Every single day, a specific necklace loops around the neck of Shak Edwards.
A black, fabric cord holds a hanging gold basketball and hoop pendant, which contains the ashes of her late aunt Jody Brown — a way for Edwards to carry her role model with her through every step of life.
Brown was only six years older than Edwards before losing her fight with cancer when she was just 21 years old. Brown was a standout basketball player with professional ambitions, after starring with Eastern Commerce, a Toronto high school.
“It was like being hit by a bus,” said Edwards, who at just 15 years old lost both her mentor and love for basketball, leading her to step away from the sport for a six-month span.
But the following season, basketball served as Edwards' means of healing. She got back on the hardwood with her friends, which guided her through a battle with depression and ultimately, helped her understand she needed basketball to be a part of her life for the rest of her life.
“I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I didn’t know where I was going to do it, but I wanted to do it,” said Edwards. “I wanted to be in the basketball world — someway, somehow.”
Fast forward, Edwards has certainly found her how and where. She is at the forefront of youth basketball in Barrie, Ont., where she is now shaping the next generation.
Edwards is the founder of Shak’s World Community Centre, a 12,588-square-foot facility that opened its doors in her hometown of Barrie on Nov. 1st, 2020. The space houses Jr. NBA programs, as well as house leagues, semi-private training and programming for at-risk youth and developmentally-delayed youth — all with the hopes of using basketball as a bridge to better the community around her.
“When Shak first reached out to partner with us to start a Jr. NBA program, it was a no brainer. Her journey coupled with her passion for youth and basketball, aligns perfectly with our Jr. NBA mission and values,” said Benjamin Li, Youth Development Coordinator at Canada Basketball.
“We’re so grateful to have champions like Shak use her experience to make a positive impact to the youth in the program, and we know Shak’s World will be a transformational space for youth to be a part of for years to come!”
Shak’s World also holds an annual basketball tournament in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association and other organizations with the goal of bettering resources for youth.
The mental health connection is one that hits close to home for Edwards. Her first-hand understanding of the power of sport, coupled with an educational background in behavioural science and psychology has ensured she prioritized the well-being of players both on and off the court.
When she returned to basketball following the passing of her aunt, Edwards’ coach Ion Margethis was there for her. Edwards, who was coached by Margethis throughout her career, relied upon him for rides to games and practices and as someone to talk to throughout it all.
“He would show up for me — every single time. No questions asked,” said Edwards. “I remember, at that time, thinking to myself ‘What a blessing to have someone like this.’”
Now Edwards is attempting to be that role model.
“I want to be that person for the next kid,” said Edwards. “That really pushes me as a mentor now. It also adds to why I feel so humbled to be a part of all of these kids' lives. I know that if I can be that positive role model, I can potentially spark something in them — and there's nothing more fulfilling than being able to harness and accelerate the passion of a young person.”
“Ball really is my life — it is my whole life and teaching the next generations is what I do.”
When Edwards says “Ball is life,” she’s not lying. At the age of five, she got her official introduction to the sport on the schoolyard, shooting hoops with her four brothers. Her passion for the game continued throughout high school, where she wore a number of hats, serving as a player, as well as coach, convenor, scorekeeper and referee — foreshadowing the versatility she continues to possess in her career.
“Basketball was always my catalyst,” said Edwards, who explained the sport has helped her learn how to run a business, connect with community members and work as a teammate.
And for Edwards, it all comes back to the connection with her late aunt. Brown had the hopes of making a career in the game of basketball. Now, her niece is following in her footsteps — a feat she doesn’t take lightly.
“She inspired me in so many ways that I hope to inspire the next generation. I don’t have to be a professional basketball player to still make an impact through basketball.”