North's basketball teams were once nearly invincible; now the school's diminishing enrollment and uncertain future is tarnishing that legacy.
Malik El-Amin pointed toward the arched paneling above the entrance to the Minneapolis North High gym, where the No. 42 jersey perched in a frame. ¶ "That's his right there," the senior point guard said.¶ The white-and-blue jersey of his uncle, Khalid El-Amin, is one of the few visual reminders of the days when the star guard roamed the halls during the heart of a basketball-fueled heyday at the school.¶ "He tells me all about the old times," Malik said. "Now ... it's pretty empty."
Malik is quick to point to last year's city conference title and a roster with five players averaging in double figures. But it's hard not to view the boys' modest success as a bright spot on a tarnished canvas.
The often-barren hallways, small classes and dwindling attendance are far cries from the former glory days of the 123-year-old institution, which has seen enrollment shrivel 75 percent in six years to around 265 kids and is in the process of phasing out the current school.
The boys' basketball team has not reached the state tournament since 2003. The girls' team is 2-17 and has lost by at least 60 points 10 times. Both won numerous state titles from the mid-90s to mid-2000s.
"They have no idea how good we were," said Jabbar Washington, who played with Khalid El-Amin and Ozzie Lockhart as part of the "Big Three" when North won three consecutive state titles from 1995 to '97 and now is an assistant coach. "I don't even talk about it anymore, because it was so long ago, and they don't even understand. It's just different, man."
The glory days
Every Thursday, a group of guys who grew up at North during the '90s get together to play poker. They remember pregame rituals and reflect on what they couldn't have known then: the impact the school's teams had, producing handfuls of college and professional stars, energizing a community and making resonating political statements.
"The amount of people we reached, it's staggering," said Washington, who said strangers still stop him to reminisce.
North's basketball dominance started in the 1980s under coach Tony Queen. After he left and Robin Ingram took over, he and the "Big Three" brought the community three consecutive state titles in the '90s.
"It fueled me to want to be even better, to bring the winning tradition back to North," Khalid El-Amin said. "When I walked in the gym and smelled the popcorn, that just sent goose bumps all over my body, because I felt the electricity through the whole building."
Said Brett McNeal, who was named Mr. Basketball in 1985, played at Western Kentucky and coached the Polars boys' team in the 2000s: "It was big-time community entertainment. People would ... take off work and get to the North High gym. That line would be wrapped all the way around our building to the back parking lot."
The girls' program came into power with the hiring of Faith Johnson (now Faith Johnson Patterson, who became the girls' coach at DeLaSalle in 2009) in 1994. She took a program that hadn't reached state in 17 years to the big event for nine consecutive seasons, winning five titles from 1997 to 2005. Behind her, the team changed its name to the Lady Polars to help establish its own identity.
For a community that couldn't pour a ton of resources into the teams and had suffered from a reputation of crime and drugs, North's success on the court -- though under the framework of entertainment -- made some realize there was more going on than just basketball.
"We understood that outside our community, people only had an image of us based on what they saw on TV, which was mostly negative," McNeal said. "But when we played ... they [saw] there's a lot of good in the community. It helped bring down the stereotypes."
Rumors become facts
The rumors began seeping from classroom to court to surrounding houses long before any plans were formally announced. But in the fall of 2010, suspicions that North would close grew tangible legs.
Given the dramatic drop in enrollment and the fact that North had the lowest academic achievement scores among Minneapolis public schools, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson recommended in October a "phase out" of the current school by 2014. If North had 125 new students enrolled by March 31, it would take a final freshman class, but the district-wide school choice cards that were due last week listed North as the first preference for only 34 current eighth-graders.
"It's clear that families on the north side are not choosing North as a comprehensive high school option," MPS official Rachel Hicks said.
In November -- backed by community support -- Minneapolis Public Schools revealed a plan to implement a "new North" program as the old was being phased out. But administrators have not established exactly what that means for the projected fall 2012 launch. Hicks said the expected location is undetermined and start-up funding sources have not been confirmed.
The answer to North's tumble can hardly be reconciled with a clean, solitary explanation. Rather, it is the result of myriad decisions, policy changes and administration failures, told through a raw tapestry of voices that reflect the weariness many feel when they look toward the uncertain future.
