This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

Where are they now: Former Gopher Lawrence McKenzie funnels passion once reserved for basketball into music

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 16, 2014 - 11:39 AM

Check out McKenzie's MTV.com bio here and follow him on Twitter here. 

Former Gophers guard Lawrence McKenzie remembers first hearing the sounds as a  toddler. 

There was his grandfather, a schoolteacher, but to the Minneapolis northside youth a musician. There was Fred Steele, the famous gospel artist, next door. There was Cornbread Harris, the singer/pianist and father of Jimmy Jam, who made his home just across the street.

The rhymes and rhythms echo even now, in McKenzie's mind. 

You gotta go to the block. You're gonna do this. You don't stop.

Then, it was a game. His granddad rhymed just about everything. 

But three years after expiring his eligibility with the Gophers, McKenzie, a northside native, has made those casual beats his life.

"I feel like that was definitely a huge influence on me, just hearing those rhyme schemes, hearing how he put them together," McKenzie said. "I would hear instruments constantly. Fred on piano, Cornbread on Sax."

For two years, after transferring from the University of Oklahoma, McKenzie played for the University of Minnesota, being named to the All-Big Ten third team his senior year. These days, McKenzie -- who graduated with a degree in business and marketing -- has mostly tucked away his high tops, and gets a different introduction that the one he received over the loud speaker at the start of home games.

As "Mac Irv," McKenzie -- who performed at the Pourhouse on Aug. 31 -- has produced three albums, toured the Midwest and done shows as big as this summer's Soundset, which was held at Cantebury Park in May. On Sept. 25, he'll be at The Union Bar in Iowa City, opening for CyHi the Prynce.

It's the second act for an athlete whose basketball career fizzled in 2011 after hip surgery was slow to heal.

For most of McKenzie's life, basketball was the focus. After leading Minneapolis Patrick Henry High School -- coached by his father, Larry -- to four state championships, McKenzie accepted a scholarship to Oklahoma. There, guard had a strong freshman season, averaging 8.2 points, 1.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds a game. But as his sophomore season began, nothing felt the same. 

He couldn't stop on a dime the way he always could. He lost his explosiveness. He'd try to go past a defender on a routine cut to the basket and find he didn't have the legs to beat out his man.

But no one could tell that anything was hurt or tweaked so McKenzie kept playing. At Minnesota, he managed 14.9 points a game and 3.4 rebounds in his junior year, but by his senior season, those numbers slid back to 11.8 and 2.3, respectively.

McKenzie was losing confidence, and his love for the game. The NBA, which the Minnesotan always saw as his destined home, wasn't interested. Instead, he went overseas to Macedonia for half a year, then headed to the D-league. Still something was wrong, so finally McKenzie insisted on an MRI.

The results brought the answer to McKenzie's flummoxing slide. The doctor found two torn hip labrums, injuries McKenzie should have had surgery for five years prior, he told him.

First, McKenzie was angry. Then he prayed. His hips still weren't healing. It was time to move on.

He put his frustrations, his love, his loss from basketball on paper.

I've been down this road before
I know exactly what you need
I left you once and came right back
To represent you in the league.
I wore your name across my chest
You stayed so close to my heart
I nearly lost the path to get you my life was falling apart.

"It was a tough 2-3 months, but music came right in as my passion," McKenzie said. "All the passion I had for basketball, I just turned around to music. That's what got me here."

It's worked out well for McKenzie, who supplements the money he makes from music with a part-time job training young basketball players at 43 Hoops in Hopkins -- working long days in the summertime before hitting the recording studio at midnight.

He write about his experiences growing up on the North side; his family; his two daughters, Kailah and Lauren; basketball.

"To be honest, that's all I write about," he said. "I write about my experiences. I write about what I've been through because someone might be able to relate. 

"You've got to give people a chance to grow with you, figure out if they like where you came from and if they like how you are built."

