SYRACUSE, New York – In the neighborhood of Amsterdam where Jesse Edwards grew up, there’s a large mural of Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff.
The surrounding area is littered with soccer fields, tennis courts and tracks.
A basketball court is a bit harder to find.
Jesse Edwards and his two older brothers didn’t find the game of basketball on a playground or in a gym. They found it playing video games.
“I was 13 or 14 years old when I first started looking at LeBron James videos,’’ Kai, the middle brother, said. “I found NBA2K and I liked it. I had an ability where if I liked a sport, I could get Rens and Jesse to play with me.’’
The three Edwards boys were tall and athletic. Kai had previously gotten his brothers into soccer, cycling, track and tennis. Rens excelled at soccer. Jesse’s specialty was the high jump. Kai became a national level tennis player who visited with famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
But now, he fixated on basketball.
“Kai used to have a different thing every week,’’ Jesse, who is five years younger than Rens and two years shy of Kai, said. “Cycling. Tennis. Whatever. But basketball kind of stuck with all of us. That’s where we ended up.’’
Basketball suited the Edwards brothers. Rens is 6-foot-6. Kai is 6-9 and Jesse is just shy of 7-foot. They get their height from both their father and mother. David, a native of London who played cricket at a high level, is 6-foot-7. Simone, who grew up in Amsterdam, is 6-foot.
The three brothers found a basketball court and, for up to three hours a day, they would go there and mimic the highlights from the NBA videos.
Jesse Edwards is now a 6-foot-11 senior center at Syracuse University, but back then, his two older brothers were both bigger and taller.
“He had to learn how to play guard and defend someone taller,’’ his father, David, said. “They’re brothers and competitive, right? They didn’t go easy on him.’’
Rens, the oldest of the three brothers, seemed to be able to pick up any sport quickly and play it well. But he suffered two injuries, a torn ACL playing soccer and a ruptured Achilles on the basketball court, that curtailed his ability to play at a high level.
Kai, ever the adventurous one of the three, decided to forgo his budding tennis career in favor of basketball. He sought to join Amsterdam’s Apollo athletic club – and got his first lesson in basketball.
“I went to sign up and the person there told me, ‘I’m sorry, but we already had summer tryouts,’ ” Kai said. “I didn’t even know there were tryouts. I thought I could just go and join. I had to wait six months for the next tryout.’’
Kai eventually tried out and made the Apollo Amsterdam club team. Jesse, of course, followed his older brother. The learning curve was steep. He had no concept of help defense. Screening was something he had never done in his recreation of NBA videos with his brothers.
“Jesse learned everything from scratch,’’ his mom, Simone, said.
Now hooked on the game, the brothers would stay up to 2 a.m. to watch NBA games.
Their fun pickup games began to change.
“As soon as he started growing,’’ Rens said, “we couldn’t stop him anymore.’’
Kai, a 6-foot-9 power forward, possessed raw skills. He took an opportunity to go play at the renowned Canarias Basketball Academy, a school located in the Canary Islands. Former Syracuse center Bourama Sidibe is among the dozens of international players who made their way to colleges in the United States through the Canarias Academy.
Kai wound up at Northern Colorado. Jesse remained in Amsterdam, playing basketball.
Around Christmas of Kai’s sophomore year, Jesse, his mom and an uncle visited Kai in Northern Colorado.
Jesse was blown away with the college atmosphere.
“Jesse looked at me and said, ‘Mom, this is what I want,’ ” Simone recalled. “If I got the chance to do this, I would love that.’’
Kai said the Northern Colorado coaches made his family feel welcome and offered encouragement to Jesse, who stood about 6-feet, 6-inches at the time.
Keep working, they told him. Maybe one day he could make it.
Two years later, Jesse had grown 5 inches to 6-foot-11. But, he remained well off the radar of college coaches in the United States.
His coach at Apollo, Wierd Goedee, was hoping Edwards would remain in Holland and continue working with the country’s junior national team.
Then, out of the blue, Edwards received an email from Jason Smith, the basketball coach at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Smith had heard of an athletic but unrefined center in Amsterdam from coaches at Drake and Georgia Tech who had visited the Netherlands.
“I wasn’t looking at America at that point,’’ Edwards said, “I was looking to play with youth teams in Europe. Then that email came.’’
Edwards and his parents checked out Brewster’s credentials. The school had sent dozens of players on to college and many to the pros.
“I was talking to Jason about Kai Jones or Kadary Richmond or some other player at Brewster,’’ Syracuse assistant coach Allen Griffin said. “Jason was saying he had another kid coming from the Netherlands that we should check out.’’
