say the majority of the coaches is most of those other intangibles that goes into helping that young person become a whole person and not just, you know, because again, I mean, if we have the conversation around, they just focus on the academics, well, in our environment, the academics is, oftentimes, you go to ABC school is a failing school, you can’t read, you can’t write, you can’t do math, all of those kinds of things. So I asked a question, where’s the benefit in that? 

Chanda Smith Baker  26:22 

I don’t even know where to go with it. And I mean, I think that what I can say that I appreciate about what I would say is, you know, in my experience, the Northside is great. Because that’s what my realm has been largely relative to schools, right? It has been those teachers, those principals, Maris is one, that seem to center the relationship with the student, and then everything else flourishes from there. And it feels like an environment where they’re centering how to resolve a disparity, the relationships default, is not where it needs to be. And those students aren’t building the type of community of expectation. And, you know, it’s incredibly frustrating for those of us that have been in this work for a long time trying to figure out how to move that needle. And knowing how important just the roots of those relationships and those high expectations and those opportunities are? 

Larry McKenzie  27:33 

Well, I think a lot of that is, is just old-school stuff. One, a lot of the folks that are in leadership roles, I mean, they come from that of they’re in, and I always say this, I mean, you can you can make a you can give a person a position, you can’t make them a leader. And then there’s a difference, what I consider, a difference between being a leader or leadership, and then being a transformational leader or transformational leadership. And I think true leadership is all transformational. Leadership is really about relationship, right? It’s about getting to know someone, and then transforming, helping them to transform to become a better them. And so to me, I think when you look at, I mean, all of the folks that you describe, I mean, when you look at to me, are those folks who have the most impact. I would consider them as what I would call transformational leaders. And they know that the best leaders are making other people better, and it’s not about, you know, it’s not about them, it’s not about, and I just think that that’s where some of the challenges that we have, so I’ll kind of leave it at that. 

Chanda Smith Baker  29:00 

Yeah. So the other direction that I wanted to go in, as you talk about, you know, Patrick Dibley, and Tyler Johnson and your former students, and I know you have a list of them that have gone on to be successful to get their degrees. What relationship, what is your relationship with your former players? And how does that contribute to the success of your current players? 

Larry McKenzie  29:25 

Well, the beautiful thing about me is I tell people probably, you know, Father’s Day is probably one of the best days for me every year is because I get about 300 calls from all of my, you know, my former players, so I’m in, I’m in constant contact. I mean, you know, my kids are in college and I still call their coaches on a weekly basis, to check up on them to see how they’re doing. We’re texting, we’re communicating, and the one thing that I say to all of my kids, the same thing I’ve said to both of your sons, I mean, once you come into my program and you play for me, you become a McKenzie.  You become part of my family, and I treat them the same way that I treat Lawrence McKenzie. And so, and we have those same expectations, and so, and a lot of what you see and, your son’s a shear, you know, so on a weekly basis, I’m bringing my former players in, having conversation they come in. And so I want our guys to know that this is know, what they’re going through, the things that I’m saying, I’m no different for them than what I’ve said to guys in the past. And I also think it’s important, even in terms of, you know, sometime I think we missed the mark. And I say this, with not taken advantage of our heroes and sheroes like yourself, who have walked those hallways of, of North High School, to not have you in front of those students. So that they can see that it is possible, and that’s the one of the biggest thing for, for me. I think that I want our kids to see other moves, right, and when you get you bring in a kid like Owl Nolan, who’s had some of the same challenges, but he’s walked the hallways, and in spite of what people say about the community, he was able to navigate it, go to the University of Minnesota, get a degree. Now he’s an assistant principal, at Park High School. If he can do it, you can do it. And I just think that is the kind of messaging that our kids need to have. One of the things that I often take from John Kay Cameron, is he used to say that you can’t be what you don’t see. And so a lot of what we do in the program, is just exposing them to opportunities and things and to people, so that our kids know that it is possible. No matter what it is, and so you know, I consider myself a master networker. And so no matter what it is our kids want to do, I either know somebody, or know somebody, who knows somebody, that we’re going to be able to make that connection. So that I don’t care what somebody else is telling you, it’s possible because I’m going to have you talk to Chanda Smith Baker, I’m going to have you talk to Houston White, I’m going to have you talk to Owl Nolan or Muckrock Elemi, or, you know, there are others who are impacting this community that walk this, the same pathway that you walk and I don’t care what they’re saying out there. It’s possible. And so I always say, and I say this all the time, one of the things when the young man leave me, I don’t want them to have an excuse that they’ve never heard. And once I give you the information, then I tell them, you’re making a choice, instead of taking a chance. So we try to make sure that they have as much information as they can. So that then you’re choosing which path you decide to go down. 

