Youth basketball in Minnesota had functioned as a regulated market for 75 years. The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) and the schools dictated that boys could only play so many games in the school year—18, to be exact, when I played in the late 1960s. And, for many years, they could not play organized ball outside of their school at all without forfeiting their eligibility to play for their high school team. In 1961, once-defeated Minneapolis Roosevelt went into the single-class state tournament as co-favorites. Then, just one day before the start of the tournament, came the news that Roosevelt had been banned from the tournament because two of their deep bench players had played for their church in the Catholic DeMolay League.
Throughout the 1960s, Minnesota kids were playing significantly less basketball than boys in neighboring states and, so, frankly, we weren’t very good. My own basketball career, from the 5thgrade through the 12th, consisted of about 110 games. In an average season in the 1960s, just one or two Minnesota boys would go on to play basketball at a Division 1 college.
In the 1970s, according to Lake City (class of 1979) and Minnesota Gopher great Randy Breuer, “That was a different time. Back then, the High School League didn’t allow you to play 5-on-5 summer basketball. You could only play 3-on-3. So Minnesota was at quite a disadvantage with the rest of the country when it came to playing basketball and competing on a national stage.” Despite all of that, a cohort of very talented and very big Minnesotans made it to D1 and even to the NBA in the 1970s.
By the 1980s, the pendulum again was swinging back the other way. So, the MSHSL finally decided to allow Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the free market, to prevail in high school sports, including basketball. In 1986, the MSHSL reversed its long-standing rules limiting summer basketball. Initially there was no place to play but over time a variety of basketball clubs opened up and provided kids with the opportunity to play ball all year long.
Thirty years later, the payback on that decision is only too clear. On May 21, 2017, StarTribunereporter Chip Scoggins noted that Minnesota had a five-star recruit in every class—if you counted Gary Trent, formerly of Apple Valley, then at a California prep school, and signed to play at Duke in the fall of 2017. (As a freshman in 2017-2018, Trent scored 14.5 ppg as Duke advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight before losing to Kansas. Trent quickly signed up for the NBA draft.) Among the junior class of that year, it was Tre Jones of Apple Valley. Among the sophomores, it was Matthew Hurt of Rochester John Marshall, whose older brother Michael already played for the Gophers. Among the freshmen it was Jalen Suggs of Minnehaha Academy, who is rated as the top point guard in his class nationally. Jones and Suggs won state titles in 2017, and Suggs won another in 2018.
“When I took the Minnesota job,” Gopher coach Richard Pitino told Scoggins, “I had no idea now much of a basketball state it was. I always assumed it was a hockey state…. But it’s a terrific basketball state.” Former Minneapolis North and University of Connecticut star Khalid El-Amin recently said, “We have tremendous talent here. It must be something in the water in the 10,000 lakes producing these great basketball players.”
But summer ball and the vast improvement in the quality of Minnesota basketball talent is only half the story of 21stcentury hoops. The other half of the story is “open enrollment” and a spectacular decline in competitive balance. In 1988, “open enrollment” was established by the Minnesota legislature. Open enrollment enabled any high school student to enroll in any school at almost any time and for virtually any reason. It had nothing necessarily to do with athletics. The theory was that schools would compete for students and funding, and in competing, schools would get better. Together, open enrollment and summer ball encouraged the creation of all-star teams in the high schools. Previously, high school success had depended on random fluctuations in the gene pool within a given school district. Now, success begat success.
Excellence in Minnesota high school basketball long had been described by the number four. Red Wing won its fourth state title in 1933. Duluth Central, Bloomington Jefferson, Chisholm, Minneapolis North and DeLaSalle all won their fourth between 1979 and 1999. Then, in the early years of the new century, two teams would give the number four a whole new dimension. Only Edina and Minneapolis North had ever won three straight state titles. Now Southwest Minnesota Christian, located in the historic Minnesota basketball town of Edgerton, and Minneapolis Patrick Henry would win four consecutive titles—Southwest Christian from 1999 through 2002, Henry from 2000 to 2003.
Historic wins did not only come in sets of four, however. Minneapolis North, DeLaSalle and Hopkins each quickly won a fifth championship (not consecutively), while Braham and Litchfield each won three, all in the years from 2000 to 2006. Minneapolis Henry's fourth straight title was its sixth overall. By 2016 Hopkins had won nine titles overall, and the following year DeLaSalle won its sixth consecutive Class AAA title and its eleventh title altogether.
