As Al Nolen Jr. was growing up on the North Side of Minneapolis there wasn’t any doubt about his future plans. “I wanted to play basketball in the NBA,” the former Minneapolis boys’ basketball standout said during a recent interview at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on Minneapolis’ North Side. “Back then it was all I ever wanted to do.”
That was then! This is now!
After an outstanding three-year high school career (2004-2007) and a four-year stint as a point guard for the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team (2007-2011), Nolen today finds himself in the role of educator at Park Center High School and the creator of the Al Nolan Foundation, designed to nurture higher-risk youth.
During this joint interview with fellow MSR columnist Charles Hallman, Nolen took time to reflect on his basketball career and how the sport and his coaches gave him the lifelong skills he uses to educate students and develop his foundation.
He made it known that he didn’t seek basketball out as a youngster. He had a little encouragement.
“When I was in third grade my mom wanted me to be involved in something,” he said laughing. “Something to get me out of the house,” he continued. “So, she brought me to Jimmy Lee [Recreation Center] in St. Paul.”
St. Paul Johnson coaching legend Vern Simmons was Nolen’s coach at Jimmy Lee. After relocating in Minneapolis to live with his father, Nolen attended Franklin Middle School in the city’s North Side. Following his graduation, Nolen spent two semesters up the street at North before transferring to Henry.
“The majority of my AAU teammates were there,” he said. “It seemed like a good move at the time.” It did turn out to be a good move for Nolen. Starting at point guard since his sophomore year for the Patriots under legendary head coach Larry McKenzie, he blossomed into one of the state’s top players as a senior.
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He gives McKenzie, who now coaches at North, credit for his development as a player and person. “I was fortunate to play for a legendary coach in Larry McKenzie,” Nolen said with emphasis. “He helped mold me into a young Black man. He did so much more for us outside of basketball that helped me develop skills that I use in my everyday life.”
After graduating from Henry and earning All-Metro honors in 2007, Nolen went on to the University of Minnesota to play for another coaching legend in Tubby Smith.
“I was actually recruited by [then-Minnesota coach] Dan Monson,” Nolen remembered. “After he resigned, I found out in science class that Coach Smith was coming. I was very excited to play for him.”
Nolen used his excitement to his advantage, starting at point guard for the Gophers and moving on to an outstanding professional career overseas. As his professional career was concluding, he began to think about ways to help youth understand that there are other opportunities for them to succeed in life.
Through his foundation, Nolen hopes to stress the importance of education to youth. This became clear as he described the most memorable moment of his high school basketball career.
“During the season we had study hall an hour before practice every day when I was at Henry,” he said. “That is my most memorable moment,” he continued. “It taught me about the importance of academics, and it brought us even more together as a team. That’s what I’m trying to instill in youth though the foundation.”
Nolen seems to be off to a good start. So far, it’s been quite the journey.