Chanda Smith Baker  33:14 

My one, you know, it might be even helpful for people listening to better understand your program. And you know, I’ll let you kind of jump in on that, but one of the things that I want to say is that you take your young men on a retreat. And this year, my son went, one son went, the other son was invited.  

Larry McKenzie  33:42 

His backpack showed up but he didn’t.  

Chanda Smith Baker  33:44 

This boy missed the bus, and he had all the excuses that he will never use again, because I think he felt like he really missed out on something. And it’s actually kind of funny, because in my imagined mother mind, it would have been the opposite. They you know, the one that missed the bus would have been on and the other one would have missed it. And so my son that went, is, you know, a little bit more reserved. And we came home and we were having this family dinner where we’re basically exposing to one what they what he missed out on and celebrate the other for his commitment to being there and fully in it. And we were asking questions and try to draw out from him, what he learned, and there was a moment, and I just said, just say what you’re thinking. And he said, I don’t know, I just I don’t know what I learned, but I feel like I’ve matured over the weekend. And it was like, it was like a moment that was so special for me to just think about him being in a community of his peers. With the men that you brought around them, for him to understand his role and position and all of that mattered, and that he can take hisself more seriously than what he had been. And, you know, I just want to sincerely thank you for that. And, I mean, I just sat at the table and said, I want every student in this city to have that, and what can I do to make it so? 

Larry McKenzie  35:33 

Well, I mean, you know, obviously, I mean, there’s no secret. You’ve been a very, very big supporter of mine, and I appreciate it. But you know, one of the things is, so I think, I’ve been doing that, Chanda, because I think it’s important for me to get out young men out of the city, and I don’t know, if you probably, you may have missed it, but one of the videos, and I’ll have to send it to you that actually brought tears to my eyes. One of the young men that we had there, he made a statement as we recorded each of them doing a presentation. So part of what we do is, you know, we spend some time and we go through some of the workshops, and they all have to actually get in front of the group and present, you know, one or two things that they’ve learned from the weekend before we leave. And one of the young man was just so appreciative of having the opportunity to get out of the city. He said, it was the first time that he had slept in three years, you know, no gunshots, no sirens, no, any of those kind of things. And he was amazed to see stars. And it was, it’s just the little things, but I like to get our young men out. We do a few things here, in addition to bringing in some speakers, but we do this thing where we call unpacking your backpack. And we, it’s a circle, kind of thing that we do, but you get an opportunity to just share, and whatever the challenges that you have in life, it kind of coincides with our creed, that today, you’re going to just let go of everything, unpack your backpack, and you’re going to get a fresh start. And I’ll add to you, I’ve just been amazed of Rylan and the maturity that and even for the short time, the growth that I’ve seen in him, and just some, you know, and again, as you said, you know, I don’t want to share too much of our conversations, but just some of the constant amazing conversations of that I’ve had with him in terms of a young man that asking questions about knowing where he wants to go, and not being afraid to ask for help on how to get there. And I think the one thing that I’ll give him credit and you want, so every young man that becomes part of the program that goes on retreat, they have a choice, right? They can embrace and take in the information that we give them over the weekend, or you can just put it to the side. I think the beauty of that for him, and I would say, probably, 98%, 99% of the group is most of those young men come back in that short, 48 hours, somewhat change, you know. But at least with a new way of thinking, because they can get away, we take away the cell phones, all of that kind of stuff, and we focus on, so one is unpacking the backpack, and then just talking about your why. You know, for some of them, they want to be the first ones to graduate, first one on their families to graduate from high school. Okay, what’s the plan? How we’re going to do that? So I want to be the first ones to graduate from college. What’s the plan? How we’re going to do that? What are your five schools? What does it take to get in? And you know, what’s funny, it’s interesting, because you said earlier, when you talk about information, you know what I can tell you that I’ve never had?  

