A state-tournament three-peat under a series of unusual circumstances made the Minneapolis North Polars a force in the 1990s.
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.
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. Reasonable 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 should we 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.
Title I: The suspensions
The pieces began coming together for the Polars in 1994-95. Senior Chris Rainey was a talented scorer. Sophomore Jabbar Washington, a 6-2 leaper, transferred in from Minneapolis South. Ozzie Lockhart, another sophomore with a zone-breaking outside shot, joined the starting lineup. And El-Amin did what he’s always done best: lead.
The Polars’ confidence grew, as did the pressure of being undefeated. They polished off White Bear Lake and Cretin-Derham Hall in the first “Sweet 16” tournament to reach the final at 29-0 against Staples-Motley.
And then it all seemed to fall apart. Starters Rainey and Lockhart were declared academically ineligible on the day of the final.
“It took the wind out of us at first,” El-Amin said. “... We had a little meeting within the team right before the game, and we were able to come together. We were going to need everyone else to step up.”
Kavon Westberry was one of those players moving into the starting lineup, and it was his rebound tip with three seconds left that gave the Polars a 54-52 victory and their second title, the first since 1980.
The repeat: Miracle finish
The second title almost didn’t happen, either. El-Amin made sure it did.
Against St. Thomas Academy in the 1996 quarterfinals, El-Amin sizzled from the start. He had 20 points with 4:54 left in the second quarter, yet the Polars struggled to keep pace with the tall, physical Cadets. St. Thomas Academy led 63-59 with 36.1 seconds left.
Then El-Amin got really hot. He made two free throws, then a three-pointer, but North still trailed 65-64 with 5.5 seconds to play and the Cadets’ Matthew Lee on the line. Lee missed both free throws, Westberry sent an outlet pass up the sideline to Lockhart, and he found El-Amin sprinting near mid-court.
“We worked on those type of late-game situations in practice, trying to get the ball up the court as fast as possible,” El-Amin said. “I was able to get the ball in the middle of the court, 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, a tournament record since broken, and he finished 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 and the Polars — as they always did — followed their leader, up and over the table into the North cheering section. Title No. 2 was secured two nights later with an 80-47 thumping of Fertile-Beltrami.
The three-peat: Grounded
Few teams could stop El-Amin, but his parents did.
Charles and Arlene El-Amin weren’t pleased with how their son was applying himself in school during the 1996-97 season, so they pulled him off the Polars for four games in January. North went 3-1 during that stretch as El-Amin agonizingly waited to get back on the court.
“My mother and father always kept me grounded, in one way or another,” El-Amin said. “When my grades weren’t up to their standards, to the way I should have been performing in the classroom, they brought me back to the ground and got me back level-headed.”
His perspective adjusted and his motivation primed, El-Amin played inspired ball for the rest of his senior year. He scored 23 points as the Polars avenged a 67-61 overtime loss to Hopkins during the regular season — in which El-Amin fouled out with 6:16 remaining in regulation — by beating the Royals 59-48 in the Class 4A semifinals. El-Amin then scored 26 points in the final to help the Polars beat Stillwater 61-53 and become the second Minnesota boys team (after Edina’s 1966-68 run) to win three consecutive state titles.
Basketball citizen of the world
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 behindel-aminbasketball.com, a website designed to promote basketball and life skills through youth instructional camps and leagues.
But despite his travels around the world, El-Amin’s roots have grown deep in the neighborhood where the Polars became part of Minnesota high school basketball history.
“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.”