CHERRY, MINN. – The lights in the high school gym go dark, leaving a single spotlight trained on the home bench as the starting lineups are introduced. The star attraction dances the Griddy through a tunnel of teammates when his name gets called.
It's Friday night. Packed house. Tough opponent. And Isaac Asuma is ready to put on a show.
He'd been ready for some time.
"This is going to be a fun night," he had said a few hours before tipoff.
One of the state's best basketball players can be found in this sparse outpost along Hwy. 37 in northern Minnesota, an area known for mining and hockey.
Locals note with a chuckle that Cherry isn't even a town but a township, population 809. Located between Hibbing and Eveleth on the Iron Range, it has one school building for grades pre-K through 12 and one nearby dining option — the Thirsty Moose Bar & Grill, offering killer wings.
This is also home to a high school point guard who makes magic with a basketball in his hands and has major college coaches eager to sign him.
Asuma is the biggest show in town(ship). Now he's putting Cherry basketball on the map.
. . .
As a sophomore last season, he led his team to its second appearance in the state tournament, where he put on a dazzling display. A scholarship offer from Gophers coach Ben Johnson came next, followed by more from Iowa and Iowa State among a handful of Division I programs.
Asuma's profile soared last summer, when he competed against elite players nationally as a member of the D1 Minnesota AAU program based in the Twin Cities. His mother, Jolene, drove him six hours round-trip twice a week during spring and summer months so he could practice with his AAU team.
College coaches love the way he plays, as a true point guard who doesn't need to score to influence games. At 6-3 and 170 pounds, Asuma does everything well in a style both smooth and forceful.
A large poster of Asuma hangs on the gym wall, honoring him as the school's all-time leading scorer. He will become the school's first D-I basketball player.
Multiple college head coaches have made the trek to Cherry to visit him. When Cherry played in an event at Hopkins in December, not only did Minnesota's Johnson bring his entire coaching staff to watch, most of the Gophers roster showed up, too.
"That was amazing," said Asuma (pronounced "awesome-ah".)
His impact in school and community extends beyond the basketball court. He is neck-and-neck to be class valedictorian, maintaining a 3.93 grade-point average while taking advanced placement classes.
If the school gave an award for most congenial, Asuma would win. He is the smiling definition of Minnesota Nice.
He serves on a student leadership committee and has earned so much trust that he has a key to the school so he can arrive 90 minutes before first bell to shoot baskets.
Cherry Principal Michael Johnson had Asuma make a video about proper behavior in school. Teachers in the elementary wing of the building show the video to their classes.
When elementary school children see Asuma walking through the cafeteria, they watch in awe and shout his name. He smiles and waves back.
Last year Principal Johnson was giving a new student from a neighboring community a school tour. Asuma walked over, introduced himself and welcomed the student. The kid beamed. He already knew of Asuma.
Cherry basketball coach Jordan Christianson shared this background with a college coach who had asked about Asuma's character. The coach's reaction: Seriously?
Christianson assured him it is all true.
"He's genuinely an A-plus kid," the coach said. "He's just a phenomenal human."
The credit starts at home, with the love of an expansive extended family that arrived in Cherry several generations ago. Asuma's cheering section at the game last Friday night included 52 relatives.
. . .
The first wave of the Asuma clan came to Cherry from Finland for mining opportunities. They spoke no English. They were Jolene's great-grandparents. The family expanded like a spider web, forming a network of uncles and aunts and cousins who grew up as close as siblings.
Jolene and her siblings were raised on a hobby farm, which meant they became proficient at throwing hay bales. The Asuma kids played multiple sports at Cherry High, with Jolene and older sister Jean becoming 1,000-point scorers in basketball. Both continued their basketball at North Dakota State College of Science.
Jolene became pregnant with Isaac at school when she was 20. She had another son, Noah, 18 months after Isaac. Jean gave birth to a son, Isaiah, less than a year later.
The sisters moved to Duluth and lived together, raising the three boys as single mothers until Isaac was 6. They married their current husbands soon thereafter and settled back in Cherry.
The sisters taught their boys the game of basketball, coaching their teams throughout elementary school. They stressed fundamentals and defense.
"It came to our first game and we were like, oh shoot, they need to know how to play offense too," Jolene said, laughing.
The boys were quick studies. Isaac exhibited natural skill and instincts. He started for the varsity as a seventh-grader, partly because of low participation but more because he was supremely talented, even though he was only 5-3 and wafer-thin.
The team went 0-22 that season. Jolene occasionally left the gym on the verge of tears from watching her son struggle against opponents six years older.
"It was so hard as a mom to watch," she said.
Christianson took over as coach the next year, replacing Jolene's uncle Bob, who had coached Cherry basketball for three decades. Christianson first watched Isaac play as a fourth-grader. In that game, teammates dropped his pinpoint passes on three consecutive possessions. It happened again a few minutes later.
Christianson stopped Isaac after the game and asked if he got frustrated watching teammates fumble his passes.
"Not really," he replied. "It's the right play."
The right play? What fourth-grader makes that observation?
"His basketball IQ is something I haven't seen," Christianson said.
It also helps that he knows his teammates so well.
Brother Noah starts on varsity as a ninth-grader and averages 10 points. He already holds baseball scholarship offers from the Gophers and Iowa. Cousin Isaiah is a budding star in multiple sports as an eighth-grader. He started on the basketball team, too, averaging double figures in scoring, before breaking his collarbone recently.
The Asuma lineage can be found everywhere in the gym on game night.
Jolene keeps the scorebook. Her husband, Nick, runs the scoreboard. Jean's husband, Bobby, handles livestream video. The bleachers are filled with relatives.
The members of the immediate Asuma family — Jolene, Jean, brother Jay and their parents — live within 2½ miles of one another. Sunday nights are family time. In keeping with Finnish custom, they all gather for a sauna and dinner.
"It's a social thing," Jean said.
The sauna at Grandpa John's house features a changing room and steam room that seats six people comfortably. In warmer months, Isaac and the grandkids cool off by jumping into the West Two River that runs through the 40-acre property.
. . .
Within this familial cocoon sprouted an elite basketball player. Isaac has not set a timetable for choosing a college. His immediate focus is to bring Cherry back to the state tournament and then play another AAU season with D1 Minnesota, which means many more hours of driving for his mother.
"I'm super blessed to have her as my mom," he said.
He kept his mom busy logging his points in the scorebook in a 68-59 win over a tough Fosston team last Friday.
His final stat line: 27 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals, one block. He made 10 of 16 shots.
"He controls the entire game," Fosston coach Ben Hemberger said. "He makes everybody on that team so much better."
Cherry students and spectators gathered outside the locker room to congratulate players after the game. A group swarmed Isaac as he emerged through the door. Between hugs and fist bumps, he pulled away to thank a visitor for coming to watch him play.
The mood was jubilant. Plans were made to grab fast food in Hibbing later to celebrate the big win. The star attraction had been proven correct in his declaration hours earlier. This was a fun night in Cherry, Minnesota