Heads turned when Minneapolis Public Schools announced Trent Tucker would become the district’s new athletic director.
Paired with the excitement of hiring a former Gophers basketball star and NBA champion were questions.
What are his qualifications, especially given the challenges of nurturing sports in a big and difficult urban environment? Where is his administrative experience? Can he turn around what many consider a lost cause?
Overcoming doubt and distraction isn’t new to the 11-year NBA veteran, who landed the job with confident answers, experience raising money and an unwavering message focused on kids.
He is a product of the inner city. He is a Flint, Mich., native who aspires to create for Minneapolis youth the kind of hope that he was introduced to by community leaders when he was their age. These days, he says, “negativity doesn’t enter into my process.
“You do the best you can and with what you have,” Tucker said. “Someone that has been here longer than me may understand things more. … But I’m coachable. I’m fully invested. Willing to learn.”
It’s this mentality he believes will help him address serious issues bedeviling Minneapolis athletics. The city’s student-athletes are leaving for suburban schools. Negative influences are a daily battle in the urban environment. Facilities are old. Participation numbers are down.
The retirement last fall of then-athletic director John Washington prompted Tucker to pursue a more official title for helping inner-city youth. Up until then he had done so through his foundation, All 4 Kids, which helps underprivileged youth find direction and build a successful future.
As a former professional athlete, Tucker hopes to use his status — one that draws him extended greetings wherever he goes — to improve the district’s ability to network and fundraise.
But Tucker is not measuring success at the outset with brick-and-mortar plans or specific financial goals. Tucker said he first wants to listen to what the kids want to see change. The next step, fundraising, will show donors how an investment will make a positive return on a young person’s life.
Tucker’s goal, he explained, is to make sure students are moving in the right direction and that he and his staff are doing everything possible to give students the best chance to be successful. If he does that successfully, he believes city athletics will begin to turn around.
Tucker was the unanimous selection from among five finalists after one round of interviews. He exemplified most of chief administrative officer Mark Bollinger’s vision when he rewrote the high-profile job description. Bollinger sought someone who could offer an effective business plan, take action, analyze and communicate well.
Bollinger believes Tucker’s experience as an athlete, analyst, public speaker and head of his foundation provided the tools to fulfill the role. Any lack of experience, Bollinger said, was far outweighed by the unique benefits the former pro athlete could offer.
“His experience is all the way from when he was in school growing up,” Bollinger said. “We needed to be able to do something different.”
Foundation made a difference
Tucker also offered a vision to close the gap between his administrative office and the student-athletes. In three weeks on the job, he has visited most of the city’s public schools, beginning with North High and emphasizing the district’s middle schools. He listened to students and promised them hope for a better future.
“As a basketball player, my championship was a gold trophy. I believe as a school administrator, our championship is making sure our kids are well qualified for the future,” Tucker said. “Once you earn the trust of these kids, we have to keep our promises. It has to be about the kids.”
For the past 20 years, Tucker has sought to make a difference in young people’s lives.
After retiring from the NBA after the 1992-93 season, he returned to Minneapolis and started a youth foundation. The nonprofit has provided inner-city middle school-aged kids support to pursue a successful future.
Among them was Dominique Dawson. The then-Minneapolis middle-schooler needed someone to push and believe in him, he said. While his surroundings fluctuated from good to bad, he remembers, All 4 Kids was always there.
Dawson graduated from Minneapolis Southwest and became the first in his family to attend college. He earned a spot on the Gophers men’s basketball team before transferring to Kentucky Wesleyan in 2011 and becoming a big part of the Panthers’ program. He will graduate next year and plans to attend graduate school.
“I honestly don’t think I’d be where I am now if it wasn’t for that program,” Dawson said. “I think [Tucker is] the kind of person that is going to care enough to push and do the right things and get people the help they need.”
Adapting his skills to a new role
The foundation and Tucker’s message earned respect in Minneapolis. Near the end of Washington’s tenure, assistant district AD Dave Wicker worked with Tucker to get him more involved in district initiatives.
“He understands kids. He understands the difficulties we have. And he’s got an excellent work ethic,” Wicker said. “With the few groups we’ve met with, he’s done a wonderful job of connecting with the kids.
“He has the credibility. He comes from an urban background and he was successful not only in his athletic career, but academically.”
In 2005, Tucker returned to the University of Minnesota to finish his degree.
Tucker plans to rely on Wicker for administrative muscle. Bollinger will be his administrative mentor.
Communicating and fundraising will be Tucker’s specialties. He said he’s raised millions of dollars for his foundation with the help of former teammates Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and many others.
Minneapolis South athletic director Mark Sanders said he expects Tucker’s background and qualifications will suit him well in his new job.
“He’s not the prototypical hire at 53 [years old]. But he knew what his desire was,” said Dave Sinykin, Tucker’s co-host of the weekend KFAN radio show ‘‘In the Zone.” “He can show various schools in Minneapolis the street smarts kind of life. He’s lived his life a certain way and brings a fresh approach from the outside.”
Tucker plans to continue his radio show and NBA TV analyst work but they will take a back seat to his new district role. He plans to use those platforms to spread his vision for city athletics.