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How Minnesota became a booming basketball state

Bruce Kluckhohn

Bruce Kluckhohn

Nicollet Island overflowed with people hoping to watch some of the best prep basketball in the country.

Minnehaha Academy and its star, Jalen Suggs—currently the nation’s 12th best high schooler in the 2020 recruiting class, according to ESPN—were here to play DeLaSalle and its star, Tyrell Terry.

Landing a spot in the DeLaSalle parking lot was but a pipe dream as people inched their cars down congested parking lanes. Awaiting them was a throng huddled outside the school. The game was sold out and the doors were locked.

“My feet are frozen,” said Maji George, her braided hair uncovered in the winter wind. She and sister Mari arrived around 5:30 p.m. for the 7 o’clock game, fully expecting a dash for good seats. The doors were already closed.

The crowd of dozens outside maintained a teeth-clattering posture, hoping against hope someone might leave and make room for them inside. They were black, white, people too young and old to drive, and all kinds in between, shivering impatiently.

It was the game to see on this frigid Saturday night, a collision between two nationally coveted talents anchoring dominating teams, a night that’s become common in Minnesota.

Tyrell Terry and coach Travis Bledsoe are two of the people turning Minnesota into a college recruiting hotbed.

Tyrell Terry and coach Travis Bledsoe are two of the people turning Minnesota into a college recruiting hotbed. Bruce Kluckhohn

DeLaSalle ’56 alum Clearance Shallbetter spoke of Tyrell Terry defending the basket like a hero defending a city. The elusive 6-foot-2 guard, who will play next year for Stanford, has a blazing first step and needs only the slimmest room to get a shot off. Minnehaha Academy’s Suggs is a facilitating two-way junior guard who, at 6-foot-4, is an equal threat to overpower defenses.

“I heard of that guy,” Shallbetter says dismissively in the cold.

The game has already begun. A fire marshal who pushed his way inside remerged to make it official: No one else would be allowed in the building.

Still, people stuck around. A group huddled around a kid who pulled up a Facebook livestream on his phone.

Rob Sivanich and his 11-year-old boy were among the 40 or so people still hoping against hope after halftime. Sivanich grew up in north Minneapolis, where he played basketball for Patrick Henry “before they became good.” He rattled off proud memories of getting crushed by North, St. Paul Central, and bygone Marshall-University. He and his dad used to go to random games and made ritual trips to the state tournament.

Sivanich saw the DeLaSalle game on the schedule and, pumped by the matchup, ran over. “There are so many good players and teams now,” he said. He and his son feel compelled to stay till the very end, just in case more people are let in.

Before the night’s over, Suggs will score 30 points, pushing his team past a halftime deficit and 26-point outing from Terry to secure Minnehaha a 79-71 win.

After the game, Terry said he’d never heard the gym so loud.

Rich soil

As people who actually get inside to see a game can attest, Minnesota basketball is getting better by the year. “The growth of the sport in the state has been immense,” says Wisconsin Badgers coach Greg Gard.

It’s not uncommon to see talent that makes coaches salivate, players who will land with big colleges and have a real shot at the NBA. And they’re not just city kids. Basketball genius is cropping up all over the state.

“Apple Valley wasn’t a destination. Burnsville wasn’t a destination 20 years ago. Prior Lake wasn’t,” says Gard, who first recruited Minnesota players in the ’90s as an assistant with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Last summer, he signed Lakeville North forward Tyler Wahl. “You just watched it all shift and change.”

It used to be that the state was easily bypassed, save for the rare gem like Gopher god Dave Winfield or NBA champ Kevin McHale. Now? “I think it’s a Top 10 state for basketball,” says DeLaSalle coach Travis Bledsoe.

Bledsoe played for the school from 2001-05, during what he called the middle of Minnesota’s transition to a basketball destination, losing in state to a Braham team led by Michigan State-bound Isaiah Dahlman.

“I grew up in North watching Khalid El-Amin,” Bledsoe says. “He’s probably the grandfather of all of this.”