Many of his fans aren't aware he even played basketball in a former life. Even for McKenzie, walking into the Barn is like walking into another world. It's hard for him to believe, sometimes, that he once walked out onto that floor, under those lights.

These new lights are different, but they aren't any less satisfying. In some ways, McKenzie feels lucky. He got a new start, and found another dream.

"I'm not exactly where I want to be in life, not at all," he said. "I feel like I'm supposed to be in the NBA. I feel like I'm suppose to be making millions. But you know what? I had a setback. That doesn't mean I have to give up. And people are inspired by that."

Other quotes from McKenzie:

On "Sweetest Joy," which he wrote in honor of his two daughters (who have different mothers): I wanted them to have something that they could understand, even when I'm gone. When they're 18, 19, they can go back and listen to what I meant for them, That's not the way I wanted it to work out. I had a mom and a dad, I had both of my parents. I don't know what I would have done if my parents weren't around. But I just wanted to let them know that I'll be there regardless and I know life's not perfect but we're going to make the best of it.

On "Hometown," a song about where he grew up: I was finishing a mixtape and the producer I'm with now sent me the tune. I just wanted to get the mix tape out, I didn't want to do another [song], but the producer sent it anyway. And it just sparked something in me. I've been the Minnesota guy. Even though I left, I always loved Minnesota. Regardless of where I went, I always wanted to come back to Minnesota.

On inspiring people through music: I feel like my job, especially as an African American male is to give kids an example of what they can do to be successful. On the road to success, I feel like my vehicle got stalled, and I was able to hot-wire another one to keep going ... I've talked to kids that say 'There ain't no way off the streets. The only thing there is for me is dead or in jail.' No it's not. You may think that but it's not like that. You have plenty of opportunities. And I just wanted a voice to say that.

His favorite memories at Minnesota:
The Blake Hoffarber shot. That was one of my best memories. And just being around all my teammates was amazing. I love that I had the opportunity to play for Tubby Smith... and my granddad is passed now, but on senior day, he came. I had zero points in the first half and I remember I thought I cannot be out here embarrassed with my granddad at the game. I ended up having 20 points in the second half and we won the game.

What he misses the most:
The competition out there playing. The arenas, the crowds. I'm a competitor so I miss being out there, I miss going hard. You know what the crazy thing about it is? I miss the workouts. Running stairs, I miss that. I miss sweating like that, I miss being that tired. I really do. Even now, I work out, but I can't work out to that extent because of my injury (and not pushed the same way).

On his impressions of the Minnesota program now:
It's exciting to watch those guys, it's excited to see what [new coach Richard] Pitino is doing, how they play up and down, how they're pressing. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens in the future. I'm just excited to see where the program goes in the future.
I thought it was really good, even from talking to the players. I heard it from the inside source. I hear that they're comfortable and they're enjoying it. Basketball players, you've got to feel comfortable, you've got to believe that your coach believes in you. 
I like the way they're playing. I wish that I could play for them.


 

More Q&A from new Minnesota recruit Jarvis Johnson's decision day

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 15, 2014 - 1:15 PM

I wrote about new Jarvis Johnson's commitment to the Gophers and the shift in recruiting culture at University of Minnesota in Saturday's paper.

But the 6-foot-1 local point guard touched on several topics at his commitment announcement at DeLaSalle on Friday afternoon.

A few other notes from Q&As with Johnson, his coach, Dave Thorton and his mother:


Johnson:
 

Q: As you know, Minnesota has already gotten commitments from two guards that play at the point and shooting guard. Have you thought playing with a bunch of guards and how you'll fit in?
A: I have. This past year, [Minnesota] played three guards. I just want to fit in with those two guards and play my role.

Q: Do you think that role means playing off the ball a little more?
A: It could. In AAU season, I played with Tyus, played more off the ball a little more, so I don't think it will be too much of an issue.

Q: When did you know you wanted to go to Minnesota?
A: I had a dream one night ... when a recruit goes on a visit to a basketball game, you can see the players running out when they say their name. And I just had a dream that [a jersey] said No. 12 and Johnson. And that's when I knew.