"How does a school that has so much tradition get to this point?" questioned a half-angry, half-bewildered Tamara Moore, the 1998 Miss Basketball for the Lady Polars, who went on to play in the WNBA and overseas, as she glanced over the mostly vacant bleachers at the North-Roosevelt boys' game last week. "If this school fails, it will be no one's fault but the people in the community and at the school that allowed it to happen."
Many believe open enrollment -- a policy fully implemented in 1990 allowing students to attend schools outside their district of residence -- was a detriment to North. Initially, it might have helped the North girls' team, which took in several significant transfer students, including 1999 Miss Basketball Mauri Horton. Boys' team tryouts surged from 80 kids to 120.
"But everybody can't play," Patterson said. "Everybody can't come over to one school."
Also significant in recent years were the closing of Franklin Middle and Lincoln and Willard Elementary -- schools that fed many students to North.
As budgets got slashed, many facets of the sports programs fell by the wayside. Championship banners went unbought and unhung; coaches went without raises or new equipment. McNeal, among others, suggested some at the school resented North's reputation as a basketball school.
"There's no excuse for that," said Kale Severson, president of the North alumni association, who pointed out the outdated scoreboard and part-time status of the athletic director. "We've had some really bad leadership here ... people always have excuses to blame someone else."
Athletic director Jeff Buszta said with scant funding, it's hard to do everything. "When you have to buy uniforms and a lot of other things, what is the most important thing?" he said.
As talks of closing swirled, kids began transferring, administration began turning over and enrollment plunged. Football coach Charles Adams said athletes were panicking last summer about not having a team -- mostly because the AD, principal and previous football staff left, and the school communicated little to students.
In Patterson's final season at North in 2009, her squad -- with four eighth-graders playing key roles, none of whom are at North now -- reached the Class 3A title game.
"But I knew we had to win in order for that tradition to continue once again, because if you don't they don't have it up on the walls, it's like history is lost," Patterson said. "I had to prove to those kids all over again what the hell we had accomplished."
In 2007, McNeal left the team he thought he'd retire from; two years later, Patterson followed suit. "The weirdest day of my life," she said. "It was extremely difficult because we worked so hard to build it up."
Looking back, ahead
Two weeks ago, Patterson and McNeal sat on familiar wooden bleachers, absorbing the half-empty shell of a gym.
"It was painful to me," McNeal said. "It felt deserted. I wasn't ready for that."
Said Keenan Shelton, the current boys' coach: "It's had an impact ... but we're going to focus on things that are within our control. I tried to bring basketball as that safe haven to remove them from what might happen with the high school."
"Nobody fears North anymore," said Moore, who said her attempt to put together a fundraising alumni game to celebrate the school's history was shut down by administration. "It used to be 'North's coming, we've got to get our game up.' Now it's 'Did you hear what happened to North?'"
Many say the school is dying an "unnatural death," and emotions run high. While most cling to the power of their achievements, many can't help but wonder what eventually will become of the history.
"To me, it will be exactly that -- history," Moore said.
But some -- even among current players -- will never forget.
"Malik hasn't experienced the North that we know, but he's no less true a Polar -- he eats, sleeps and drinks it," Makram El-Amin said of his son, who gathered players at Broadway Pizza this summer to persuade them to stay, and this fall gave tours of the school to eighth-graders. "A part of me hurts a little bit for him, because he's so loyal through all the turmoil, that he did not get the chance to experience a little more success."
One night, Malik's grandmother called Makram and told him Malik had stressed to her he felt he "needed to continue the legacy and rebuild it."
"I was blown away," Makram said. "He's really internalized all this stuff. He takes losses really hard."
But Malik realizes, though his pride is unbent, that his North likely never will be the same as the old version.
"It's hard at first, because I kind of wanted to do what [Khalid] did," Malik said. "I found myself questioning myself, wondering if I was doing enough or if I was living up to my name. But he told me everyone's road is different."
And while the El-Amins are perhaps among those who know the most of North's basketball history, the family is also well aware of the damage.
"In some cases, change is good," Makram said. "After a while, things get so big, you can't stop on a dime and turn and go a different direction, so you almost have to let it fall away and then rebuild without the restrictions. This is a political time right now -- it's an open wound for the community.
"Whatever happens, people are watching."
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