Brianna Thomas – Assistant Coach, Merrimack College (NCAA)
By Dashawn Stephens, PRSVRE
From a young age, it wasn’t obvious that Brianna Thomas would become a basketball player. The Ajax-native – entering her fourth year of coaching at the collegiate level – started her basketball journey on the sidelines watching and supporting her older brother as he chased his hoop dreams. At the time she had no interest in playing the sport. However, at the age of 10, her brother’s love for the game finally brushed off onto her. Thomas decided to give basketball a try, and she never looked back.
From the second Thomas picked up a basketball, she wanted to be great. She possessed a drive and work ethic that allowed her to remain committed to achieving excellence. As Thomas progressed within the sport, her skill-set would grow, but so too would her personality. Growing up, Thomas was a shy individual. She didn’t speak much. Therefore, it came as no surprise that it took her two months to speak to any of her AAU teammates when she first joined the “A-Game” program during her teenage years. However, with time, Thomas slowly developed a voice of her own. She became a confident communicator and was able to break out of her figurative shell. Thomas credits her “A-Game” coaches with helping her achieve the personal growth that accompanied her athletic growth.
Thomas was in the ninth grade when she first realized she could work her way towards a basketball scholarship. Seeing older players earn scholarships made her realize that the accomplishment was well within her reach. Her high school journey wasn’t easy, as she experienced many injuries along the way. However, in the end, Thomas was able to receive a scholarship offer to Duquesne University (NCAA – Division I) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Thomas described her first months at Duquesne as a “culture-shock” in many aspects. She was faced with the tasks of becoming familiar with life in the United States, life as a university student, and life as a Division 1 athlete; all while recovering from an injury. However, by her junior year, Thomas had finally found her edge and was named a Captain for the 2015-16 season. Switching to power forward after playing guard for most of her career, Thomas was part of Duquesne’s most successful season in program history. The Dukes went 28-6 and earned their first-ever berth to the NCAA Tournament in school history. By her senior year, she more eased into the power forward position, Thomas took on a lot more leadership opportunities on and off the court. Thomas graduated from Duquesne in 2017, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology (Honours), and takes pride in being a part of the most successful class in Duquesne Women’s Basketball history.
Throughout her playing career, Thomas realized that she possessed a passion for youth development. As someone who was shaped into a leader throughout her life, Thomas wants to present the same opportunity to the youth of today and tomorrow. In addition, Thomas is also a huge advocate for presenting athletes with opportunities outside of their sport, and letting them know that they can be, “more than just an athlete”.
“I want to give kids an outlet to understand leaders and how leaders are born. I also want to give them an outlet to understand their options outside of sports, and their intersectionality as human-beings”
Thomas realized that her passions was achievable through coaching. Therefore, as Thomas pursued her Masters in Science and Leadership at Duquesne, she also accepted a position as a Graduate Assistant for the Women’s Basketball team. Thomas was a GA at Duquesne for two years, before accepting her new role as the Assistant Coach for the Women’s Basketball team at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, USA. Now entering her second season with the Warriors, Thomas hopes to continue guiding young athletes towards unlocking their full potentials on and off the court.
Using Her Voice
In wake of the BLM movement that has begun around the World, Thomas has made it her goal to use her voice to educate her athletes on the realities of anti-black racism and its systemic roots. She believes that barriers can be broken down through sports, as athletes possess large platforms. Thomas now wants to see her athletes become catalysts for change and to use their platform to make a difference.
“What’s important right now is having those uncomfortable conversations on race and what’s happening in the [United States] and why it is happening. As a coach, I’m teaching my players to step into that space that is uncomfortable and be advocates for the right things”
The lack of minority hiring has become a highly discussed topic in the professional sports world as of recent. However, the issues revolving minority hiring are also present in collegiate sports. Therefore, Thomas is challenging her own institution to practice self-reflection. The Merrimack College athletics department currently has no black head coaches and only three black assistant coaches. Thomas believes that at an institution where a large number of student-athletes are black, there should be a stronger Black, Indigenous, People of color (BIPOC) representation within coaching staffs across the board.
“We all have to have these conversations within our organizations. Doing things on social media isn’t enough. We can’t just be performative, we have to start being active…we have to keep making movements, making changes and putting people in the right positions to be successful”
Only three years into her coaching career, Brianna Thomas is already striving to become more than just a coach. The game of basketball will always fall under her umbrella of passions, but so too will transforming the athletes of today into the leaders of tomorrow. Thomas is a great example of how personal growth within a sport can translate into personal growth outside of a sport. The same voice that she developed through the sport of basketball, is now the voice that is educating young athletes on how to advocate for equality while fighting for more minority hiring in collegiate sports.
There is no doubt that the accomplishments of Brianna Thomas deserve to be highlighted and celebrated as she is truly a Trailblazer in Canadian Heritage and a Leader Through Sport.
Follow Brianna Thomas on Twitter: @coachb_thomas