Q: You had five visits scheduled, four more after Minnesota (Wisconsin, Baylor, UNLV and Wichita State), but opted to skip the rest and commit. Was that a tough decision?
A: At first it kind of was, but I kind of knew that I didn't want to go. I knew I needed to be home with everybody.

Q: When did you tell coach Ricard Pitino & assistant coach Ben Johnson (who was the main assistant recruiting him)?
A: I told them on Monday, so it's been a while.

Q: What was the week of sitting on your news like?
A: It was kind of nerve-wracking. I already knew I was going to the U but nobody else knew. There were rumors that I already committed, but I didn't want to speak too much on it.

Q: Does it feel like weight off your shoulders now?
A: (Johnson makes a face to show just how much it has)
Yes. The recruiting process was a lot. I enjoyed it but after a while it just becomes a lot and there is so much you have to deal with.

Q: You know new Minnesota transfer Zach Lofton pretty well from AAU. How much of an impact did that make on your decision?
A: It was fun. I knew Zach since I was younger, so we kind of built the relationship to now. I actually didn't know he was coming back to the University, but when I found out, it kind of gave me a little more reason to go there.

Q: Was there any one thing that really persuaded you to commit to Minnesota the most?
A: Knowing that these four here [gestures to mom, dad, brother and sister] can come to any game, to be honest.

Q: You've been on campus a ton because you live so close. Was the official visit very different?
A: A little bit. I've been there so much. But it's different when you finally get an official.

Q: A lot of local guys have spurned the Gophers in recent years. Do you feel like your commitment could start a trend for Minnesota recruits to stay home?
A: I'm sure it does. There aren't many people that have stayed here, from Minnesota. I'm sure they might want to stay [now].

Q: Will you work on those guys though?
A: Ah, yeah, I'll try.

Q: Have you thought about the expectations that come along with playing at your home-town school?
A: A little bit. I try not to pressure myself too much. I just want to enjoy it.

 

Dave Thorton, Johnson's coach at DeLaSalle:

Q: At the start of the summer, Johnson was ranked at 80-something nationally on rivals.com. Now he's not even in the top 150. Are you surprised by that?
A: It's amazing to me that they don't recognize what this kid has done through the season ... I'm not worried about that I'm worried about making sure he gets where he needs to go.
Anyone that saw Jarvis ... playing in our program in the summer -- and guess what it's outside of the recruiting period, it's not at the EYBl -- but they were awesome. The show that Jarvis put on at Minnesota's team camp.
Some of that in my mind is ridiculous ... I laugh at that.

Q:Minnesota has gotten commitments from a bunch of 2015 guards now. How do you see Johnson fitting into that?
A: Obviously Jarvis is a point guard in high school but even as a freshman we had to slide him over and play him at the 2 because we had a great senior point guard in Tyler Moore. The one thing I appreciate about coaching Jarvis is it's all about winning. It's not I need X amount of shots. Everyone around him is like that. That's how we have success ... You look at how college basketball has evolved. In the last two years we've seen teams really playing with two lead guards. Look no further than UConn, Arizona.
I think from a style perspective, it's less an issue because of how coach Pitino wants to play offense.

Q: What do you think Johnson needs to improve in his game?
A: I think he still has upside in a couple of different areas. One is that I think he's got to tighten up some of his footwork from a shooting perspective
...As he develops physically from a strength perspective ... that's something he needs to be even more invested in. We do it here but it's something that the stronger he can be -- and I know what it takes to go to East Lansing and win or go to Columbus, go to Ann Arbor. You can't go in there without your body being at an apex level.
He's not weak obviously, but I'm talking about being a freshman in the Big Ten and being able to handle the sort of physical play that he'll see in that league. I think that's another area he's got to concentrate on ... for him to be an impact guy, he's got to continue to do that.

