Plenty of hoopla filled the gym at Minneapolis North Community High School, home of the six-time boys’ basketball state champion Polars, on a recent frigid Friday night. The Patrick Henry Patriots have made their once-a-year trip to North for the latest installment of the best rivalry in Minnesota high school basketball.
The gym has a stated capacity of 850 but a rough count confirms nearly twice that many, laughing and shaking hands and dancing in the stands to hip-hop that everyone seems to know. It’s below zero outside, but the gym is heating up and the main event is still a half-hour from tip-off.
Through it all, Leo Lewis rarely cracks a smile. It’s not that the former Vikings wide receiver is immune to his surroundings. In fact, a portion of the credit for the atmosphere is courtesy of the third-year athletic director at North.
But for Lewis, there’s business at hand. Locker rooms need to be opened and concession workers lined up. Bleachers must be readied, plus a dozen other responsibilities running on an endless mental list. Lewis’ wary eyes scan the crowd, making sure hijinks don’t turn into lowlights.
For the person overseeing North athletics as its boys’ basketball and football programs have won state titles and rekindled community pride, there will be time for smiles and laughter later. With little fanfare, he attends to the smallest details, all in the name of supporting student-athletes who often get little support at home.
“I don’t have anybody here working with me, except for some part-time help on game days,” Lewis said. “Eventually, everything falls into my lap anyway. I don’t mind. I grew up humble. I’ve always had to work hard for everything I’ve got.”
Small stature, big results
Anyone who was a Vikings fan in the 1980s remembers Lewis. He was the 5-9 little guy, the overachiever, the low-key receiver/kick returner who was often overlooked until he stepped on the field.
“As a short guy, I always had to work the hardest,” Lewis said. “That made me driven to be the best I could be, not just in athletics but in academics. That’s how I ended up getting a Ph.D.”
Officially, he is Dr. Leo Lewis. But the title doesn’t mean he’s hobnobbing at cocktail parties or using his name to open doors. There’s nothing easy about being an athletic director at a public school in the city.
True to his nature, Lewis’ contributions are rarely splashy but have built a solid foundation for North’s athletic program. His willingness to tackle any job, no matter how small, have freed up his coaches to do what they do best. Lewis makes sure new uniforms are purchased, a workable schedule is created, eligibility requirements are met, facilities are safe and usable, meetings are attended.
“We want the kids to know the school is a safe place,’’ Lewis said. “A lot of them are homeless or have a home life where they don’t feel safe. It’s important to keep kids interested and passionate about sports but also accept the role of student-athlete. We have to fight to keep students thinking about their proper role and valuing academics.”
While big suburban schools add fieldhouses and video scoreboards in multimillion dollar upgrades, Lewis has come to appreciate, and find fulfillment in, the little victories.
North, on the verge of closing in 2010, recently updated its fitness center. The football stadium still doesn’t have lights, but the plaza was recently repaved and the stadium spiffed up with a fresh coat of paint. He’s working on getting permanent speakers and a new track for the stadium and hoping to upgrade the lighting in the gym.
“Those are things I feel really good about,” he said. “People are always willing to compare us with bigger schools, but I don’t look at the inequities. We have to be mindful and realistic. We only have 300 students. Right now, it’s more important to have a gym where lights don’t fall and a track without potholes.”
Right man, right time
That Lewis, a former NFL player and associate athletic director at the University of Minnesota, was available when North needed an athletic director was a matter of terrific timing. Then-Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague had restructured the athletics department, leaving Lewis with a role that was mostly community relations.
“I was disappointed,” Lewis said. “I was interested in working with student-athletes, and I wasn’t able to do that.”
A year earlier, Trent Tucker had been hired by Minneapolis Public Schools as the director of district athletics. One of Tucker’s most important initiatives was to make the individual school AD positions full-time, hoping to lure professionals like Lewis to positions previously experiencing high turnover.
“To have someone like Leo Lewis, who played at the highest level, has gone through all of the steps and reached the pinnacle of his profession, and knowing academics played a major role, is very important,” Tucker said. “It’s always important to have good people around.”
Boys’ basketball coach Larry McKenzie knows that in an inner-city school such as North, high-visibility successes are important to a community. The Polars’ 2016 Class 1A state championship — the school’s first since 2003 when it competed against the state’s largest high schools — was more than just an athletic victory. It was a source of pride for people living in an often-embattled neighborhood.
“Athletics are a window into your school,” said McKenzie, who also coached Henry to four Class 3A state titles from 2000 through 2003. “Kids getting academic scholarships is not what the Minneapolis Star Tribune or Channel 4 report. Athletes are out front and kids see them, and their college aspirations, and they become role models.”
McKenzie said adding someone like Lewis is a message to Northsiders that the school is serious about improvement.
“He’s a guy who’s paid his dues,’’ McKenzie said. “The kids and the community are getting to know him. I wish more kids would go to his office, sit down and talk to him about what it takes to be a professional athlete.”
Success is obvious
North added a Class 1A football state championship in November, the first Minneapolis school to win a football title since Washburn in 1977. Those successes, Lewis said, have resulted in growing interest in attending the school.
“People have been able to see a stabilizing force here,” Lewis said. “Kids see we’re serious about trying to make them better. It’s a cycle of winning and it looks like it might be increasing enrollment.”
Minneapolis police officer Charles Adams III grew up in the North community, attended the high school and is now the football coach He sees Lewis as the perfect fit for what North needs.
“He was interested in taking on the challenge and helping us rebuild. He’s what we need to get to the next level,” Adams said.
Despite the workload — “I usually don’t get out of here until at least 6 p.m., 9 on game nights,” he said — Lewis agrees that he and North are a good fit.
“It’s a very respectful place to be and I’m having the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” he said. “This is the best place for me to be right now in my career.”