Basketball gave X-Women coach Osei a place to express herself

Photo courtesy Robin Wilson
Photo courtesy Robin Wilson

By: Monty Mosher

If the St. Francis Xavier X-Women basketball players don't know what they are getting in their new head coach, they will know soon enough.

A few minutes with Lee Anna Osei leaves a singular impression. Everything is earned and nothing is given.

She will be a young head coach in Canadian university sport at the age of 28, but she doesn't lack for life experience. Her biography, which reads like a movie script, says she hasn't wasted much time.

The grit is likely the product of growing up as the daughter of a single mother in public housing in the rugged Jane and Finch section of Toronto. She witnessed all kinds of violence.

Privileges were few and her mother, Georgina, who had come to Canada from Ghana to provide her family a better life, didn't approve of her playing basketball, at least until she proved later on that she could get a university scholarship through sport.

Georgina arrived in Canada pregnant with Lee Anna's older brother. Osei was born in Canada.

Basketball was the neighborhood currency. She had the companionship of some older girls who had found an outlet in club basketball. Some of her peers weren't as fortunate and got caught up in the street life.

"I had something to strive for," Osei said this week from Brantford, Ont., where she is a prep school coach.

If she had to prove herself on the court against the boys, she was never shy about accepting the challenge. Sometimes she did it simply to carve out room on the court for other girls.

Scholarship to Miami

It led to the University of Miami in 2009-10 and a trip to the final of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. A tenacious point guard, she also played in the U.S. at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas.

Upon returning to Canada, she earned academic and athletic honours at Wilfrid Laurier University. She was a perennial academic all-Canadian and an OUA all-star in a playing career ending in 2015.

She's been coaching since she was teenager. Among a long list of accomplishments, she is the 2018 Ontario prep school coach of the year for her work at the Rise Centre in Brantford. 

What she knew about St. Francis Xavier was built on having a few friends from Toronto come east to play for the X-Women.

She was aware of the school's reputation in the classroom and in athletics. She was also impressed by the university's commitment to diversity.

"The more I learned, the more I became interested," she said. "The leadership model is huge. What they try to provide their undergraduates is second to none."

Osei takes over for Augy Jones. Under Jones's six-year tenure, the X-Women made it to the conference final in 2013 and 2014 but missed the playoffs for the past four seasons.

"Obviously, the team is struggling from a basketball standpoint," said Osei, who will begin her new duties early next month. "I've been able to watch some of the girls on the team grow up. That was interesting to me, too."

Get to know the players

When she was pursuing the job, she was excited by the challenge of helping a team return to contender status.

"It would be a dream come true to receive an opportunity like that," she said.

She has never been a coach at the university level but has experience coaching university players. She has coached professional players in her life in Ontario and been mentored by professional coaches.

Her first duty at St. F.X. will be to get to know the players. "I need to know how their experiences have been, how they are doing academically, what they feel they are lacking and what they have liked."

Faith and gratitude compel Osei in equal parts. That is a reflection of her mother's influence.

"My mother came here to give a family an opportunity – to give us a chance to get a great education, good jobs and to give back to the community. What my mother did was nothing short of a miracle.

"She probably had the equivalent of a Grade 4 education. The fact that she was grinding and sacrificing before I was even born, she is the first leader I ever knew."

Sport provided expression

Sport became a place for Osei to express herself. It is where she could build connections and continues to be that for her.

As a player and a coach, working with young athletes or members of the national team, even NBA and WNBA players, she sees possibility and promise.

"I see how beautiful the transition can be – where the sport can take you," she said.

Her upbringing colours her coaching, which began at age 16 with the junior high boys' team at Toronto's Eastern Commerce while she played on the powerhouse senior high girls team. That school has since closed.

She knows every player in every locker room comes from different circumstances. "I understand how different life-experiences are for people based on how they are raised," she said.

At so many places in her life, in championship seasons and otherwise, basketball provided a foundation. Even as a teenager she saw the value on leadership and mentoring.

"For a lot of us girls on the team, basketball was really all we had to keep us from getting caught up in the wrong crowd. That is where I really starting to fall in love with coaching."

For current X-Women players, and prospects to come, the message is simple enough.

"I'm about merit-based basketball," she said. "If you put in the work that someone with a championship mindset does, then don't expect anything less than winning, or competing, for a championship. If you are all in, and this is your goal, you're going to get there. It might not be a straight path like you envision, but you have to have that faith and belief."

St. F.X. athletic director Leo MacPherson said Osei "has a strong faith and sense of community" that fits well with the university.

"If I had to pick one word to describe Lee Anna it would be compelling.  Her life story is compelling: her skills, contacts and drive to build something special with our women's basketball program is compelling.  She has great potential to be an outstanding coach and a transformational leader."