Tyrell Terry, the star of DeLaSalle, will play for Stanford next year.

Tyrell Terry, the star of DeLaSalle, will play for Stanford next year.

El-Amin mesmerized Minnesota in the mid-’90s as he led Minneapolis North to three state titles. His game was unlike any the state had produced before. Until that point, the prep greats tended to be big, tough guys. They also were few and far between.

Then came the 5-foot-10 bulldog point guard who loved to fight for a rebound as much as he slipped around defenders with his impeccable footwork. He could pull up to shoot or finish at the rim, but tended to deliver more punishment with his passing.

He also did something no Minnesotan had done for a while—get recruited by a big-time college program. He would take over UConn as an underclassman. In 1999, El-Amin led Connecticut to its first national championship. He was drafted by the Chicago Bulls a year later, before moving on to a 15-year career in Europe, Israel, and Venezuela.

“El-Amin showed everybody that a guard or a player could make it from Minnesota,” says Bledsoe.

Aside from Dahlman, those early days also had Monticello High center Joel Przybilla, who went on to become a first-round NBA pick, North’s zippy sharpshooter Kammron Taylor, who played for Wisconsin, and Hopkins’ 6-foot-9 forward Dan Coleman, who played for the Gophers.

Yet it wouldn’t be until 2007 that Minnesota solidified its basketball bona fides.

“I grew up feeling like you could be a pro,” says Cole Aldrich.

Lakeville North’s Tyler Wahl, who’s headed to Wisconsin, is the latest star to emerge from the southern suburbs.

Lakeville North’s Tyler Wahl, who’s headed to Wisconsin, is the latest star to emerge from the southern suburbs.

At Bloomington Jefferson, where he graduated in 2007, Aldrich was a throwback Minnesota great. The 6-foot-11, 250-pound center was a behemoth in the paint. He could set a pick and drive for an alley oop, or set up low, swallowing a defender pinned behind him. On defense, Aldrich was a huge windmill everyone could see but never avoid, swatting away balls with enough force to power a small hunting lodge.

He would go on to play for Kansas and win a national championship, catapulting him to the NBA as a first-round draft pick. He would eventually make his way back home to play for the Timberwolves.

Jon Leuer, who is still putting in NBA minutes for the Detroit Pistons, graduated from Orono High that same year. Blake Hoffarber from Hopkins, the small but gutsy three-point shooter who hit a famed, game-winning shot lying on his back that was replayed on SportsCenter, went to the Gophers, accompanied by St. Bernard’s big man Trevor Mbakwe.

Two years later, Hopkins’ Royce White excited the nation with his hybrid style—something still novel then—as a 6-foot-8, wide-bodied power forward who played like a guard. The Houston Rockets would eventually make him a first-round pick.

It had been 10 years since El-Amin, the godfather of Minnesota basketball, cut down the nets for UConn. But his home state was consistently churning out sturdy, big-conference talent.

From 2009 till 2014, Minnesotans filled rosters for Iowa State, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Wichita State, Creighton, and Northwestern.

The real turning point that made Minnesota a “Top 10 state,” in Bledsoe’s estimation, came in 2014. That’s when the steady-handed floor general Tyus Jones was plucked from Apple Valley by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Jones would win a championship and get drafted in the first round by the Timberwolves.

At the time Jones left Apple Valley, he was the No. 4 ranked high school player in the nation, according to ESPN. Findlay College Prep’s Rashad Vaughn was 19 before playing for UNLV and the Milwaukee Bucks. DeLaSalle’s bruising forward Reid Travis was 27, on his way to Stanford before transferring to Kentucky, the NBA’s hottest college farm team.

Jones’ No. 4 ranking would be the highest a Minnesotan had achieved since the sports network began its rankings in 2007.

The heart factory

At Hopkins open gyms, it’s not rare to see collegiate royalty like Kentucky’s John Calipari, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, or Kansas’ Bill Self saunter about.

“Some come just to see if we have players,” says longtime Hopkins coach Ken Novak. The city’s become a well-worn recruiting stop.

