'Playing for him now': UConn's Aaliyah Edwards draws from lessons learned from deceased brother

Photo of Mike Anthony

Sometimes young Aaliyah Edwards’ eyes would well up and tears would roll down her cheeks as she absorbed what her relentless older brother, Jermaine, brought to the grueling workouts of her childhood.

They would play game after game of 1 on 1 at the Royal Military College of Canada in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, and Jermaine never took it easy. Edwards would keep trying to score and defend no matter how physically and emotionally taxing the situation.

“He showed me tough love, because that is what I needed,” said Edwards, a freshman emerging as a stalwart forward for the top-ranked UConn women’s basketball team. “At the time, I didn’t know that. I could see it as, ‘He’s just picking on me and he doesn’t know what he’s saying.’ But he knew.”

Those sessions, and what usually followed, are among Edwards’ most precious memories.

After basketball, they would drive a couple of kilometers to White Mountain Homemade Ice Cream, just off the waterfront where the St. Lawrence River takes water from Lake Ontario and begins flowing toward the Atlantic Ocean. There, they would talk about life and basketball over scoops of, almost always, mint chocolate chip.

“You’ve got that sibling rivalry when you’re playing,” Edwards said. “He was more developed than me, older, stronger. I’d get frustrated. I’d get upset. But what makes me the player I am today is overcoming challenges. He knew, down the line, that was going to be important. I really cherish those moments because that’s where we bonded most. On the court, we don’t like each other. Off the court, ice cream. We’re just brother and sister and I, for sure, loved those moments.”

UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards (3) drives to the basket against Seton Hall forward Skylar Treadwell during the second half of an NCAA basketball game on Tuesday, Dec.15, 2020, in South Orange, N.J. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards (3) drives to the basket against Seton Hall forward Skylar Treadwell during the second half of an NCAA basketball game on Tuesday, Dec.15, 2020, in South Orange, N.J. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

Noah K. Murray / Associated Press

It’s been four years since the Edwards family lost Jermaine. He died unexpectedly at age 27 on Feb. 17, 2017 — a heart issue, Aaliyah Edwards said. Marking the anniversary last week, she posted a collage of photos on Instagram and wrote “Not a day goes by without you on my mind,” with two heart emojis.

Edwards is where she is today, in part, because of her brother.

She is who she is today, in part, because of her brother.

She even looks the way she does today, in part, because of her brother.

Edwards’ chosen hair style, long purple and gold braids that cover her back, is a salute to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in general, but more specifically to the admiration for Bryant she shared with her brother. Aaliyah and Jermaine connected over basketball, and through an appreciation for Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality.”

“He was very passionate,” Edwards said of her brother. “That’s where my development and my love for Kobe and basketball in general, a foundation of how to play the game, came from.”

Undaunted from the first time she checked into a UConn game, Edwards, 6-foot-3, is averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds and leading the Huskies with a 67.6 shooting percentage. She is skilled, active, tough. She is the also youngest UConn player besides Saylor Poffenbarger, who graduated high school early and joined the team in January.

It has almost always been this way, young Edwards with much to prove — in levels of youth basketball in Kingston, at Crestwood Prep in Toronto, on different rungs of the Canada Basketball ladder, certainly as a member of the Canadian senior national team. If she makes the 12-player roster, Edwards will be Canada’s youngest player at the Tokyo Olympic games. She turns 19 in July.

GENTLE OUTSIDE OF THE GAME

Kingston was the capital of Canada in the 1840s and its military history defines the city’s landscape today. Situated almost directly between Toronto and Montreal, it is home to Queens University, one of the country’s top public institutions. While its population is similar to that of Hartford and New Haven, it offers a small-town feel.

It is the type of place — in the Edwards’ experience, anyway — where neighbors clear their driveway of snow so a certain basketball prodigy has ample room to dribble past sunset, where those who are awake in time get used to seeing that girl run the streets at 5 a.m., where people drive by honking and waving while she trains.

Aaliyah Edwards is a big deal in Kingston.

“One of our fondest memories: there was this little girl just staring at her, tugging at her dad’s pant leg,” said Jackie Edwards, Aaliyah’s mother and former travel team coach. “The dad came over and said, ‘Are you Mrs. Edwards?’ I said yes and he said, ‘My daughter would just love to meet Aaliyah.’ This little girl lit up — just, this smile — in the ice cream parlor. Aaliyah said, ‘Let me grab you an ice cream. What flavor do you want?’ That is who Aaliyah is.”

UConn recruit Aaliyah Edwards

UConn recruit Aaliyah Edwards

Canada Basketball / Contributed photo

Jackie Edwards and her husband, Sanford “Eddie” Edwards, are civil servants for the federal government. Both are originally from Toronto and have athletic backgrounds. Their sons — Jermaine, and Jahmal, now 27 — were high school and college basketball players in Canada.

Aaliyah, a decorated high school track competitor, has an athletic gift that she has honed through years of specialized basketball work with the get-out-of-my-way doggedness she took from her parents and brothers. She’s also a powerful force in that she’s as gentle outside of the game as she is forceful within it.

Edwards is an animal lover who has been a vegetarian since age 7, when she swore off meat upon learning how it was processed. She considered studying animal science and biology at UConn before settling on communications because it is more manageable with considerable basketball demands.