Meanwhile, the three-point shot had been adopted by Minnesota high schools way back in 1986, but its true impact came to be seen only in and after 1997. You can score three points at a time, you can score in a hurry, sure, and that’s no small thing. And, yet, the most important effect of the three-point shot is that it forced the defense to go on the attack. The rules-makers though it would stretch the defense to create more space for the old old-fashioned low post in the lane. But, defenses refused to fall into that trap. “We’re in defend-and-go,” says Hopkins coach Kenny Novak, Jr. “You want to get easy buckets. You’re making a mistake if you don’t.”
“(The three-point shot) leads to a faster style of game,” Novak says. That (not quoting Novak, but saying this myself) exacerbates the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Even the best-conditioned athletes can’t go full-tilt, full-court, full-time. Everybody needs a break. So elite teams play deeper rotations than ever before. But, only elite teams and programs can go to their bench without sacrificing some ability. So, once teams do go to their bench, the chasm between the best and the rest gets a little wider.
And then there’s this. “Our game kind of follows the way they referee,” Novak said. “The offense can really go at people, they handle the ball so well. They allow you to put your hand on the side of the ball and even underneath. In the old days you had to be right on top. You couldn’t just go right by people, but now you can. The offense causes the defense to get more physical just because there is no choice,” Novak adds.
What does Novak think of this newer, more physical style of play? “I like it, I like contact. It’s become a more athletic game, it’s become a very smart game. Strength is a really big factor. It’s a great game, but if you’re going to win, you’ve got to get physical.”
So that is the story of Minnesota boys high school basketball in the 21stcentury in the abstract. The opportunity to play more basketball led to a major improvement in the quality of Minnesota’s top basketball athletes. “Open enrollment” helped create all-star teams and dynasties that far eclipsed the best of previous eras. The three-point shot made for a faster-paced game, and officials decided somewhere along the way to allow the game to become vastly more physical than it was back in the day. Wow! That's a lot of change to absorb.
Summer Ball Begins to Pay Off
Summer ball was approved by the MSHSL in 1986 but it was only a decade later that an improvement in the caliber of Minnesota high school basketball became discernible.
Howard Pulley quickly emerged as the ace of clubs. Rene Pulley founded the club in 1985, a year before the MSHSL relaxed its rules against summer play, and named it in honor of his father. Pulley has been one of Minnesota’s top clubs continuously for more than 30 years. Alumni include Adam Boone (Minnetonka, North Carolina and Minnesota). Khalid El-Amin (Minneapolis North and Connecticut), Devean George (Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Augsburg and the Los Angeles Lakers), Johnnie Gilbert (Minneapolis Henry and Oklahoma), Moe Hargrow (St. Paul Highland Park and Minnesota), Kris Humphries (Hopkins, Minnesota and the NBA), Darius Lane (Totino-Grace and Seton Hall), Joe Mauer (Cretin and the Minnesota Twins), Rick Rickert (Duluth East and Minnesota), Jake Sullivan (Tartan and Iowa State), and hundreds more.
The Minnesota Magic and the Minnesota Glory also were among the earlier clubs to achieve notoriety. The Magic won 17 national championships of various kinds, mostly in the 1990s. The Glory produced 40 D1 scholarship players.
Other clubs have come and gone. The Select was another successful early club but, eventually, D1, Comets, Crossfire, Fury, Heat and others came along so that there were plenty of places for boys to play summer ball. By about 2005, Minnesota had more boys (and girls) playing AAU summer ball, per capita, than almost any state in the nation, and they were more prominent on the national scene than they had been at any time since the 1970s—or, maybe even the 1940s.
It was the class of 1997 that, suddenly, became vastly more visible at the college level, including Brian Giesen of New Prague and Indiana State, Jared Nuness of Hopkins and Valparaiso, Slovakian native Martin Rancik of St. Louis Park and Iowa State, Dusty Rychert of Grand Rapids and Minnesota, and more. Chris Bjorklund of Brainerd and Cal Poly scored more than 2,000 career points in college. Greg Buth of Edina scored more than 1,000 at Dartmouth. And, Kyle Behrens of Hayfield and North Dakota, Chad Koenen of Clara City and Southwest State, and Kyle Schlaak of New Richland and Winona State all earned NCAA D2 all-American honors.
The class of 1999 was even better. Nick Horvath of Mounds View won a state championship, then went to national powerhouse Duke. Michael Bauer of Hastings, Ben Johnson of DeLaSalle and Shane Schilling of 1998 champion Minnetonka all went on to start at Minnesota. Troy Bell of Holy Angels went out east to Boston College, where he scored more than 2,000 career points.
In 2002, five Minnesota men—Bell, Horvath, Nuness, Alan Anderson of DeLaSalle and Michigan State, and Nick Jacobson of Roseville and Utah—played in the NCAA tournament. By the fall of 2005, there were 60 Minnesotans on Division I rosters. And, it was about this time, from 2002 to 2005, that a program emerged as the flagship of Minnesota high school basketball.