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How Dr. Jonathon Edwards expanded access to basketball for Fredericton youth

Author: Alex Graham

Posted on Feb 6, 2024

Category: UNB Fredericton

Contributing to the sports world was something Jonathon Edwards always thought he would do. What he didn’t envision is that it would be for a sport he knew very little about – basketball.

“I come from the hockey world. Everything’s been hockey. And when you have kids, you think they’re going to gravitate toward that,” said Edwards, the University of New Brunswick (UNB) assistant dean of graduate studies and research in the faculty of kinesiology.

“Then all of a sudden they throw a curveball, and they end up in basketball.”

Nine years later, the curveball became a passion for not only Edwards’ daughter but for him. His countless hours of volunteer work transformed the Fredericton basketball scene and won him the 2023 Fredericton Community Recognition Award. The award celebrates those who “go above and beyond to help build and shape their community.”

“For the last seven years Jonathon has been 'on-call' 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Fredericton Mayor Kate Rogers, who delivered the speech honouring Edwards at the awards ceremony last June.

“From developing value missions, recruiting committed and valued board members, and balancing budgets and booking gyms, to finding last minute refs, dropping score clocks off all around the city and lending an ear to any parent, player or coach who needs guidance, Jon shows up when and where he is needed. It is because of these efforts that we are here today to reward him with the Community Recognition Award.”

Back in 2015 Edwards, who had been sitting on the board of the Northside Minor Basketball Association (NMBA) Lions, started to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to bring competitive and recreationalbasketball opportunities to Fredericton youth.

“In about 2019 a colleague and I on that board started talking about how Fredericton was too small of a place – why do we have two leagues?”

His background in sports management allowed Edwards to see how the two leagues working together would be more efficient and create more opportunities for 11 to 14-year-old kids wanting to play basketball.

That started a process with Edwards and three other dedicated volunteers overseeing the merger of Fredericton's two major basketball associations, THE YMCA Competitive Basketball Club (YCBC) Capitals and the Northside Minor Basketball Association (NMBA) Lions, creating the Fredericton Fusion.

Since its inception in 2020, the new league has grown the number of youth basketball players in the region from 200 to over 700 and has opened doors to the sport to players of all levels, not just the competitive tier.

Starting a new league during COVID wasn’t an easy task, but Edwards, who had been voted president of the new Fusion league, said he and his board were up to the challenge.

“I wanted to make sure people had a place to play,” he said of that first year.

The league abided by all restrictions and was able to create opportunities for practices and games by getting creative.

“Because we couldn’t get access to the gyms, we rented out the FREX, then we put down special flooring and bought outdoor nets and created our own courts,” Edwards said. “We called it the Fusion Centre.”

The kids were able to continue to play safely during COVID and the following year, the Fusion saw its membership begin to grow.

On a personal level, Edwards also wanted to create opportunities for his daughter to play.

“I saw a big gap in female opportunities for kids to play basketball and I wanted to make sure they had a spot, a place to play and be active,” Edwards said.

It was a lot of work to get Fusion off the ground, between organizing gyms, marketing, sponsorship and finances. But Edwards and the other volunteers worked hard and got it done.

“For the first time ever, we were able to create city leagues and give kids that hadn’t made the competitive teams an opportunity to play,” he said.

The league also started a junior refereeing program, getting high school students trained to be referees to help facilitate all the games taking place and to fill the hole left by refs who didn’t return after COVID.

The achievement he’s most proud of is the annual Winter Classic Basketball Tournament for u13 – u14 players, drawing over 50 teams from across Atlantic Canada to participate in nearly 100 games.

“The tournament’s always big for me, to watch it grow to the size it is,” he said.

That growth hasn’t gone unnoticed. The university teams and the Maritime Women’s Basketball League are getting involved, recognizing the importance of fostering the sport among youth players. This year, UNB gave tickets for all the players participating the in tournament to come see the Reds play a home game. The UNB coaching staff is also taking an active role on the Fusion board.

Although his daughter has grown out of the Fusion league and is now playing at high school, Edwards says that’s kept the Fusion legacy going.

“Now there’s a stronger connection with the high school system and Fusion,” he said. “The accomplishment for me is the Fusion in itself, to see the popularity of the program continue to grow.”

Banner photo: Dr. Jonathon Edwards holds the Community Recognition Award, flanked by Fusion volunteers Gino Arseneau and Dale Chisholm to his left, and Cindy Pope to his right.