Larry McKenzie called to check on his players this week. The Minneapolis North boys’ basketball coach has been in frequent contact throughout the pandemic, but this call was different. He wanted to see how his players were doing emotionally with the heartbreaking events unfolding in Minneapolis.

What he heard concerned him when talking about the death of George Floyd after a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck on a city street. Nothing new and nothing changes, a few players told him.

“That’s what I’m bothered about,” McKenzie said midweek before officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder Friday following two volatile days. “When we get to the point where we feel like there’s absolutely nothing within our power to do anything about it, we’ve lost. We cannot get to the point where because it happens so often that this is just another day. This can’t be just another day.”

McKenzie scheduled a Zoom meeting for Thursday with his players to talk with a sports psychologist. He wants to help teenagers navigate their emotions during a traumatic time. The veteran coach recalled his former players bottling up following the Jamar Clark shooting five years ago.

“I remember I could look through my kids’ eyes and I could see the pain, but there was no emotion,” he said. “That’s how I feel right now. I’m back in that space again.”

Emotion poured out of McKenzie in a phone conversation this week. He’s hurting, like so many here. He keeps replaying the video of Floyd in his mind.

“I’m traumatized,” he said. “Literally in my head, I’m hearing George Floyd saying, ‘momma, momma.’ That could’ve been me. That could’ve been my son. That could’ve been any of my players.”

Young people have been on my mind a lot this week. Imagine being a black kid in Minneapolis and trying to make sense of their reality right now. It’s beyond comprehension as a middle-age white man to understand the depths of what they have been subjected to with this tragedy and their city being torn apart and smoldering.

“They’re scared and confused,” said Christina Saunders, executive director of ACES4Kids, an after-school educational program for kids from Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Kids need coaches and mentors now more than ever, along with their support network at home. People they trust and make them feel safe. People like McKenzie, a coaching legend who has been a father figure to Minneapolis youth. People like teachers at ACES who strive to help kids in grades 4-8 close the achievement gap in math and social-emotional learning through a sports lens.

Math wasn’t the only curriculum at ACES this week. Discussions focused on Floyd and the community’s reaction.

“We try to be careful because we don’t want to overstep,” Saunders said, “but we also understand that there are deeper issues that have led to this that we want to talk about with them.”

ACES held its annual all-star gala Thursday night — virtually — as protests took place in both cities. Every Twin Cities pro sports organization along with the Gophers athletic department has a relationship with ACES. Thursday’s event included a video with testimonials of support from various sports figures in town, including Rocco Baldelli, Matt Dumba and Derek Falvey. That relationship has a real impact on those kids.

McKenzie planned to stress education on his Zoom call with players so that they someday can have “an entree into the rooms where decisions are made.” Change demands that, he says.

“When we get to the point where we feel like there’s absolutely nothing within our power to do anything about it, we’ve lost. We cannot get to the point where because it happens so often that this is just another day. This can’t be just another day.”
Larry McKenzie, North High basketball coach

McKenzie, 63, grew up in the South before moving to Minneapolis in 1981. He remembers the riots of 1968 and other race relations flash points. He describes himself as an “eternal optimist” and believes the Twin Cities will recover from this painful experience.

“Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not,” he said.

The coach challenged everyone to take part in the healing.

“We’ve got to get away from black and white. It’s wrong and right,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to change.”

chip.scoggins@startribune.com