Faith Johnson Patterson walked slowly through Door 13 — the visitors door — at Minneapolis North on Monday, a quirky grin on her face. This was the first time Johnson Patterson had returned as a coach to North, where she guided the Lady Polars from 1995 through 2009, leading them to 10 state tournaments and five state championships.
“Actually, I’m pretty happy to be here,” she said as her current team, Eden Prairie, filed in for a game against North, pausing to admire the trophies Johnson Patterson and the Lady Polars acquired during her tenure. “I don’t feel like crying like I thought I would, but I still might when I get into the locker room.”
Hugs were plentiful, including a long one for Tisa Thomas, now a North assistant coach who played for Johnson Patterson’s first state championship teams. “It’s great to have her back,” Thomas said. “She built something special here.”
“I’ve been nervous about coming back here,” Johnson Patterson said. “I’ve shed a tear or two thinking about it. I don’t want to beat North, but I don’t want to lose, either.”
Which makes perfect sense, said her longtime assistant Lisl von Steinbergs.
“It’s emotional,” von Steinbergs said. “This is home.”
If records were a clear indication, Eden Prairie (5-15) would be a decided underdog. There’s a definite momentum the Eagles carry, that of a program punching through a shell, but so far it hasn’t manifested itself in victories, which is the big reason Johnson Patterson is at Eden Prairie. Minneapolis North has won 10 games, albeit against competition far below that of the Lake Conference-heavy schedule of Eden Prairie.
The game’s outcome was a mundane factuality, a 56-39 victory for Eden Prairie. This was more a remembrance of a serendipitous joining of determined coach and needy team that resulted in 10 state tournament appearances, five championships and a Hall of Fame career.
Doing great things together
In 1995, Johnson Patterson, then 33, and Minneapolis North needed each other.
North was all about boys’ basketball when she was hired, and with good reason. The Polars had a history of success. They were coming off a three-year run as state champions, led by one of Minnesota’s greatest high school players and without a doubt its most charismatic, Khalid El-Amin.
For the girls’ program, apathy was rampant.
Johnson Patterson had left a comfortable assistant coaching position at Blake to assume a monumental task of turning an afterthought of a program into one of relevance. But how?
Johnson Patterson leaned heavily on her instincts. She knew right away that she had to be more than just a coach. She had to be an instructor, a confidante, a buddy and a taskmaster. It would have to be about more than X’s and O’s. It would have to be about the people.
“These girls were overlooked and underappreciated,” she recalled. “I could sense they were hungry. They had dreams and aspirations, but they needed exposure and recognition to make those dreams happen. It was kind of like a mission. I had a purpose there.”
It didn’t hurt that Johnson Patterson was black, like most of the North players. She believes it was one reason she was hired.
“People reached out to me, an African-American female, and saw things I didn’t even see,” she said. “When I met with Richard Robinson, who was the athletic director at the time, he said ‘You’re going to do great things here. I believe in you.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
What North lacked in tradition, it made up for in talent. Players such as Tamara Moore and Mauri Horton, both former Star Tribune metro players of the year, bloomed under Johnson Patterson’s tutelage. Victories started to come, and they came in bunches.
After two seasons, Johnson Patterson had North in the state tournament.
“That’s a life-changing event for the kinds of players we had,” she said. “The face of Minnesota [girls’] basketball then was Caucasian-based. The African-American community wasn’t aware of what was out there for them.”
The Polars were runners-up in Class 3A in 1997 and went on to qualify for nine more state tournaments. Their five 3A titles included a three-peat from 2003 to 2005.
“When I got to North in 2002, I couldn’t wait to play basketball for her,” said former player Daria Frazier, now an assistant coach. “I’d heard she was hard, but you find out she’s more than that. You realize she cares about you as a person.”
By 2009, however, Johnson Patterson left North amid uncertainty about the school’s future — “I thought they were going to close it,” she said — and took over at DeLaSalle. She quickly led the program to four state tournament berths and three consecutive Class 3A titles from 2011-13.
But, inside, she knew it was North that defined and created her.
She left DeLaSalle after the 2014 season amid a list of health problems, including nerve problems in her back, arthritis and issues with her Achilles’ tendon in her right leg and her left shoulder.
After a year-long respite back to health, she was ready to return to coaching when Eden Prairie called.
It was a far cry from the inner city of Minneapolis or even Nicollet Island, where DeLaSalle is located, but a plum job with a Class 4A school accustomed to sports success.
Her task? Get the same results at Eden Prairie as she did in her previous two stops. The Eagles’ current record may be dismal, but, to all involved, they’re on the right track.
The Eagles’ record is somewhat misleading. Seven of their 15 losses have been by fewer than 10 points. Five defeats were by three or fewer.
“She’s such a good coach and she knows how to get the best out of us,” senior guard Esabelle Levine said. “Are we a better team than we were? Yes.”
For her part, Johnson Patterson, now 53, feels like she is right where she’s supposed to be.
“I consider myself a transitional coach,” she said. “North hadn’t won a state championship before I got there. DeLaSalle hadn’t won a championship before I got there. Eden Prairie hasn’t, either. This is such a good fit in this time. I’m here for a reason.”