Q: Has he put on weight this summer?
A: He's stronger. He's done a pretty nice job of that. I get frustrated with the AAU season and the way it's constructed because it is hard to consistently lift.

Q: Was the timing of Johnson's recruitment one of the major differences between him and [DeLaSalle gradutate] Reid Travis, who chose Stanford over Minnesota last year?
A: They [Pitino and the staff] did a great job kind of digging out of a hole to get in the position they were with [Travis]. And I know that was hard for Ben [Johnson, who recruited them both]. But in both situations, they have done the right stuff. Richard has proven that. He is wise beyond his years. The way that he builds relationships and the consistency. Recruiting is sometimes all about hype and that's fake, that's false...Richard understands that. At least in this situation, he's done a marvelous job.

Q: Do you think it was a tough decision for Johnson to turn down all the schools he did?
A: It's a tough decision when you've got Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State, UNLV, Baylor, Maryland, Georgia Tech ... my sense is that Jarvis' relationship was so strong with that coaching staff and liking the players and feeling comfortable that it became a pretty easy decision for him.

Q: Do you think his commitment will help open the pipeline for other local recruits to follow?
A: I sure hope so for the Gophers, and I know how that works. I think we're going to have more players here at DeLaSalle, I have to tell all of you. We've got two more seniors [in Sacar Anim and Josh Collins], we've got other underclassmen that I think are going to be able to play at that level. So at least here, I think that will happen.

Q: Did you feel like the recruiting process was much different than that of former coach Tubby Smith?
A: I think they've taken a different approach than what Smith did and that approach, at least in this situation, was extremely effective. DeLaSalle is a place that is built on relationships. I think it's pretty obvious that it's more than just basketball... I get the sense that relationship-building is something he's really emphasized in terms of how he's spread the word about his program. So I think in that way, it's probably a little different.

Q: Other factors in Johnson's decision?
A: We've all had a season. How are you going to play? We didn't know that ...there's a lot of coach-speak out there. They may talk one way in recruiting and not play that way. Now we know how Pitino is going to play, and how he said he was going to play, he's doing it.


Tanisha Johnson, Jarvis' mother:

Q: The recruiting process can be long and overwhelming, not just on the player but on the parents as well. Do you feel relief today also?
A: I feels like the weight of the world is off my shoulders. I don't think he got confused, I think it was just overwhelming -- toward the end it was. You meet a lot of great people. You meet a lot of great coaches, players. And then you have to cut that off because you can only go to one school at the end of the day. And he felt the University was that for him.

Q: You've been around the university quite a bit as well. What is your impression?
A: Coach Pitino, whatever he's told us is happening. He's a man of his word so I solely trust him with Jarvis.

Q: How big is that for you, to send off Jarvis to a school that you know so well and are comfortable at?
A: It's amazing. That's your kid that you're turning over to somebody for the next four years. So for me to be able to trust him with my son, that's exciting to me.

Q: Are you looking forward to attending games?
A: I'm excited. Me and my husband, we're looking to move downtown. We're so excited. It's just me and him.My daughter goes to Iowa State, my oldest son has already graduated from college so I told him we might as well go downtown and be closer to Jarvis!



 

Local recruit Jarvis Johnson commits to Minnesota

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 12, 2014 - 5:20 PM

As expected, 2015 recruit Jarvis Johnson officially announced his commitment to the University of Minnesota on Friday afternoon at DeLaSalle High School. 

After being introduced by coach Dave Thorson, the Brooklyn Park native strode to the podium flanked by his parents and two older siblings -- including sister Tyseanna, who plays at Iowa State -- and made a short speech, pausing to remind the crowd of friends, students and media that he was nervous.

Then, the moment Gophers fans were denied a year ago at this spot, with now-Stanford freshman Reid Travis at the center of the room:

"I gave more thought and time to my college decision, and in the end I realized it was important to come back to where I started the process," Johnson said.

Cheers erupted as he pulled a maroon hat with a gold brim from the white plastic bag he was clutching, and pulled it over his head.