Chanda Smith Baker  39:26 

What’s that?  

Larry McKenzie  39:27 

A kid that stands up in front of the room and said he wants to play in the NBA or NFL. 

Chanda Smith Baker  39:32 

Are you kidding?  

Larry McKenzie  39:33 

Not at all. And it’s not what people think. I mean, it’s real stuff. I mean, kids wanting to, like I say, I want to go to college because I want to get my mom, buy my mom a house. I want this kind of job. I want it, but never ever, you know, it’s not what people think. I mean, it’s not kids, that, you know, there why is I want to play in the NBA or the NFL. And I can just tell you in 21 years, and I’m just, that’s not something that I’ve heard kids, when they get an opportunity to talk about their why that’s not why they’re, they’re doing it. I mean, these are kids that want to be leaders in a community that, you know that understand that they’re leaders in the school, but they want to change. These are kids that truly want to change the narrative. 

Chanda Smith Baker  40:31 

Oh, wow. So the other, the other piece of one is, what is your creed? You’ve mentioned that a couple of times, what is the creed? 

Larry McKenzie  40:40 

So I will give you the creed is something that I live by, and I always tell people, is something that my, my younger brother, who was coaching at Delaware State, at the time shared with me is something that I’ve used for the last 20 plus years. And I always tell kids, if you don’t get anything else from Coach McKenzie, you take this, which is something I do every day before I leave my house. So it goes like this, that this is the beginning of a new day. I have been blessed with this day to use as I will, I can waste it, or I can use it for good. For what I do today is important. I’m exchanging a day of my life for, I, Larry McKenzie, must decide good or bad, gain or loss, success or failure in order that I’ll never regret the price that I paid for it. And one of the things that I remind kids is this is that every single day is a gift. And I always tell people, I used to have this strange habit until I, you know, my kids kept getting on me about technology, but I was probably, and I still get the Sunday paper, so I was probably one of the last people, one of the very few people that still actually read the newspaper. But I would get up every morning and shout that I would go to the local section, and I would go to the obituary column. And people would say why, and I say, because that was my reminder that there were some people that was here yesterday that are not here today. So every day is a gift. And so I want my young men to know that, you know, you have to take advantage of it. And so, and then you have in that day, so this is a beginner that I’ve been blessed with a day to use as I will. And so no matter how much you love your mom, no matter how much you love your siblings, or I love my grandkids, it’s not about them, it’s about me taking ownership for me, and nobody else. And so we don’t use the excuse that I didn’t get an A because of the teacher, or I tell them I don’t determine playing time, right? You decide good or bad, gain or loss, success or failure. And what I what I want my young men to know that don’t ever give away that power. Don’t ever give away that power. So you know, you take control of determining your destiny, not someone else. So you have the ability to be an A student, if that is what you want. And then we just had to figure out a way to get you to that. But that creed is something that I most definitely share with them. We say it before every practice, we do it before every game. But I want them to know that every single day is a gift. And then you must decide every single day. And I try to practice it, I tell him, I try to learn a new word, try a new foo, but it’s about getting outside of your comfort zone, right, and growing every single day. But being in control because when you’re at basketball practice, your friends are on the Xbox or Playstation, and they’re doing other things. So you’re making a sacrifice. So you don’t want to waste this time that you’re spending in study hall and not get something from it. You don’t want to waste this time in practice and not get something for it. So it’s just a reminder every day. And one thing that I tell I think I read this in Napoleon Hill, that 90 probably only 5% of those of us on the face of this earth actually have goals. And one of the things I ask kids all the time is go home, ask your mom, dad, uncle, older sibling, where do they see themselves five years from now? Most people can’t ask that question, because they’re living life. One of the things that we want to help you do in this program is learn to set goals. And sometimes, I mean, you’re going to come into roadblock, but that won’t keep you from achieving those goals. So that’s a lot of what the creed is about is something that would constantly reminding the kids, when my former players that you asked about when they call and they have some challenges in their life, that’s the first thing I tell them. Let’s go back to the creed, who’s in control? What’s your part in this? So let’s start with you, and then we’ll figure the rest of it out. But that’s the essence of the creek. 