There’s an innocence to Edwards’ demeanor, a kindness. Giggles and smiles laced a recent half-hour conversation that re-traced her steps from Kingston to Toronto, through globetrotting with the Canadian national program, and to Storrs.

BRING YOUR BEST EVERY POSSESSION

In the year after Jermaine’s death, Aaliyah left Kingston to attend Crestwood. With a rigorous academic standard and high athletic profile, the school provided desirable platforms for Edwards, who American college coaches were just beginning to scout. She was a 16-year-old kid just starting to navigate an increasingly complicated basketball life without a brother who was equal parts demanding coach and supportive best friend.

“She’s very mature,” said Crestwood coach Marlo Davis, who played collegiately in Canada and at North Carolina-Wilmington. “The way we’d talk about her is, she’s a pro, in terms of her respect for the game and her teammates. She was a kid that a lot of people saw potential in, but where she’s from … there’s not a lot of basketball there. When she transferred to Crestwood, it was like someone going from upstate or Buffalo to New York City.”

Edwards lived with a billet family near campus. The players at Crestwood and other schools went at her hard. Edwards was built for that, of course. She was trained for that. With the devastation of loss, she also carried Jermaine’s messages, the lessons she took from time with him.

“The Kobe mentality is what Jermaine embraced,” Jackie Edwards said. “I think the two of them are in heaven having a one on one. That is what he taught Aaliyah. How you respect the game is to bring your best to every single possession. All other things will come.”

Edwards led Crestwood to two Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association championships. She was 17 when she debuted with Canada’s senior national team.

UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards, left, fights for a rebound against Xavier guard Kae Satterfield (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in Cincinnati. UConn won 83-32. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)

UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards, left, fights for a rebound against Xavier guard Kae Satterfield (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in Cincinnati. UConn won 83-32. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)

Gary Landers / Associated Press

Imagine that. A high school junior mixing it up with professional players. A kid traveling the world with women who had made a career of the sport. A young student sometimes taking exams in the gyms of another country while working toward becoming an Olympian.

“She’s got physical talents,” Canada coach Lisa Thomaidis said. “She’s relentless on the glass and that sets her apart. She carries herself with confidence. Just over a year ago we were at the FIBAs in Puerto Rico and playing against the U.S. team — WNBA all-stars and such — and she didn’t look scared in any way. Her physical talent can take her a long way, and she competes. It takes time to master the game, but in terms of her competitive fire and work ethic, she checks all those boxes.”

Tokyo is an attainable goal. Edwards is part of a pool of 20 players that will be cut to 12. The older players, UConn’s Kia Nurse among them, have embraced her.

Almost like she is Team Canada’s little sister.

ALWAYS ABOUT TEAM

Jackie Edwards remembers the first call from Geno Auriemma, who had seen Aaliyah play at a camp during the 2019 Final Four in Tampa.

“He said, ‘I watched her run up and down the court unlike anybody else’ and he said she was like a woman playing against girls,” Jackie Edwards said. “He went on to say Aaliyah was the one who, when there was an injury before halftime and everybody was running to the changing room, she doubled back to make sure an opposing athlete was OK. He said she subbed out with a smile and took the court with a smile. He said those are the things you can’t coach. Then he said, ‘I just want an opportunity to be in the mix. I’m asking you for the opportunity to recruit her.’”

Jackie Edwards told Auriemma, “There are some values we have as a family and it’s important who Aaliyah is outside of basketball. Part of what you’re recruiting is that person. We don’t ever want to her to change. We don’t want her to lose her care or compassion or her humility. He said, ‘I just want an opportunity for her to get to know us and for us to get to know you guys.’ … We did a lot of the initial engagement and, ultimately, we said it’s (Aaliyah’s) decision. ‘Go where you want to go. Make sure you factor in who you are.’”

Edwards committed to UConn in October 2019. In December 2020, as Edwards prepared to make her debut, Nurse recorded herself reading a letter she wrote to Edwards. It was set to music and UConn highlights and aired on TSN’S SportsCentre.

“Dear Aaliyah. You’ve earned this. Four years of chances to wear that white jersey with those five letters in navy blue: U-C-O-N-N. Do you know why there’s a number on the back of your jersey but no name?”

Edwards has always been about team. Torn, she almost skipped a Canada Basketball trip because of an obligation to a Crestwood relay competition. Track teammates convinced her to make the trip — You have a chance to represent your country! — and Aaliyah called for updates from a basketball facility on the day of the meet.

It’s hard to imagine a more complicated or rewarding few years for a young student-athlete juggling lingering heartbreak and increasing opportunity. Edwards was built, trained, to meet the demands of the existence her brother envisioned. She has always been the little sister who wound up admired by elders. Edwards cried when mentioning her time with the national team.

“They took me under their wing,” Edwards said. “They pushed me, similar to my brother. You need that tough love. Basketball is not a take-your-hand, let-me-guide-you sport. You get tossed into the fight with the dogs and you have to fight or you get beat up.”

Edwards has fought, endured. She has, time and again, been made to feel part of something because she is viewed as someone strong and wise beyond her years.

“Every day, I think about what (Jermaine) would be saying,” Edwards said. “I think about what he’d be fixing, what he’d be saying, what he’d be joking around about, critiquing me. I’m living through him whenever I play basketball. I’m playing for him now.”

mike.anthony@hearstmedia.com; @MAnthonyHearst