Every time Aaliyah Edwards steps on a basketball court, she’s trying to carry on a legacy. One of those legacies is of Kobe Bryant — a favorite player of hers since childhood whom her flowing purple and gold braids pay homage to.
Edwards’ older brother by over a decade, Jermaine, would always bring young Aaliyah along when he went to the gym. Himself a disciple of Bryant, Jermaine taught her Kobe’s moves and tried to instill the Mamba Mentality in his little sister.
“We were always in the gym — he’d kind of recite or reiterate some of the words of wisdom that Kobe spoke and also some of the skills that he saw Kobe do to try and put it into my game,” Edwards said.
Together, the siblings studied Bryant’s game closely and held his competitive spirit and drive to succeed in high regard.
Kobe and the Lakers quickly became a part of Edwards’ everyday life. She decked out her room in purple and gold colors, and in eighth grade, Edwards added the iconic braids to her hair.
“I just wanted to be different,” she said about changing up her hair. “I’m a pretty creative person so I wanted to change it up a little bit and then it just stuck.”
While at Crestwood Prep in Toronto, Edwards started reading Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim Grover, a trainer who worked with the likes of Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Dwayne Wade.
The book proved to be a turning point in Edwards’ career.
“I think that book meant a lot to her and it kind of gave her some insight on Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, etc,” Crestwood head coach Marlo Davis said.
While Edwards always wanted to be like Bryant, Relentless showed her how to do so.
“Being in the gym, it’s not like you have to be in the gym for two hours. If you’re in there for 45 minutes, it’s an efficient amount of work that you’re getting done,” she explained. “Watching film’s also very important ... hydration and eating healthy, that plays a big part in being a successful basketball player, and also stretching and taking care of your body. So when I read about or when I watched all the things that he was doing, little by little I put something like that into that my daily routine so I can challenge myself every day.”
Davis watched as all those little things added up. While Edwards’ size, motor, and versatility stood out from the first time he saw her play as a freshman, she started to approach the game differently after reading the book — she started to act like a professional.
After Crestwood returned home from a two-game weekend road trip on Sunday morning, the entire team went home to recharge before school on Monday. Well, everyone except Edwards.
“We came back Sunday morning or something and she messaged me, ‘Can you open the gym?’ on Sunday evening,” Davis said. “I was like, ‘Okay, you’re different.’”
As Edwards developed into one of the top basketball prospects in Canada and began to earn caps on the youth national teams, those purple and gold braids stood out to all those who watched her dominate.
“People say it’s really my trademark at this point because I’ve had it in for so long and it’s how most people know me by. Like if I play with FIBA or internationally, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, there’s the girl with the purple and yellow hair.’”
Though UConn has a host of rules about a player’s appearance — tattoos can’t be visible during a game, nail polish can’t be worn during the season, etc. — Edwards never received any pushback about her hair from anyone in the program.
“There’s nothing really against it. No one really brought it up but I do know UConn’s really famous for being pretty professional and all the same,” Edwards said. “But I kind of think that there’s like an unspoken meaning behind it and they already knew that it was more than just for fashion or for looks.”
Though Bryant provided Edwards with a professional role model to look up to, Jermaine played a direct part in her development. Not only did he get her hooked on basketball and the Lakers in the first place, he often coached her growing up and instilled the tough and competitive nature she brings every minute she’s on the court.
“Her mom told me a story of her brother playing her one-on-one. She’s a kid and he’d beat her, she’d cry and he’d tell her stop crying and then they’ll go get ice cream, but he’s gonna beat her again tomorrow,” Davis relayed. “They didn’t take it easy on her. They prepared her for this moment to be great on this stage.”
Despite the significant age difference between the two, Aaliyah and Jermaine bonded over basketball and their shared love of Kobe.
“That was that was their thing,” Davis said. “They would go to the gym together. They would do everything together and his love for Kobe and her love for him and idolizing her brother naturally transferred it to her loving Kobe.”
In 2017, Jermaine unexpectedly passed away at age 27. The family never publicly shared the cause of death. For Edwards, basketball and their love of Bryant are her remaining connections to him. Every time Edwards steps up to the free-throw line, she points to the sky — a tribute to Jermaine. By embodying the Mamba Mentality Jermaine taught her and wearing those colors in her hair, she keeps Jermaine’s memory alive every time she steps on the court.
Davis told the story of the 2020 Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association finals when Crestwood went down by 15 at the break only for Edwards to carry the team back with a huge second half. In the closing moments, she was fouled and went to the line.
“She came over to me before she shot the free throws and I told her ‘This is what your brother prepared you for,’” Davis said. “To make those free throws under the pressure, the gym is full all this noise, her brother was with her and he prepared her to be great in those moments.”
“That was her Mamba moment.”
The stakes will be even higher for Edwards when UConn takes on Baylor in the Elite Eight. Though her purple and gold braids may honor Bryant when she takes the floor, it was, as Davis said, her brother who prepared her to be great in these moments.
“I think just living through him and what he taught me has gotten me to this point and continuing to be successful and to use those things that he taught me into my game and to my development, it’s just making me a better player and a better person,” she said.