Aaliyah Edwards wears her mindset on her hair.
The Canadian freshman on the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team has rocked purple and gold braids since Grade 8.
It’s a constant reminder of the late Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality.’
“My brother and I, we’re very big fans of his and just love the Lakers team also. So growing up, I would watch so many videos of him trying to do the same moves as him, do the fadeaway jump shot, biting my jersey, all that stuff,” Edwards said.
Edwards, 19, is a forward entering her first year at UConn. The Kingston, Ont., native was recruited by famed head coach Geno Auriemma out of Crestwood Preparatory College and arrived in Storrs, Conn., in late July.
Edwards’ collegiate career, already delayed due to the pandemic, was postponed another two weeks Tuesday after a member of the UConn program tested positive for coronavirus. The earliest the Huskies can now play, if medically cleared, is Dec. 15 against Butler.
But if Edwards is anything like Kobe, she’ll stay ready for whenever the moment is that she can make her debut.
“I just love his Mamba Mentality because there’s so much focus on the game and grinding in the gym. But what’s most important, I’ve learned over the years, is the significance of your mental competitiveness, because you can get so distracted and it will turn your whole game off for the next three quarters. It’s that capability of saying, ‘Oh, I missed the layup.’ But that bounce back to next-play mentality is really what’s important,” Edwards said.
“I just love watching videos of [Bryant] just speaking and sharing his knowledge and everything. So it really just came from my brother, his love, and he gave it to me and now rocking the braids.”
Not only does Edwards credit brothers Jermaine and Jahmal for introducing her to Bryant, but she says they paved the way for her basketball career altogether. They were the first to put a ball in her hands and have her dribble around the house.
“The first time I did competitive basketball was in Grade 6 when my brother [Jermaine] and my mom were my coaches. And you can just imagine how stressful that is, having someone you call mom push that from coach to mom and [for] my brother to coach and kind of that frustration that you can get with the game.”
Still, Edwards credits that extra push for making her the high-motor, highly competitive player she is today.
In Grade 6, Edwards would have been roughly 12. Three years later, she made her Canadian national team debut at the 2017 FIBA U16 Americas tournament. Edwards says that was the stepping stone she needed to pursue the sport full-time.
She played that tournament just four months after Jermaine died at 27 years old. His cause of death was not made public.
“Jermaine and Aaliyah were very close and I think always will be,” mother Jackie Edwards told the Kingston Whig Standard just after that FIBA tournament.
In terms of basketball style, that sentiment still holds true.
“Jermaine brought an intensity to the team that we have really missed,” said Jermaine’s college head coach, Barry Smith, just after his passing. “There was a reason that he averaged the number of minutes a game that he did. He was not a scorer, but made up for his lack of scoring by his own personal drive and by pushing his teammates.”
Canadian women’s national team head coach Lisa Thomaidis had similar praise for Aaliyah.
“I think the biggest thing with her is she competes, you know, she really competes hard. She’s got a great motor.”
Auriemma said those traits remind him of UConn great and 2019 WNBA rookie of the year and all-star Napheesa Collier.
“She plays hard like ‘Pheesa does, she has a lot of energy like ‘Pheesa did. She has a motor like ‘Pheesa had. She goes, at both ends, offensively and defensively, rebounding the ball, getting to the basket,” he told the Hartford Courant.
Edwards is part of a group of six freshmen at UConn, a young team for the storied program. That should give her plenty of playing time to shine, and perhaps make an even greater push toward the Canadian Olympic roster in 2021.
Thomaidis says she’s looking for Edwards to continue developing overall consistency, specifically on the defensive end, in her first season with the Huskies.
“The sky’s the limit for her. She’s certainly going to have a long career with senior national team as long as she continues to grow and improve and has a love for the game and competes hard. There’s so much that I think she can accomplish with us,” Thomaidis said.
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Already, the coach envisions Edwards playing a versatile role. At 6-foot-3, she has the skillset to become the positionless player that’s become en vogue in recent years — someone who can play inside out on offence and guard virtually every position on defence.
On the court, rebounding, ball handling and shooting range are traits Thomaidis and Auriemma agreed are strengths of Edwards.
Off the court, it’s that professional mindset.
“My dream has always been to be a part of the Olympic team. … But in terms of just my college career, I’m just looking to develop my game both physically and mentally, so that when I leave college, I’ll be at that level where I can either go pro in the WNBA or overseas or both,” Edwards said.
It was 2015 when a 19-year-old Kia Nurse, Edwards’ Canadian UConn predecessor, led Canada to its first Pan Am gold medal in women’s basketball and emerged as the country’s next hoops star.
Edwards, who will turn 20 just weeks before the Tokyo Olympics, is looking to follow in Nurse’s footsteps.