Chanda Smith Baker  45:19 

Right? And then in terms of the program, so I know you have, you have tutoring, you have retreats, you bring in speakers, you have a creed. You know, I’ve seen you take them to dinner, you celebrate their academics, you know, what are the other core components that you would share that you think are difference makers? 

Larry McKenzie  45:40 

So I mean, you said, so on the academic side, I mean, we have a mandatory study hall. So it’s not an option. As you well know, we have the parents on a contract. I require them to, you know, sit in a class, and we call our A plus program. So we give them a weekly grace sheet that I see every kid in the program on every Thursday. So I know if they’re, they’re tardy to class. I know if they’re missing an assignment. I know if they missed the test, all of those kinds of things. So it’s accountability. We let them know up front, that if you’re not being a student athlete, you won’t be playing basketball. So that’s the academic component, then we have the life skill component. So, you know, we work with the City of Minneapolis with this year, we’re actually for the last three years, we’ve been working on a program around Boys to Men, when we talk about domestic violence, we talk about what it means to be a leader in the community, all of those kinds of things. A big component of what I do is I make sure our kids know how to play chess. And I think that’s an important part of becoming, you know, a basketball player, but it’s about being able to think ahead. And so we talk about chess, in the sense of how do you move from being a pawn to becoming a king. So it’s a little different. So that those are our life skill components. We do yoga, and meditation, and all of those kinds of things in our program. And then, you know, when we’re traveling, we make sure that we get our kids on college campuses, those kind of things. I’m a believer in celebrating the little thing. So every quarter, when grades come out, we take our kids out to eat, to celebrate those kids that on A, B honor roll, because that’s important to us. And it’s important to them, and so I want to celebrate those kids. And I can tell you, I think we were just talking about coaches last night. In our staff meeting we went from six years ago, probably about 77% of our kids being a honor roll student. Now we’re up to 96% of our TVN, A, B honor roll students. So it is working, and I think the thing about it is, as you will know, because you’ve experienced it when those kids come home, and like, I got all As, you know, and I think I shared this with you, but I had a young man who called me, so we’re at practice, before the season ended. He was like, Coach, Coach, can I talk to you real quickly? So he came over and whispered in my ear, he was like, coach, I saw my name on the honor roll. And it really did brought tears to my eyes, because at the beginning of the season, this is a kid who was failing all of his classes, who made the honor roll. And so we celebrated that and the message there was okay, now you know what’s in you. And again, it goes back to what we’ve been talking about, right? So now, if you’re not doing it, we know that you’re capable is a choice. 

Chanda Smith Baker  48:48 

It’s a choice. 

Larry McKenzie  48:50 

It’s a choice. And so that’s a lot of what I’m trying to get our young men to understand. And so it’s about, you know, I always say the three C’s choices, chances and consequences, right. And so you can either take a chance, or make a choice, but in the end, you don’t, you don’t get to determine the consequences. And for some of our kids, when you decide to take a chance, instead of making a choice, it becomes 5 to 10, 10 to 20, life or death, and so we want you to have that information so that you can make the right choices. And I’m proud to say that, you know, as you can see firsthand that, even in a short time, that those young men that come in, in our program, and because it’s so contagious is a part of the fabric. We don’t just talk about excellence being a standard. We live that, right, and we hold everybody to that, including coaches and kids, what our kids, like I say, I’m a firm believer they will meet you at the bar. If you raise, if you have that expectation, they will meet you there. And I think you can say that you’ve seen that firsthand. 