But Edwards never made it to Brewster. His paperwork to get the proper visa wasn’t processed properly. Brewster had also reached its limit on granting scholarships. Edwards remained in the Netherlands through the fall of 2018.
Smith suggested the Edwards family look into another basketball prep school – IMG in Florida, the same school it had visited years earlier when Kai was still playing tennis.
Jesse arrived in Florida that January. The secret was soon out.
“Once he went to IMG, the coaches at my school were like, ‘Get him on the phone with us,’ ” said Kai, who was still at Northern Colorado. “I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ ”
It didn’t take long for word about Edwards to spread among college coaches.
Griffin, the Syracuse assistant, got a call from Brian Nash, IMG’s basketball director. Nash had previously been Griffin’s boss when he was the head coach at St. Francis (N.Y.) College in Brooklyn.
“When Jesse didn’t make it to Brewster, honestly, I had forgotten about him until Brian called me,’’ Griffin said. “He said, ‘You need to come look at this kid.’ ”
Nash thought Edwards’ combination of length and athleticism matched what Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and his staff look for in a center. Griffin flew down to IMG to watch Edwards play. He returned to Syracuse and met with Boeheim.
“Coach,’’ Griffin said, “he’s very intriguing.’’
Schools like Vanderbilt, Stanford and Providence started recruiting Edwards. Ivy League schools had an appeal as Edwards was a very good student. But Georgia Tech appeared to have an edge.
David and Simone scheduled a trip to the States in the spring of 2019. On the docket was a trip to Atlanta and an official visit to Georgia Tech.
They booked another trip to Syracuse, right on the heels of the Georgia Tech visit.
“It was April 1 and super cold,” David remembered. “We came from sunshine in Atlanta into snow in Syracuse.’’
Their flight arrived late. It was almost midnight by the time they got off the plane and made it through the terminal at Hancock International Airport.
“Jim Boeheim was there, waiting for us,’’ David said. “The fact that the coach turns up at the airport at midnight to welcome you; that makes a difference.’’
Jesse committed to Syracuse less than a week later.
When he first joined the Apollo club in Amsterdam, there was another aspect to team basketball that he had to learn – playing time and sitting the bench.
“He didn’t know about being on the bench during a game,’’ his dad said.
Edwards averaged just 2.4 points per game as a freshman. That figure dipped to 1.9 the following year. He played behind Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj during those first two seasons in Syracuse.
“That was our timeline,’’ Griffin said. “I had told Coach (Boeheim) that in a couple years he could be really good. Jesse understood that, but I know it was still hard for him.’’
Edwards hit Griffin’s timeline on cue last season. He became Syracuse’s starting center and averaged 12.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. His 2.8 blocks per game tied for the lead in the ACC along with Duke’s Mark Williams.
A wrist injury late in the season derailed Edwards’ push for the ACC’s Most Improved Player award.
Surgery repaired Edwards’ wrist. He spent the summer with the Netherlands’ national team in the FIBA European World Cup qualifying tournament.
The guy who was first introduced to basketball by watching highlight clips and playing video games returns to Syracuse ready to produce a few highlights of his own this season.
“I’ll think we’ll see him take it up another notch,’’ Griffin said. “We want to see him be a force defensively. We want to see him pick up where he left off rebounding the ball. He’s pretty good offensively, and I think we’ll try to go to him a little bit more.”
Kai is in his third year in the Spanish pro league. He is currently with Melilla Baloncestro, a team located in Morocco. Rens is now a human resources consultant living in Amsterdam.
Jesse, the youngest brother, the one who once had to figure out ways to score over his two older siblings, is on the cusp of his senior year at Syracuse with the prospect of his own pro career in the not too distant future.
“It’s a really random story of how I ended up here,’’ he said. “I could’ve stuck with athletics and done the high jump. But I liked basketball and Kai sort of showed me the way to the States. Then I get a random email out of the blue from Brewster.
“But if I had gone to Brewster, I probably would have been on the bench more than I would’ve liked,’’ he continued. “I was really disappointed when I couldn’t go there, but it probably worked out for the best because I end up at IMG. And here I am.’’
In an ode to his Dutch roots and the place where he started on this basketball journey, Edwards wears the No. 14 in honor of Johan Cruyff, whose image remains on the mural in Edwards’ Amsterdam neighborhood.
“Everything just seemed to come together and get me to this point,’’ Edwards said. “I appreciate that and I’m still working to take advantage of that.’’
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