The last time Minneapolis hosted the Final Four in 2001, Minneapolis North Boys’ Basketball Coach Larry McKenzie helped the NCAA run a camp for local youth. That was essentially McKenzie’s only contribution to one of the world’s most celebrated sporting events.
Eighteen years later, McKenzie’s connection to the Final Four has gone through a major upgrade: from the gym to the board room.
“We needed to reach into some networks that we weren’t a part of,” Kate Mortenson, CEO of the Final Four local organizing committee, said of McKenzie. “Larry has made a huge difference with his wisdom, support, encouragement and inspiration to make sure the Final Four here is inclusive.”
Mortenson reached out to McKenzie two years ago to become a part of the committee’s Impact Advisory Council (IAC), a select group of business and community leaders brought together to ensure the Final Four provided economic and employment opportunities for people of color.
McKenzie has been an integral part of strategies that helped the IAC identify minority contractors and young people of color to work on the business side of the Final Four’s operations.
With the Final Four only a few days away, McKenzie is confident the work he and the IAC have done has been successful. “Without a doubt, the organizing committee has gone beyond what was expected to include people of color in this process,” he said.
“Everybody can’t benefit, but what I’m pleased about is how they went about the bidding and selection. There was genuine discussion about inclusion every time we met.”
Chuck Hill was among the first Black business owners to get a contract with the local organizing committee. Hill’s company, Programming Solutions Inc., based in Brooklyn Park, set up the communications systems for the committee’s downtown Minneapolis offices in 2018.
Hill’s staff installed phone lines, computers, internet and other communications requirements for Mortenson and her team.
“This has been a wonderful opportunity for my company,” said Hill. “I’ve been able to establish connections and network with people I ordinarily would not have been able to meet.”
Through referrals from the IAC, Mortenson said, the committee also agreed to a “six-figure contract” with Barry Rogers of BWK Rogers PC, a Black-owned certified public accounting firm in downtown Minneapolis. Rogers’ company was hired to handle the committee’s bookkeeping and financial support.
And for the major task of coordinating the numerous Final Four events, Cydni Bickerstaff, an African American woman and sister of former Timberwolves assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, was hired by Mortenson as vice president of operations. Bickerstaff, who moved to the Twin Cities from Washington, D.C. to take on the role, functions as second-in-command behind Mortenson on the committee’s management team.
“We have 60 percent female on our staff and 60 percent people of color working for us,” Mortenson said. “Too often, we have professional talent and qualified people who are under-utilized. We wanted to address that from day one.”
One of McKenzie’s key triumphs with his committee role was recommending North Commons Park Recreation Center to the NCAA for its annual Legacy Project Grant. In every Final Four city, the NCAA looks for community athletic organizations or facilities that could benefit from additional resources.
The North Minneapolis recreation center received a $200,000 grant from the NCAA Legacy Project in 2018. McKenzie said the money was used to give North Commons a complete “makeover,” including a new gym floor. A grand opening dedication at North Commons is scheduled for Tuesday, April 2 at 10 am.
“I don’t know many people who benefitted when the Super Bowl was here [in 2018],” McKenzie said. “The way things have gone with this initiative for the Final Four, we could be a model for other cities. This takes away the excuse that diversity can’t happen.”
The 2019 Final Four will be a memorable experience for McKenzie, who is slated to receive two awards that week for his contributions over the past two decades. He will be presented the Final Four Legacy Award on April 3 by the NCAA’s Inclusion Committee, and the National Association of Basketball Coaches will present him with the Guardians of the Game Pillar Award for Education on April 7.
At the Final Four Legacy Award, hosted by the Center for Economic Inclusion in St. Paul, McKenzie will be honored alongside St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr., former NBA player Devean George, and longtime basketball referee supervisor James Robinson.
During McKenzie’s 20-year high school coaching career at Patrick Henry, Academy of Holy Angels and North, he’s had 27 players play for NCAA Division I schools, and all of his seniors, whether or not they earned a scholarship, graduated and went to college. He’s also earned the distinct honor of being the first and only African American to date inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
McKenzie has won six state championships — four at Patrick Henry (Class 3A) and two at North (Class 1A). Since joining North in 2013, he has built a 150-41 record (.785). McKenzie’s career record of 418-149 (.737) ranks among the all-time leaders in Minnesota high school basketball.
“It’s a gratifying feeling when people see you as more than a person blowing a whistle in practice,” McKenzie said.
Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He worked 34 years as a sportswriter for the Chicago Daily Defender, Phoenix (Ariz.) Gazette and St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Richardson can be heard on KMOJ-FM 89.9 (www.kmojfm.com) as host of ‘Back In The Day,’ a popular R&B oldies show that airs Sunday nights 6 p.m.-10 p.m. CST.