Chanda Smith Baker  50:04 

I absolutely have seen it. And I think, you know, one of, I guess, I have maybe two more questions, but one of them are about the other coaches, right? Because it’s very easy to just focus on the athletes that you have inspired and create a community around. The one thing that has been really wonderful to see, I guess, you know, I see the pictures of you all at the games, with other coaches on the sidelines, I’m like, look at all these coaches, on the sidelines. But when you’re up close, you understand it better. Because the amount of time that has been committed to these young people is remarkable. It’s appreciated, it’s inspiring. And you have coaches that I went to high school with that went to North, that are now giving back and to just watch them, you know, kind of be part of the program, and so I imagine that part of what you’re building is also around having a cadre of coaches that also can play it forward. Can you say anything about that? 

Larry McKenzie  51:07 

For me, to be honest with you, that’s my ultimate goal, you know, so one, I would say the number one criteria I’ve always had for my staff is not somebody who knows basketball. It’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s about people who are really committed to kids. And I think my staff exemplifies that. That they are committed to making a difference, and so, you know, we invest a lot as well. I mean, we talked about what we invest in our players, but you know, around personal development, I’m constantly sending our coaches to conferences, and workshops, and webinars, and all of those things, not just around basketball, but how they can become better leaders. And the ultimate goal for me is if that, if I could kind of clone myself, and get other coaches and other places to do similar things, I think, then maybe perhaps, people will be be able to see the impact and the influence that coaches actually are having, beyond winning games and, and championships and all of those kinds of things, but how we’re really impacting lives. And, you know, the downside of my staff is, as you well know, my coaches while they’re very capable of running their own programs have this, you know, they just were just such a family that they don’t want to leave, you know, and so even when they’ve been presented with opportunities, but they’re so committed to North Minneapolis, and what we do in the community, so, you know, they find other ways, as you well know, Mike is just doing a fantastic job of building this Care to View Foundation and introducing kids to new sports, and kind of things in the community. Kospi with his youth development with the young kids and the amount of time that he’s invested in second and third graders, and so, you know, which is, which to me, and I know that they’re taking a lot of what we do. And so now, we’re instead of them getting it in a ninth grade, kids are being exposed to a lot of what we do, second, third, fourth grade. So it’s truly impacted in the community, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. 

Chanda Smith Baker  53:25 

Yeah, it absolutely is. So you, you’ve got trainings that you’re sending your coaches to. You’ve got meals that you’re celebrating with your athletes, you got retreat speakers, all of these things that have to be costly, in a program that’s underfunded. How do you make that work, and what, you know, if people were listening and wanting to provide support or opportunity, how would you direct them to be able to support this program? 

Larry McKenzie  53:55 

So, to be honest with you, when I do my budget, work, and again, I mean, I didn’t even bring that up, but we feed our kids every single day. So you know, they doing study hall, we provide them with a sandwich and a snack every single day, then we make sure that we keep a supply of peanut butter and jelly and bread. 

Chanda Smith Baker  54:18 

I don’t know what you all are doing with these peanut butter sandwiches. I’m telling you these kids at my house are like, oh, damn, sandwich. 