"I'm proud to announce I've accepted a scholarship to the university of Minnesota. I look forward to joining coach Pitino, coach Johnson and all the other coaches at the Minnesota ... I can't wait to work with the coaches and teammates to bring a championship back to the U."

Johnson is one of four 2015 recruits for Minnesota. Guards Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer, along with center Jonathan Nwankwo have already voiced their commitments.

**check back here and in tomorrow's paper for more coverage on Johnson's decision.

Bierman Field Athletic Building gets basketball upgrades

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 11, 2014 - 11:40 AM

Photo tweeted by Richard Pitino

The University of Minnesota recently announced it has accumulated $40 million in committed donations to go towards athletic director Norwood Teague’s pet project: his $190 master facilities plan for Gophers sports.

But no shovel has touched the earth yet, and basketball coach Richard Pitino isn’t going to wait.

In the meantime, he and his staff have organized notable renovations to Bierman Field Athletic Building, which Pitino has promptly transformed into a make-shift practice facility for the team.

“I truly do believe Norwood Teague will raise whatever money he needs to raise and certainly [the $40 million announcement] is an indication of that, but it’s my job to make the best of whatever situation we have,” Pitino said.

“I’m not going to sit back and wait. Every year, every recruiting class that we have is way too important.”

When Pitino arrived in April of 2013, the Gophers were practicing at Wililams Arena, which is also used by the women’s team, wrestling team, gymnastics team, cheerleading team and other high school events. They weight trained at Mariucci Arena. Most of their classes and academic tutoring were held on the other side of campus.

In Bierman, Pitino saw potential to change all of that. After putting up a wall to separate the court from view, the team began regularly practicing there.

And in the last couple of months, the Gophers have decorated their new home.

These days, Bierman’s walls are decked with pictures of each player on the team and murals of the Barnyard and Williams Arena. The entryway has been re-painted in snazzy fashion, with new detailed accents leading into the court area. A new locker room – the old one was built to hold about four people, center Mo Walker said – is in progress.

Photo tweeted by Richard Pitino

“We have 12 to 13 people, so it’s good to have a much bigger space for all of us to fit in,” Walker said.

Last summer, the Gophers revamped the weight room in the building, which is used by numerous programs, adding new machines and effectively moving the team out of Mariucci. Bierman houses the team’s academic counselors and tutors as well.

“They’re really excited about it,” Pitino said of the players. “Austin Hollins was saying as he was leaving [to take a professional contract in France] ‘Boy, I wish we had this.’

Already, the new setup is catching the eyes of the next wave of potential Gophers.

DeLaSalle’s Jarvis Johnson, one of the Gophers’ top targets for 2015, eyed the changes to Bierman on his official visit last weekend.

“I really liked it,” he said, “Knowing that they work fast. From the time I was there for the team camp, there has been a lot of progress made there. I like what they’re trying to do with the building.”

What Pitino likes, more than anything, is the convenience the new arrangement gives the players.

“They can now lift in a state-of-the-art weight room upstairs,” he said. “They can now practice in a beautiful-looking gym. And now they can do a lot of their academic stuff, all in one building. Everyone talks about practice facilities and the arms race and all that, and that’s all well and good but at the end of the day, you want to make all this stuff as accessible as possible for all your players. We’ve gotten to that point, which I’m really excited about."

**The Gophers are also renovating their locker room at Williams Arena, which is outdated and compact. They added a barber chair in the arena building as well. The locker room will be completed by the start of the season.

“We’re redoing really the whole blueprint of the locker room,” Pitino said. “I don’t know if its going to be bigger, it’s just going to be newer. I don’t know that that locker room has been touched for many, many years. Just brand new lockers and just trying to make it look as nice as possible.”

**All photos were tweeted by Pitino.

Jarvis Johnson: Official visit at Minnesota was fun

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: September 10, 2014 - 11:03 AM

With 6-foot-10 center Jonathan Nwankwo committing on Friday night, Minnesota has one scholarship for the 2015 class remaining. 

