'Losing is learning': Life lessons from an iconic Minneapolis basketball coach

A man sits for a portrait
Coach Larry McKenzie poses for a photo inside the Kling Media Center in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

If you played high school sports growing up, you know how being a student-athlete can change your life. It teaches you teamwork, responsibility, perseverance and so much more. 

MPR News host Angela Davis talked with longtime high school boys basketball coach Larry McKenzie. He was the first coach in Minnesota history to win four consecutive basketball state titles. 

“I don't think I was a greatest X and O guy or any of that kind of stuff. The reason that I won was because I gave my kids unconditional love,” he told Davis.

He retired in July, but he is still mentoring. Now, instead of leading high school athletes, he is coaching other coaches.

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  • Larry McKenzie is a longtime high school boys’ basketball coach. He retired from coaching at Minneapolis North High School in July.

    two people sit in a studio
    MPR News host Angela Davis talks with longtime high school boys basketball coach Larry McKenzie. He was the first coach in Minnesota history to win six basketball state titles. 
    Samantha Matsumoto | MPR News

Here are five key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

You are now coaching other coaches. Why did you want to do that?

Larry McKenzie: One of the things about being one of the elder coaches in the game is getting a lot of calls from young coaches. I've always understood the importance of having good mentors, and the importance of mentorship. When I was 14 years old, my grandmother gave me a book by Napoleon Hill, and it compared having knowledge and not sharing it to having an atomic bomb and never dropping it. For me, after 42 years and the various experiences that I've had and the success, I didn't want to keep that to myself, I wanted to share.

Right now, we probably have about 10 or 12 coaches that we're talking to on a weekly basis, sharing information, being there to do some one-on-ones, visiting practices, and helping them become better coaches.

One of the things I tell them all the time is that it's really critical that they get to know their kid and to spend at least thirty seconds to a minute with every single kid and ask: How is your day? What's going on in school? What's going on with you and your girlfriend? I think that that's a critical part of one being successful because you got to know them beyond the court or the track or the football field.

What makes a great high school coach?

Larry McKenzie: First of all, one of those quotes that I like to use is: “a coach can impact more lives in a year than most people can in a lifetime.” I think a great coach is a great teacher. It’s not about the Xs and Os — it’s an opportunity to change lives.

In my journey, it was like being an artist: I get a lump of clay that's a 14-year-old boy that I get to mold for three or four years, and leave me as an 18-year-old young man. I think a good coach is someone that's not so caught up in what the record is but understands that whatever sport they're coaching is an opportunity to have a captured audience to change lives.

In my experience, probably 80 percent of the young men that I coached didn’t have a father in their houses. So my responsibility, first and foremost, was to teach them how to be a man, to help them understand what was ahead of them. So I knew all the time, they would be watching me, what I did, and how I showed up. It’s important to lead by example, but it's also important to teach that nobody's perfect, we're gonna all make mistakes. When kids get off track, it's not throwing in the towel, but helping them work through those situations. Coaches, particularly at the high school level, want to help kids go to college, but the most important thing is to prepare them to become productive adults.

You were a coach at Minneapolis North in 2020 when police killed George Floyd. How did you talk to your students about that?

Larry McKenzie: I'll never forget that morning waking up and seeing that video. The first thing I did with my current players, my former players, and my son was to apologize. I need to apologize because I've gotten so busy doing other things that I forgot about this fight. Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, all of those that had gone before George Floyd, this was not the first time.

I always try to think outside of the box, and we did something very unique. I called my friends and raised some money, were able to hire a dear friend of mine who was a mental health coach. He would come to practice and be available to our kids, so if they had something going on and needed somebody to talk to, we had a professional there to support them.

What concerns you about high school sports these days?

Larry McKenzie: Something that really bothers me is how kids have so much to do with social status. When you go to a game, you don’t hear parents cheering for the team anymore, everything is about the individual kid. But it is a team sport, right? And you should be really cheering for all kids to be successful.

The other thing that concerns me is the passing of “name, image and likeness” at the high school level, which is the ability to pay kids to advertise. Now I got one kid sitting in my locker room, who's got a contract for $5,000, he's representing the neighborhood barbecue store. And then you got another kid for $1,000. Does that kid making $5,000 expect to play more? Probably in his mind, and in his parents’ mind he does.

Right now, to my knowledge, I think there's still only one or two high school kids that have taken advantage of it. But I just think long term is going to create an issue in a locker room.

How do you teach student-athletes how to lose?

Larry McKenzie: You always find life lessons in the loss. Losing is learning. One of the things that I always try to do in losing is taking that opportunity and transfer it into a life experience. In life, everything doesn't go the way that you want it to go, you're gonna have some ups and downs, so you have to learn to stay in the moment, get up, dust yourself off and get going again. One of the things that I particularly used to tell my young men is that there are situations where you will lose, but if you have kids, and you have a house payment and those kinds of things, you don't have a whole lot of time to sit around and feel sorry for yourself. You got to keep it moving.

Your stories about coaches

Listeners called into the show and shared their stories. Here are some of them.

Coach leads a new track team to victory

I had a great coach in high school in St. Paul. This was in the ‘70s when there wasn't a women's track team. He was asked, as the football coach, to begin the women's track team. So he would see different young women in school, come up to us and ask us, “Do you want to join the team? I already talked to your friend, she's on the track team.” He used that approach because none of us were really runners and that worked. He joined us together as a team because he believed in us. We didn't have the confidence and we didn't have the skills. The coach put it all together for us and worked with us like the football team. We became very close and won the conference championship the very first year that they had women.

— Anita from St. Paul

How a good coach impacts generations

I've been in sports since I was 8 years old and I still remember what my coaches told me and, to this day, it's still beneficial. I called in with two specific examples. I have twin brothers younger than me, we all played baseball during the same period of time, and both our teams won a championship. Their coach drove them incessantly hard, and turns out later he was an alcoholic, but my brothers never loved sports again, until they were parents and gradually got back into it and started to love it again. And they lament how much they wish they would have played their high school years with me. On the other hand, I had a great coach, I had great experiences. I learned how to make it fun. And my joy of sports carried down to my son, who also I think experienced wonderful coaching.

— Brent from Eden Prairie

Memories from North High School

I just wanted to say that I'm a graduate of North High in ‘99. I'm 41 now and the structure that I still hold on to from being on a team with my coaches is just awesome. And I still hold that unity, the hot and cold, until today and I'm just blessed for being on North High’s team. Coach Larry, thank you for putting financial teaching out there because we definitely need to figure out how to tap in on the finance part. I experienced getting money and blowing it and not knowing what to do.

— Amal from Minneapolis

A well-remembered coach

I'm a product of Minneapolis Central High School and I was there in the late 50s, early 60s when I graduated. I had a memorable coach, one of the best coaches in the city of Minneapolis, that I've ever known anyway. His name was Earl Bowman. He was one of my mentors, and I coached football in the park system for many years as a result of having experience with him. He was a taskmaster, but he also had real care for the kids and was one of the first Black coaches in Minneapolis.

— Louis from Minneapolis

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.