For Jay Johnston and Brianne Pedersen, basketball has always been life. The two have dedicated their lives to leading the Kitchener-Waterloo Girls Basketball Association (KWGBA) with a goal of bringing basketball opportunities to girls across the Kitchener Waterloo (KW) area.
Decades ago, Pedersen’s father, Brian (Buzz) Henry saw the need for a girls-only basketball club in KW, which led to the establishment of the KW Lightning, where Pedersen played basketball throughout her youth. Eventually, the KWGBA followed in the footsteps of the KW Lightning as a girls-only club, where Pedersen, who is currently a high school teacher, continues to coach and administrate for.
In 2015, Henry came across the Jr. NBA program and started the application process for the club. Johnston, who has over three decades of coaching experience and serves on the KWGBA Board of Directors, saw the Jr. NBA program as an opportunity to deliver an early-development program to develop a strong base for the club.
“I knew that if we could teach the basic fundamentals and provide a positive and safe space where young girls can fail and learn, and bring them into a system where we can develop them as players, this would give us a winning opportunity to keep girls in the sport and build a strong community of girls basketball in the region,” said Johnston.
With the Jr. NBA curriculum built under Sport Canada’s Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) framework, providing youth with age-appropriate games and drills to learn basketball, Johnston felt Jr. NBA would be the perfect program to integrate. Not to mention, the Jr. NBA program has a $115 registration fee for a 12-week program, which makes the program accessible to children from all demographics and provides the children with a basketball and a jersey.
“The Jr. NBA is really for everyone,” Johnston continued. “It offers a great opportunity for young kids to come and play, not just basketball, but have fun and learn skill development of all kinds.”
With Johnston’s help, Pedersen and her colleague Kelly Schott, began locking in gym times and spreading the word that they would be offering a girls-only JR NBA program.
“I was lucky to have the opportunities when I was a little girl that my dad provided for me, so I wanted to be a part of doing the same for my daughters and other young girls,” said Pedersen.
“A lot of my network of friends, family, and athletes in town all have daughters too, so word spread quickly and the program was full almost right away,” said Pedersen.
With that, the very first Jr. NBA girls-only program in Canada was born.
The Jr. NBA program only continued to grow from there, with girls traveling from surrounding areas to be a part of the program, and quickly became the flagship of the KWGBA club.
KWGBA began offering the Jr. NBA program two nights a week with two back-to-back sessions as the demand for enrollments increased.
On why they believe the program has been such a success, Johnston feels it’s owed to the incredible support and sports spirit in the region of KW.
“There has been such a positive and strong response from the community,” Johnston said. “[The JR NBA Youth Basketball program] has amazing buy-in from our parents and community.”
Another big reason for the success is the incredible support the program gets from their volunteers, coaches and parents.
“We have such a strong volunteer and coaching base for these girls,” Jay continued. “One of the unique aspects of the program is the number of former OUA players who have now enrolled their own daughters in the KWGBA program. This is a blessing for us when we look to parents to join us on the court to help with some drills - it gives the girls the experience of learning from significantly experienced players who they can look up to.”
The KWGBA found that the Jr. NBA program also offered an exceptional opportunity for coaching development too. Many of the coaches who began coaching the Jr. NBA program, have moved up to continue coaching at the club level.
“The players who are on our older club teams come down and coach the Jr. NBA team. This allows for mentorship and role models to be built across our club. That’s my biggest piece of advice, involve your older girls in your club in coaching - give these girls the opportunity to be taught by girls that look like them and allow them to look up to them,” said Pedersen.
Pedersen, who is involved with the U12 team, is already seeing the positive impact the Jr. NBA program has had on development, as 9 of the 12 players on the U12 roster are Jr. NBA program alumni.
“The Jr. NBA is our bread and butter. We are building our program from the bottom up, this group is where we draw our U10, U11 and U12 teams,” said Pedersen.
“There are lots of girls who want the opportunity to play and when you can provide these girls the opportunity to learn amongst other girls, their confidence increases and they are more comfortable to learn. It’s really special to see,” she added.
For those interested in getting involved with the Jr. NBA program or in creating a girls only program, their advice is starting small is better than not starting at all.
“Don't be afraid if your numbers are small in the first year. It’s somewhere to start - our first session was only 20 girls each, but once the program was underway, it spread like wildfire,” said Pedersen.
When it comes to all the work it takes to run a successful program, it is all worthwhile for Pedersen and Johnston.
“Seeing these kids grow up, and having them call you Coach is one of the greatest things you can get out of life. My most prideful part about being in the basketball world is having people call me Coach,” said Johnston.
For Pedersen, being able to offer a basketball experience to her three daughters through the KWGBA and the Jr. NBA program is what makes it all worthwhile for her.
“The confidence levels of my daughters since they began this program and being in basketball - is astronomical. The development is one thing, but seeing how happy it makes them to be involved in basketball and knowing they are making friendships that will last a lifetime, that is the most rewarding part for me,” she said.
As their Jr. NBA program continues to expand and grow, one thing is for sure - the KWGBA Phoenix's main focus will always be finding more opportunities to allow more girls to play basketball.
“We are all girls, all the way - that’s our jam. That’s our philosophy - we want to provide opportunities for girls. We will always remain champions of girls basketball.”