MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Al Nolen knows basketball, had a storied career, and through it gained an appreciation for education.
He struggled a bit academically as a Gopher basketball player. Now he’s working to become a vice principal, and teaching a class to help keep the kids at Park Center Senior High School moving in the right direction.
Nolen grew up on the north side of Minneapolis. He wanted to grow into one of those many big-time guards from the city conference.
Did just that at Minneapolis Patrick Henry High School, playing for legendary coach Larry McKenzie.
“Larry McKenzie was a really an inspiration for me. I mean, there’s some similarities. When we used to have study hall, he really would talk to us about our grades, filling out weekly grade check reports,” Nolen said.
He had game, and he got the reward, signing a scholarship to stay home and play for the Gophers. He made a name as a solid starting point guard for Tubby Smith, then moved on to a career.
“Right now I am in grad school getting my masters to obtain a principal’s license,” Nolen said.
It may seem ironic, because he hit a road bump while he was playing for the Gophers. He was ruled academically ineligible for almost one season.
“My junior year … I just learned, you know, to handle my business, to reach out for help,” he said.
Which brings us to Park Center, where Nolen now teaches a class to sophomore boys while he works his way up the education ladder. His job Is to educate and to create an atmosphere where authenticity is easy to come by.
“What I like about it is it’s providing a support system and role models for some of our students who need to make that extra connection,” said Park Center Principal Heather Miller-Cink
This is a classroom, but it’s more, because it starts not with the books but the outlook that you try to provide a platform.
“There’s an absence of hope, because a lot of times they don’t believe that they can do well,” Nolen said.
His street cred of playing basketball at a high level is in play, but these kids know little of it, and he talks little about it. They just know him as an educator, and he hopes as a trusted role model. He lived much of it, and he’s learned much from it, as in what it really takes.
“Without hard work, you get nothing, and I learned that at an early age,” he said. “It was like if you want to get somewhere, you got to do things you don’t want to do in order to get things you want to get. You have to put in the work to get the results. And a lot of times we tend to think things are going to come easy. We see people in certain places, you know, achieving certain things, but we think we didn’t see the work they put into it behind the scenes.”
He has learned and now he teaches what he’s learned — to give back.
“They’re like, ‘Well maybe I can do this, maybe I can get it done, maybe I can be a top scholar,’” Nolen said. “And then they start to see that progression, and as it goes it motivates them, and I think it motivates others.”
He knows what he wants out of life because he knows where he is going, and his giving back to where he grew up matters to many.
“Al is a special human being. He makes great connections with kids. He has a way to relate and tell his own story that the kids can connect with,” Miller-Cink said.