Cherry basketball star comes to Cromwell


February 24, 2023

Pine Knot columnist Steve Korby with his latest interview subject, Cherry basketball star Isaac Asuma.

Oh, there have been a few, but not that many. I tried to think back on who would be on the all-time list of Division I college boys basketball prospects from northeastern Minnesota. Even though the hardwood has been a favorite forum for many young local athletes, a limited number have excelled enough to tread with the college and professional basketball elite.

Of course, there is Kevin McHale and John Retica from Hibbing, Terry Kunze and Greg Downing and Como Pontliana from Duluth Central, Pat Foschi from Virginia, Rick and Lew Rickert and Mark Lindahl from Duluth East, Alex Illikainen and Eric Webb from Grand Rapids, the Bromans from Duluth Lakeview and Chad Calcaterra from Cloquet. I'm sure I'm forgetting some. On average, Minnesota produces only about 25 Division I players annually. Most are from the Twin Cities area, with the point being very few Division I players are coming from the hotbed for boys hockey, namely northeastern Minnesota.

So, it was with keen interest that I recently read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about Gophers prospect and Cherry High School junior Isaac Asuma. He led the Tigers to last year's boys Class A state basketball tournament. The 6-foot-3 Asuma has been a Cherry varsity basketball starter since the seventh grade.

When I read that Cherry was playing Cromwell-Wright on Valentine's Day, I had to go and try to see this Range phenom. The Cherry team is still a very young squad - as is the Cardinals starting five - but are likely favorites for the state tournament again.

Hoping to talk to Asuma, I drove from Cloquet early to the junior varsity game at the Cromwell gymnasium. I parked and ran to the school in the rain, bought my ticket and was looking forward to being basketball-entertained.

At halftime of the JV game, I got about 10 minutes of Isaac's time for an interview. His confidence and enthusiasm are very evident. Even though Cherry was a heavy favorite for the varsity game, Isaac wasn't taking anything for granted.

"Cromwell has a winning record and can't be overlooked," he told me. "We take each game very seriously."

His days now start by getting up at 6:30 a.m., going to the Cherry gym and shooting around with some teammates for about an hour before classes. Then, it's practice or a game after school, a little homework, some of his mom's gourmet cooking, and off to bed.

After losing their first game of the basketball season to Deer River, the Cherry Tigers are now on a 13-game win streak. They are ranked No. 3 in Minnesota Class A boys basketball. There are three Asuma relatives on the Cherry squad, with Isaac the oldest, but all are being considered for college scholarships. Isaac plays on the top-ranked D-I Minnesota AAU team in the summer, making the three-hour trip to the Twin Cities for practice twice a week.

"It's crazy," said Isaac. "The stands are filled with parents, but also college coaches and recruiters from across the country."

Asuma's great-great-grandparents were from Finland and came to the Cherry area to farm and work in the iron mines. I told him there were a lot of Finns in Cromwell and Carlton County that would likely offer him, a fellow Finn, a warm sauna after the game on such an unusual, rainy evening. He just politely smiled.

It was noticeable, from the JV players and others, how much Isaac is revered.

"With all the Cherry kids in one school, K-12, I'm the kindergartner's Lebron," he said, "but I'm honored and do like it." His favorite NBA players are point guards such as Steph Curry and Trae Young.

Although he's considering a lot of excellent D-I potential scholarship offers, including one from Coach Ben Johnson and the Gophers, Asuma won't likely make his official college choice until sometime during his senior year.

The Cromwell pep band, with its great rendition of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," had the crowd, including me, amped up, too. Yet the game started sluggishly with both teams feeling the other out and Cherry just leading 16-10.

Then Isaac and teammates started doing their magic.

Cherry utilized a full-court pressure defense. It seemed like with the blink of an eye, Isaac stole the ball, spun completely around and made a perfect two-handed chest pass to a streaking teammate for a layup. He then split two Cromwell defenders and scored an easy basket. Next, No. 3 got an offensive rebound and two-hand slam dunked it. (And, Coach Johnson, he made his free throws ... a Gopher flaw this year.)

By halftime, it was Cherry 52, Cromwell 14 after an impressive run by the highly ranked team led by Asuma.

The second half found Cherry cruising, and most of the reserves getting extended minutes of play, with the final score Cherry 85, Cromwell 28. Asuma's box score totals included 17 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists - nearly a triple double.

After the game, I had a chance to ask former Cloquet star athletic player Dean Levinski, now Cromwell's JV basketball coach, for his assessment of Asuma.

"He's really smooth, sees the entire floor well, and anticipates players' actions. He's a great leaper, excellent defender, and gets all of his teammates involved. He's a tough matchup and I understand the reasons for his recognition," Levinski said.

Asuma is already Cherry's all-time leading scorer and their first D-I prospect, and he's only a junior. Wow. It's a Cherry jubilee.

Steve Korby's interest in writing goes back to when he was in fourth grade and editor of the Scan-Satellite school newspaper in Scanlon. He welcomes ideas for human interest stories and tales regarding Carlton County residents, projects, history, and plans c/o [email protected].


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