One of their top targets? Local guard Jarvis Johnson. The 6-foot-1 DeLaSalle senior took an official visit to the university in his backyard this past weekend, along with Nwankwo, who committed the night he arrived.

Johnson, a three-star recruit according to rivals.com who has been on campus unofficially many times previously, has four more official visits set up right now: Wisconsin on Sept. 19, then Wichita State (Oct. 3), UNLV (Oct. 10) and Baylor (Oct. 17). Minnesota coach also visited him at DeLaSalle on Friday morning.

I caught up with him to see how his latest trip to Minnesota went.

I imagine this trip was pretty different from previous visits for you. What did you do over the weekend?
Friday, I ate breakfast with coach Ben Johnson. Later in the day, I got to go to a class with Zach Lofton and got to see how that was. Then, I went to dinner with my family [his mom, dad and brother came along for the trip] and coach Pitino. We went to the football game on Saturday, football was most of the day, and then we went to go eat dinner at coach's house, which was fun. I got to chat with the players a little bit.

Did you feel like you got to know those guys a little bit?
I believe a little bit. I already knew Zach a little bit more than all the other guys. So I guess I did.

What about Nate Mason? Obviously you'd be playing a lot with him in the backcourt if you chose Minnesota.
Me and Nate did connect a little bit. We chatted just today. He was just seeing how things were going. While I was on the visit, him and Zach are roommates so while he was there, we got to chat a little bit about AAU, playing against him (and his CP3 team) last year.

How well did you know Zach before he came here?
His high school team beat my high school team when I was an eighth grader. I kind of knew him before that. We actually were in the same AAU program when we were younger.

Do you consider him good friend?
Yep, he is. My dad grew up with his dad.

Does that influence you at all towards Minnesota?
Not really. Zach just made it more comfortable. He just showed me around a little bit. But I don't think it had too much of an influence.

Did you get a chance to watch them play at all?
I got to see individual workouts, but I didn't get to see them run up and down.

What did you think of the upgrades to Bierman Athletic Building [which has a new court area and locker rooms]?
I really liked it. Knowing that they work fast. From the time I was in there for the team camp, there has been a lot of progress that has been made there. I like what they're trying to do with the building. 

Did you feel like it looked a lot different?
It most definitely did.

How were the fans? Overhear anything at TCF Bank Stadium during the football game?
Yeah, it was crazy. As soon as I walked out of the tunnel, they just started chanting my name. It was cool to see though. I really enjoyed that part a lot. It was kind of a surprise moment, but it kind of just made me laugh a little bit.

Did you talk to any fans directly?
A couple people here and there.

What did they say?
They were just joking around, saying 'We'd love to put a banner up' if I could be committed to the U of M.

Jonathan Nwankwo was there also -- how'd you get along with him? Did the two of you get to talk?
He just told me how interested he was when he got there. It's not what he expected, so it was kind of a surprise for him, that's why I think he committed. He told me he really enjoyed his time there. That's about it. We didn't really communicate about any of the recruitment stuff.

Why do you think it wasn't what he expected?
I think him being from down south, going to school in Florida, he kind of expected Minnesota to be cold and icy and stuff like that. But you could tell he was really enjoying himself.

Did he try to recruit you after he committed?
Ah, not really. He's more of a quiet, laid back type of guy. I'm sure he was hoping I was going to say I was going there as soon as him but he didn't really try.

You've said you plan on committing around November. Is there a chance you could commit sooner?
There's a chance it could be before then, I'm not too sure. It depends on how the next visit goes.

Would you ever commit before finishing your visits?
I believe so. It's however comfortable I get with a school or just talking with family. It all depends.

Did you get to tour the academic facilities at all?
I talked to the academic counselor that's in Bierman, but other than that I didn't really get to see any of the other academic pieces of the school.

Any ideas about what you want to major in?
I haven't really thought about it. That's a long ways from now.

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