Robert Ware’s first brush with Totino-Grace basketball came in 1998 when his Minneapolis Henry team played the Eagles and star Darius Lane. In those days, hoops fans showed up to the Fridley private school gym by 4 p.m. to ensure a bleacher seat for a 7 p.m. varsity tipoff.

Ware, who is black, took over the Totino-Grace program before this season, a rare minority coaching hire in the school’s history. He brings strong basketball coaching acumen, having worked nine years as a Minnetonka assistant coach. He also brings a broader perspective to Totino-Grace athletics as a coach who understands the benefit of learning from a familiar face.

“It’s huge,” said Ware, 34. “You don’t have to feel like the odd one out. If you’re the only black student in the class and something comes up on race, you feel like everyone is looking at you because you should be answering for every black person. You feel awkward. It’s a lot of pressure. So it’s good to have a support system. That goes a long way, especially for kids.”

On his journey from north Minneapolis to the North Dakota State College of Science, Grand Valley State (Mich.), the University of St. Thomas and Minnesota State Moorhead, Ware learned to succeed in different environments. He enjoys sharing that message and has found interested listeners among his minority players. Totino-Grace lists 11 percent of its enrollment as students of color.

“They asked if I had any experience being one of the few black people in the building,” Ware said. “I gave them my college experience, telling them about the culture shock of going up to North Dakota at 18 by myself and finding the only black people at school are the athletes. I said, ‘You can have this attitude like everyone is against you or you can use it as an opportunity to really learn about yourself and others and build relationships.’ ”

Ware grew up in Minneapolis.

“My biological dad wasn’t around — ever,” Ware said. “I had a bad relationship with my mom and the different things going on in her life. I stayed with friends from time to time. That really saved me. That and coach [Larry] McKenzie and the basketball family [at Henry]. That kept us out of trouble. Then once I really learned what hard work was about, I bought in.”

A self-described “knucklehead” as a youth, Ware, nonetheless, felt called to a life in education. He works as the behavior dean in the Hopkins School District, a job he previously held with Minneapolis Public Schools. He also is founder and president of the Real Athletics Foundation AAU basketball program. Players in grades three through 11 make up 22 teams. Ware doesn’t coach in the program but helped develop a faith and leadership curriculum.

“Kids that are struggling with behavior issues or not talking a lot at home — that’s what our focus is,” he said. “If they end up being good players, great.”

Totino-Grace activities director Mike Smith also appreciated Ware’s willingness to engage students on a spiritual level. Part of the hiring process included having prospective coaches run a team practice. Ware started his with a team prayer.

Part of Ware’s faith includes service. His players help rid the bleachers of trash after home games.

“I never really thought about how big of a job it is and how much we can help,” said junior Rocky Kreuser, the team’s leading scorer.

For senior captain Lewis Kidd, whose father is black and mother is white, Ware adds an important component to the school’s culture.

“We’re not hugely diverse here, so it’s great when we have people of color come in,” Kidd said. “I could see a student of color come in to the school and see it as intimidating. But to me, it’s more about who was going to be a great coach and mentor for us and that was Coach Ware.”

Smith said the school’s minority students “haven’t had a role model, a go-to person with whom they can better identify. That’s an area where we want to improve as a school. And Rob’s got such an infectious personality. He really cares for kids.”