The thought of going into sports as a career may seem unthinkable to most—especially in Canada, where if you’re not into hockey, there’s no other sport in which you can inch your way up professionally. That was the case for Salee Johnson-Edwards, a Brampton native and new head coach of the tri-campus women’s basketball team, whose career has taken her to the U.S. and back to her home and native land, all because of her love of basketball.
Growing up in Brampton during a time when basketball was not a sport that fans paid attention to, Johnson-Edwards found her love for the game in a rather unorthodox way: through Toys “R” Us.
“I was with my grandparents, who were visiting from New York,” she recalls. “I picked up the ball and started bouncing it, my grandfather asked if I wanted it, and the rest is history.”
Johnson-Edwards found joy in playing the game, and as she entered grade school at Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts in Toronto, where she majored in music vocals, she quickly realized that perhaps music was not the path for her. “There were no varsity sports there,” she says. “I knew I had to pick either singing or basketball.”
The choice was simple for Johnson-Edwards, and once she realized that it was possible to get a scholarship to play division basketball in the U.S., she made it her goal—a goal that was realized when she was selected to play for the University of New Hampshire.
“Playing in the States was a dream come true,” she says. “It was hard and challenging, and when I was not playing it was very tough to sit on the bench.”
But her hard work paid off when she became a starter, averaging 30 minutes a game in her senior year. “My overall experience was very educational and I was able to take away a lot of things from my experience as a player and relate it to my coaching career,” she says.
Johnson-Edwards started her coaching career for a local rep IEM basketball program in Newmarket. After getting a feel for coaching, she moved up to a head coaching position for a junior college team in Bel Air, Maryland at Harford Community College, where she coached for two years before moving up yet again to the college level at Monmouth University in New Jersey as an assistant coach under Stephanie Gaitley for a year.
Gaitley was given a new head coaching post at Fordham University in the Bronx and brought over Johnson-Edwards and the rest of the coaching staff with her.
Johnson-Edwards remained an assistant coach for two more years before moving back to Canada in 2013.
Johnson-Edwards’ current coaching job at UTM harks back to when she was in grade eight playing on a regional team in Ontario coached by the RAWC’s varsity program coordinator Jack Krist. With the move to the OCAA this year, Krist was unable to maintain his position as head coach of the tri-campus women’s basketball team and believed Johnson-Edwards was the best person for the job, reaching out to her in the summer of 2014 to take on the new role.
“Coaching the tri-campus team is a lot like my time coaching in Maryland,” she says. “It has been fun getting to know the players and it has always been fun getting to understand the landscape of the current state of Canadian basketball in the college and university setting.”
As for whether she’s noticed a difference between the CIS and NCAA, Johnson-Edwards says, “The NCAA is a whole different beast and is treated very much like a business.” In regards to her team, she notes that although the team’s record may not show it, they are working hard and improving with each game.
Johnson-Edwards does not think of her position as coach per se but instead as a teacher. “I’m always trying to teach my players just so that they can be the best players they can,” she says. “I love the game and love seeing players get better and more confident in playing. That’s my reward.”
Aside from coaching, Johnson-Edwards is a mother of two and spends her time off the court with her family, a part of her life that is very important to her.
With the changing landscape of UTM sports and the intro into the OCAA, expect to see more of the tri-campus women’s players and Johnson-Edwards as the Eagles move their program into the future.
This article has been corrected from the print edition. Two occurrences of “NCAA” mistakenly read “OCAA”.