Larry McKenzie  54:25 

I was thinking about that the other day. So I saw the package that those kids were getting right from the school and I was like, I know my kids like, this is not gonna work because when they get done with the services that we provide them they go right to the coach’s office and like, can I make a couple of sandwich, and your boys, I don’t think they ever leave without hitting their refrigerator on a daily basis. Coach, can I get a sandwich but so we feed them hot meals on game days. And so it really costs us about 65 $70,000 a year to do the things that we’ve been doing. But we’ve been blessed to have, you know, generous friends in various places, such as yourself, who have supported us, and so we’re able to get it done. And one of the big things for me, and I just thank God for the network that I do have, is because one of the things that I always said, I want our kids in North Minneapolis, to have the same things that suburban counterparts have elsewhere. So for those people that want to give, you can, you know, go to our website, There’s a place there to donate, you can reach out to me to figure out how to donate. And you know, so we and it’s a little thing, so we have people, like for example, me, we have our guys wear shirts and ties. So we have people who have donated ties, and shirts for the young men to be able to wear to away games and those kind of things and those needs. And so a laundry list of needs that we have, the retreat is not inexpensive, as we’re, you know, transportation, feeding them for three days, and having speakers and those kinds of things come in. So always looking for more support. And again, I mean, I’m gonna be very honest, you talk earlier, in terms of what supports we get through the school and NPS, right now, the only support goes to pay half of our coaching staff. So also have to in that, in that 65 $70,000 is me paying the other half of my coaching staff. And I think one of the positions that we have, you know, on my staff, we do two things that I think is different from other program, I have one position that I consider a character coach, and they are dealing with all the character kind of things and their responsibility is to touch base with the young man, and make sure you know that we know what’s going on with them outside of school and basketball, and then I also have a lifeskills academic coordinator. And so Coach D, which has that position, he coordinates, you know, making sure that all the kids are accounted for, for study hall, making sure the speakers are coming in for the life skill component. So, you know, we’re doing things a little bit different, and I mean, it, I mean, sometimes you get what you pay for, you get what you pay for. And like I say over the years, through people such as yourself, my fraternity brothers and lots of folks in the community, we’ve been blessed year in, and year out to make it happen.  

Chanda Smith Baker  58:02 

Yeah. Speaking of transportation, I mean, the bus driver, Jim, right. Like, yeah, like, I mean, he shows up at the games, like he comes and sits down, like, he loves those kids in that program. And I mean, you know, he said, like, I’m a parent, I know the bus driver night, right? Like, he’s like, Yo, this is a family, I’ve never seen anything like it, I can’t get enough of it. It is a pure joy to like, take these kids and watch them evolve. And so you know, in any business, you want everybody, in every role to understand the difference making that they have. And I can honestly say I have seen it at every level. It is remarkable, and something that really just transcends I think the basketball program to what it should look like to be in a community of excellence. So I celebrate you, I thank you. You know, I’m absolutely a supporter. Not only do I just like sports, but I understand the importance of having them. So my closing question is because I’m at the Minneapolis Foundation, as we think through investments, or you know, one of the questions I asked almost everyone is what do you think philanthropies role is in supporting a well-rounded student experience? 

Larry McKenzie  59:25 

So I think you have to invest in everything. And certainly, I think we’ve proven that athletics out of school time, is an important tool in terms of closing the achievement gap and the impact that it can have. And so I know, traditionally, you know, when you talk about sports and investing in sports program, you know, a lot of times philanthropies don’t see, you know, well, I don’t want to buy more balls, I don’t want to buy more bats. I don’t, I don’t want to buy uniforms. But I think what we do is evident that it’s much more than just a game for us, and it’s all of those other kinds of things that we’re bringing to kids. And I think, you know, and I say this all the time, there’s a reason that when you see athletes, you know, finally get to the pinnacle of their careers on TV, the two people that they always make sure they thank, is their mom and their coach, you know, and there’s a reason for that. And that tells you about the influence and the impact. And, and so one of the things is, you know, as you said earlier, I’m trying to find a way. I’m working right now, it’s taking some time. While we’re on this hiatus of, you know, developing a program that will give me the ability to share what I call our recipe, with other coaches, you know, not only in Minneapolis, right now starting in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but eventually hoping to be able to share nationwide, even internationally, because I think, you know, we have a captured audience. I mean, one of the fascinating stories, even in terms of when kids talk about do talk about going to the NBA and NFL, I shared a story with them. So first of all, there’s like 800 jobs in the NBA, many of which people don’t think about but there is security, there’s a county, there is social media. There, there is so many other opportunities. And George Ellis, who started with me as my nine beat coach, coaching the kids that were just around and who, you know, probably wasn’t going to ever get any varsity minutes. But George is now in the NBA. He’s now working for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and in charge of running their camps, and their academy. And George has never played a minute, but he can say that he made it to the NBA. So that’s part of what we want to help kids understand as well. You can get there, you know, and maybe as an owner, not necessarily as a player. 

