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Shakeel Nelson became Don MacPherson’s “little brother” when Nelson was 8.

Today, Nelson, 26, and MacPherson, 52, are friends and partners in an enterprise that benefits several dozen young people and their families in north Minneapolis.

Nelson’s mother signed up Shakeel, whose dad was in prison, with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Twin Cities. MacPherson, now married with two little girls, was single and cared about kids. He and Nelson, a student-athlete at Minneapolis’ Washburn High School, loved sports.

As important, MacPherson, a small-business owner who grew up in northern Minnesota, and Nelson, who works for North Memorial Health Hospital and lives on the North Side, spent time weekly shooting baskets and watching games. They liked, listened to and learned from each other.

“Don was and is always there in support,” Nelson said recently. “Don always told me, since I was young, that I would be a good teacher and coach. I love that.”

MacPherson feels equal admiration for his “little.”

“I have mentored a lot of people over the last couple decades,” he said. “This relationship is different. I don’t remember it ever being adult and child. I am not his dad and never tried to be a substitute for his dad. I only remember it being two friends.”

He said there were only “a couple of times early on” that Nelson pushed boundaries. “His mom was really good at making sure she had my back.”

When Nelson graduated from high school, the two men talked a couple times a year. “I think he was trying to find his own path,” MacPherson said. “He started to reach out more and more often after that and our friendship has picked up as if there hadn’t been any gap at all. I truly feel Shakeel is my brother and I have tremendous pride for the man he has become.”

Since 2019, MacPherson has supported Nelson in his dream to form a school-and-sports club in Nelson’s neighborhood. Nelson is volunteer CEO of Inner City Ducks, a club of about 75 middle school boys and girls from Olson Middle School and neighboring Creekview Park. They play sports and engage in other activities.

After COVID-19 shut down group gatherings, Nelson has kept the Ducks together through online workouts, an online chess team and small, informal workouts in the park in which everybody keeps their distance.

“Even though Shakeel had been coaching middle school kids for a couple of years, I was surprised he wanted to start the Ducks,” MacPherson said.

“It’s expensive and fundraising isn’t easy; there are a lot of logistics to plan and [there’s] travel. It’s hugely time-consuming. I saw his passion, though … and I said yes to being involved.”

MacPherson and a growing list of supporters, including some of Nelson’s colleagues at North Memorial, funded several traveling Ducks basketball teams that allow the kids, some of whom have never been on vacation or out of town, opportunities to represent their neighborhood and the Ducks in out-of-town tournaments several times a season — if they live up to expectations to be good citizens, diligent students and good examples to younger kids.

“I don’t feel like the Ducks is a job,” Nelson said. “It’s a calling. This area, the park, is where I grew up. I just want to help kids. There’s a lack of [positive] male role models.”

Participating families also are invested. Nelson charges every Ducks family up to $90 for a uniform, warm-up suit and travel bag they get to keep. Everything else is free, including weekend tournaments, travel, field trips and more. That includes visits from leaders in business and education who explain what it takes to be successful whether the youths are preparing for advanced education or skills training after high school that leads to a good job.

And because a lot of the Ducks families, disproportionately single parents, are struggling emotionally and financially without work and regular school meals due to the coronavirus, friends of the Ducks, including at North Memorial, MacPherson’s company, U.S. internet and North Star Premium Foods, have been providing groceries delivered by Duck players and coaches.

Nelson is often accompanied on grocery and other missions by Dashon Amos, 13, a bright young Duck who Nelson mentors. He’s also a budding high school quarterback.

“We have day-care workers, retail workers and other parents of some of the kids who have lost their jobs,” Nelson said. “The food is important, but it’s also important that the families see that the Ducks and our supporters care.”

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144