Long before Khalid El-Amin became a household basketball name from Connecticut to Croatia, he discovered he possessed an underappreciated gift. Not only could the pudgy little student at Jefferson Elementary School in south Minneapolis dribble with flair and pass with precision, he could tell older players where to go on the court without fear of getting ignored or pounded.
"You have to earn their respect at first," said El-Amin, now 32 and playing professional basketball for KK Cibona in Zagreb, Croatia. "A lot of times, the guys would just take the ball from me using their brute strength. I had to learn how to adapt my game."
By the time El-Amin was in eighth grade, he was playing for his former elementary gym teacher, Robin Ingram, on the Minneapolis North varsity. As a freshman, he was starting. As a sophomore during the 1994-95 season, El-Amin and the Polars embarked on a drama-filled journey that would culminate with three consecutive state titles in 1995, '96 and '97.
The game and the state tournament were changing as the Polars came to power. In 1971, the tournament split into two classes for the first time. By 1987-88, the three-point line was stretching defenses and changing strategies. More flexible transfer rules, culminating in open enrollment, were making it possible for difference-making players to hoop for Minneapolis Southwest one season and St. Paul Central the next.
By the 1994-95 season, the class clash churned up again. Basketball minds disagreed on the tournament's format: Should we try to recapture past glory by playing down to one champion, as the Minnesota State High School League did with the "Sweet 16" format of 1995 and '96, or expand from two to four classes, as was done in 1997?
Regardless of the format in those three seasons, the Polars squashed all challengers. Their emerging legend at point guard saw North through suspensions, improbable comebacks and his own benching.
In 1994-95, El-Amin was joined in the starting lineup by two other sophomores, Ozzie Lockhart and Jabbar Washington, a transfer from Minneapolis South. Adding to their potent offense was senior Chris Rainey.
Until the Saturday of the Sweet 16 final, when Rainey and Lockhart were declared academically ineligible.
The Polars regrouped. Kavon Westberry -- one of the replacement starters -- tipped in a rebound with three seconds left to give the Polars a 54-52 victory.
The next year, El-Amin saved them. Against St. Thomas Academy in the 1996 quarterfinals, he had 20 points by midway through the second quarter. Still, North trailed 65-64 with 5.5 seconds to play and the Cadets' Matthew Lee on the line.
Lee missed both free throws, giving El-Amin one final chance.
"We worked on those type of late-game situations in practice," El-Amin said. "I was able to get the ball ... in my sweet spot, take a few dribbles up the court and pull up."
His 23-foot shot was El-Amin's ninth three-pointer of the game -- then a tournament record -- and he finished with 41 points.
The celebration was almost as memorable as the final sequence: El-Amin spontaneously bounded atop the table of startled KMSP-TV announcers Dick Bremer and Jeff Grayson. His teammates -- as they always did -- followed their leader, up and over the table, into the North cheering section.
They secured title No. 2 two nights later with an 80-47 thumping of Fertile-Beltrami.
The biggest obstacles to the Polars' third title in 1997 were Hopkins and Charles and Arlene El-Amin. Khalid's parents sat him out of four games in January when his classroom performance was substandard.
"My mother and father always kept me grounded, in one way or another," El-Amin said.
North avenged an earlier loss to Hopkins by beating the Royals 59-48 in the Class 4A semifinals, with El-Amin scoring 23 points. One night later the Polars topped Stillwater 61-53 for the title.
El-Amin's basketball legacy spread wide after North's title years. He won an NCAA title with UConn in 1999. He was drafted in the second round by the Chicago Bulls, playing 50 games for them in 2000-01, before making professional overseas stops in France, Israel, Turkey, the Ukraine, Lithuania and Croatia.
When he's not earning a living in eastern Europe, he's likely back in north Minneapolis with his wife, Jessica, and their six children. He's the inspiration behind el-aminbasketball.com, a website designed to promote basketball and life skills through youth instructional camps and leagues.
"Growing up in north Minneapolis gave me a sense of pride," he said. "... I want to let that rub off on the young kids that are coming up. There's a lot of things going on, and it's not always easy growing up in the city, but hopefully I can be a role model for some of the kids there."