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The Isaac Asuma effect is in full force in Cherry, Minnesota

The Gophers commit is making an impact in his community.

The parking lot at Cherry School was packed full on a snowy, 20-degree night.

Cherry, the top-ranked boys basketball team in Class A by Minnesota Basketball News, was set to take on Nevis, a perennial Class A power, on Friday, Feb. 9. It was a big game, no doubt, but the crowd wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. 

In fact, there hasn’t been enough space for all the fans wanting to attend a Cherry game all season long. They’ve even set up an overflow space outside the gym.

The Isaac Asuma effect.

Friday provided a glimpse at what Asuma, and the Cherry teams of the past, present and future, means to the community. Before the game, Asuma presented a basketball to his coach, Jordan Christianson, in honor of his 100th win — a look at the present.

The 1997 team, the first Cherry team to reach the boys basketball state tournament, was honored before the game, with Bob Asuma, Isaac’s great uncle and longtime Cherry coach who led that team, giving a brief speech with many of his former players in attendance — a look at the past.

Some youth players joined Cherry’s walkup line, high-fiving players as they walked out to the beat of “Still D.R.E.” playing over the speakers. Three whole rows in the stands belonged to youth players, emblematic of the soaring youth basketball numbers at the K-12 school — a look at the future. 

“It’s my ninth year here and my first year, basketball is kind of a — sports in general are kinda like an afterthought, really,” Christianson said. "Up on the Iron Range, a lot of people like to hunt and fish and do all that kind of stuff. But now it’s really brought the whole community together. Our youth numbers are crazy right now.”

The Isaac Asuma effect.

Basketball is no longer an afterthought in Cherry, Minn., and kids are flocking in droves to sign up for youth programs, due in large part to the success Asuma has helped bring to the high school program. Just five years ago, the Tigers were in the midst of a 0-21 regular season. It feels like a distant memory now. 

“It’s just setting a good culture for the Northland, which is amazing, and just raise the level of basketball overall,” Asuma said of the growing youth ranks in Cherry.

Back on the court, Asuma is joined in the starting lineup by his brother, Noah, and his cousin, Isaiah. They’re a close-knit crew who are always getting shots up in the gym together and often get teammates to join them to play King of the Court.

At home, Noah and Isaac are always looking for opportunities to compete.

“We can never just be like sitting at home. We’ll play video games and stuff like that, but we’ll always have to do something to get out of the house,” Noah said. “Sports has just kinda been the main thing because we live in Cherry and there’s not a whole lot to do, but yeah, it’s just a lot of sports. Whether it’s baseball, basketball, football or even hockey, we just — anything to get us going. We’re just really competitive people.”

That becomes clear as they take the court. All the Asumas make an immediate impact. And as Friday's game tips off, it's apparent they have the community's full embrace. 

The modest Cherry School gymnasium gets loud — really loud — as the crowd delivers a roar after every Tigers basket.

It’s a true home-court advantage. Cherry hasn’t lost at home in over two years.

“Just an environment that our guys are comfortable in. They like these kind of crowds. They like the noise; they’ve been there before and they just kind of thrive off of it. It’s good for them, it’s good for everyone,” Christianson said.

It’s just a little bit of a taste of the types of crowds Isaac will experience next year in the Big Ten while playing for the Gophers. Isaac's commitment to Minnesota was a significant one for third-year coach Ben Johnson, who's looking to build the Gophers program by keeping the top in-state players — players like Isaac — at home. 

When Isaac takes the court at Williams Arena, he's sure to get a similar embrace to the one he's gotten at Cherry School. And it's exactly where he wants to be. 

“Just (Johnson) really believing in me and trusting me to like when I’m gonna be able to get my chance to have full confidence in me to know I can make the best of my abilities,” Isaac said of why he chose Minnesota.

While Minnesota was Isaac’s first Division I offer, it was far from his last. The likes of Nebraska's Fred Hoiberg made their way to Cherry on the recruiting trail as Isaac also fielded offers from Nebraska, Iowa, Iowa State, Butler, Hampton, TCU and Xavier. Isaac stuck with Minnesota anyway.

“(The Gophers) were the first to get on him. I think that meant something to Isaac because he had (Minnesota Duluth) and that was it at the time. So, it was like one Division II offer to a Power Five. Big Ten, big jump,” Christianson said. “But they’ve always believed in him from Day 1. And Isaac’s a loyal, loyal kid and he had that connection with them.

“And a lot of people have asked me, ‘Why didn’t you push him towards the NIL (name, image and likeness) and Nebraska?’ It’s not him. He’s just gonna make a decision that he thinks is best for him and his family. And he’s more, I think, personal connections mean more than money for him. And he made a decision with his heart and having got involved in it, it just felt right for him. … That’s who he is, genuine as hell.”

Genuine, real and kind hearted are words Christianson uses to describe Isaac. Coaching Isaac, he said, has been a treat. He's a special player, and that goes beyond his abilities on the court. 

“He’ll do whatever it takes to win. He’s always been like that, no matter what the assignment is,” Christianson said.

On Friday, that assignment was guarding 6-foot-7 Alex Lester. Cherry doesn’t have anyone on the roster to contend with that size, leaving Isaac, a 6-foot-2 point guard who’s accustomed to defending guards, to take on the big man.

While Lester had 10 points in the first half Friday as Nevis took a 10-point halftime lead — after some words from Christianson — Isaac held him scoreless in the second half as Cherry rallied for a 73-57 victory to improve to 19-2 for the season. 

Isaac Asuma looks to pass

Cherry's Isaac Asuma looks to pass during a high school boys basketball game against Nevis on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, at Cherry School in Cherry, Minn.

It's that coachability that's helped Isaac grow into one of the best players in the state. He eclipsed 3,000 career points in January and continues to rise in 247Sports' recruiting rankings. But before he graduates in the spring, Isaac hopes to bring a state tournament title back to Cherry.

The Tigers have been close in recent years, making back-to-back appearances in the tournament. They’re a close-knit group that has a chemistry on and off the court.

“Sometimes I gotta rein them in a little bit because it’s like having 20 kids that all think they’re like brothers together and all rassling and doing whatever,” Christianson said. “But they’ve been really a joy to coach and they all want to play hard for each other. And a special making for a good team is playing hard for the guy next to you.”

Cherry has the makings of a state championship team. What happens in the rest of the regular season and postseason remains to be seen. But among the certainties are that Isaac Asuma has made a significant impact in Cherry. 

And he'll leave the program better than he found it. 

Isaac Asuma shoots

Cherry's Isaac Asuma shoots during a high school boys basketball game against Nevis on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, at Cherry School in Cherry, Minn.