Others, like former Marquette University and University of Utah coach Rick Majerus—rest his big-bellied, bigger-hearted soul—would sit and talk basketball with Novak for hours, hanging out long after everyone else had left.

Hopkins has produced its share of heroes, like NBA power forward Kris Humphries, Hoffarber, White, and Amir Coffey, the most exciting player for the Gophers. Seeing college basketball’s biggest coaches was exciting 20 years ago, when it was new and Novak was a younger coach. Now it’s normal.

John Oxton, in his 29th year coaching Lakeville North, said the increase in attention “has been pretty crazy.”

“My first probably 15 to 18 years... okay, not a lot of interest,” he says. If coaches did come calling, they were mainly from Division III schools. Lakeville North didn’t have its first D1 player until 2010. But change came quickly.

Hustle guard J.P. Macura played for Xavier and is now with the Charlotte Hornets. Six-foot-eleven shooting forward Nate Reuvers plays for Wisconsin.

Oxton says North may be a little spoiled by the attention these days, that they’ve “come to expect it maybe a little.”

But it’s also energized Lakeville, which went from a football suburb to one hanging basketball banners and sending its players off to compete with the nation’s best.

Some believe all this is being propelled by a native feistiness. Due to little respect and “harsh winters,” Minnesotans play with a chip on their shoulder that shows up on the national AAU circuit, says Bledsoe.

Teams from places like California used to roll their eyes at the home state boys. They would see the word “Minnesota” and immediately take on a condescending tone, says Terry.

“They’d be like, ‘These guys are from Minnesota, let’s destroy them.’ Once the game started it was different. We would come out and play harder than everyone.”

“Our style is a bit more hard-nosed,” adds Wahl, a finesse forward with sneaky rim protection skills.

Yet that sense of condescension lingers. “I still feel like we’re a bit overlooked,” says Terry. “In years past, they definitely looked down on us.”

Oxton believes the state’s headway was helped by the AAU circuit showcasing Minnesota talent and convincing college coaches to make the trip north.

“It’s a nationwide trend,” says Novak. “But, man, Minnesota has a lot of really good players.”

Good times keep ballin’

Now that Minnesota’s a fully fledged basketball state, all that’s left is to take in the sights.

The weekend Minnehaha played DeLaSalle, Lakeville North beat Prior Lake and Dawson Garcia, who is No. 34 on ESPN’s list of the best recruits in 2020. A few days later, White Bear Lake was beat down by Woodbury’s East Ridge, which has three D1-bound players.

East Ridge features sophomore Kendall Brown, who sits at No. 11 on ESPN’s list of 2021 recruits. He stands at 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds of lanky, chiseled steel that should become more chiseled when he reaches grown-man strength. He has hops for days, quick defensive feet, and a nose for a block.

Kendall is a nightmare in transition, but even as an otherworldly sophomore, East Ridge is not yet his team. It’s led by his older brother, senior Courtney Brown, a stockier forward headed to UW-Milwaukee.

East Ridge suffocated White Bear with a swarming defense that trapped ball handlers as soon as they crossed half court, forcing turnovers and leading to exhilarating counter attacks.

In one sequence, senior guard Zach Zebrowski stole the ball and passed it to Courtney. In a few steps, he was at the free throw line. In another, he was launching a wicked, one-handed hammer slam.

Across town at Hopkins’ Lindbergh Center, a ginormous airplane hangar of a basketball shrine, the talents of Arizona commit Zeke Nnaji are on display. The 6-foot-11 forward is a bloodhound on the boards, sniffing out rebounds and sending alarm to those who dare approach the rim.

The names that will populate Minnesota sports lists 20 years from now will feature many more basketball players, those who’ve won college championships and starred in the NBA.

America’s most beautiful sport fits nicely in Minnesotan life. It is sport at its purest—just a ball, a hoop, and 10 guys on the court. It’s an indoor game, and it’s cold here. Basketball is extremely Minnesotan, and Minnesota is extremely basketball.