Chanda Smith Baker  1:02:31 

I have a strong feeling about one of these Minneapolis Public Schools becoming a sports management focus, right of like introduction, right of stats, for math, a broadcasting, of sports writing, of legal, of the medical staff, that’s that that are part of it. Like I mean, ultimately, like if I can figure out how to make that happen, I will. 

Larry McKenzie  1:02:52 

I will be emailing you because I’ve actually put together an outline of the whole curriculum. Yeah, so yeah. So it’s been a dream of mine for the last seven years.  

Chanda Smith Baker  1:02:55 

I love it. I love it. You also, you know, basketball, it’s more than a game. I feel like I might have read a book about that. 

Larry McKenzie  1:03:12 

Yeah, so that’s, that’s my first book. And we’re I’m actually in the process of doing a second edition of that. But it’s a basketball so much more than just the game. And if I could just do my quick commercial B talks about understanding that it is a business and getting a scholarship is an investment. So B is business, A appreciate the people in your life because people are making sacrifices for you to have these opportunity as being a student athlete, K, the importance of knowledge. Knowledge is power, and people get paid for knowledge. He enjoying the moment. And again, I expressed with my young men all the time, don’t be in a hurry to become an adult because it comes with responsibility. TBN, teachable, slash coachable, B, believing in yourself. And that’s where the creed comes in A, attitude determines how to live to love, love to live. It’s a 10 chapter book, all life lessons about the game that we share with young people. 

Chanda Smith Baker  1:04:20 

It’s a perfect way to end the conversation. I appreciate not just our time this morning, the time that you give to this community every single day, your commitment, and your passion to make excellence, the standard everywhere so, thank you. 

Larry McKenzie  1:04:36 

Well, let me just say and let me just say thank you to you because there is no greater appreciation than allowing me to have time and trust in your young men with me in my program. So I want to tell you that I appreciate that and all the support that you’ve, like you say, we’ve known each other for some time, and I’ve always been very appreciative of not only, you know, the support from a financial standpoint, but your wisdom. And the one thing and I can say it I know this is not a commercial for you, but what I appreciate about your leadership, and one of the challenges that we have in this community is that your uncompromising leader, and you stand on those things that you believe in, and no matter who or what may have, may have differences of opinion, you don’t let those things rattle you. And to me, that’s one of the things that we’re missing in our community. So, as I’m developing these coaches, I hope you’ll think about how you develop more leaders in that manner, because I think if we’re going to get through some of the challenges that we have, we have to have people that stand on principle, and no matter what are not willing to compromise for the sake of opportunity, or finances, or any of those kinds of things. And so that’s one of the things that I’ve always admired about you as a leader. 

Chanda Smith Baker  1:06:04 

Thank you, and I will, I will think about that, that charge you put in front of me and you know that I’ve made a commitment to supporting others and I do think that there are ways to take that up a notch and I will take that challenge on. 

Souphak Kienitz  1:06:23 

And there you have it. That’s coach Larry McKenzie, and Chanda Smith Baker. You can follow Larry McKenzie on Twitter, @coachmckenzie, or visit to learn more. To listen to more episodes and learn more about upcoming events, please visit You can also follow Chanda on Twitter, @chandasbaker. This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis Foundation. Thank you for listening to Conversations with Chanda 

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About Our Guest

Larry McKenzie

Larry McKenzie is an experienced leader with demonstrated expertise in motivating and implementing meaningful transformation in private and nonprofit organizations and inspiring individual growth and performance. Larry’s significant experience and expertise in education, including youth program development, charter school compliance, and coaching — combined with his background in developing strategic partnerships, executing successful fundraising and capital campaigns, and leading teams — make him a dynamic and engaging motivational speaker for audiences of corporate executives, nonprofit professionals, students, and any group seeking inspiration to take their performance to the next level.

With his unique blend of purpose and passion and a relentless focus on helping others succeed, Larry has inspired champions on the basketball court, in schools, throughout the community, and in businesses across the Midwest. Currently, he’s the Head Coach for boys basketball at North Community High School in North Minneapolis. He’s also the Charter School Authorizer Liaison at Pillsbury United Communities and the CEO of Coach Seminars & Consulting, LLC.