Mini Aaliyah’: How UConn women’s basketball star Aaliyah Edwards inspired this 8-year-old

Aaliyah Edwards is an All-American forward. A star for both UConn women’s basketball and Team Canada.

A fierce competitor who’s force under the hoop demands a presence through her strong physicality and determination.

Yet, none of that matters to Aria Grace.

This 8-year-old was inspired by UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards

Aria, 8, sees Edwards as so much more. She’s a role model, a big sister, a friend and, most importantly, a glimpse of what she too can become.

Aria goes by a handful of nicknames, like AG and Ari, but the one she’s most known for in Storrs is “Mini Aaliyah.”

The daughter of UConn football defensive analyst Mickey Grace wears purple and gold braids in honor of Edwards because while Aria first discovered the Husky on the basketball court, their relationship goes so much further than just sports.

“I’m really proud that Aaliyah is who she is and that my daughter decided to see some of herself in Aaliyah and that Aaliyah saw her back, like gave her that validation of ‘I see you. I’m here for you and with you,’” Mickey told CT Insider this week.

Mickey moved from Philadelphia to Storrs in the spring of 2022 to join Jim Mora’s staff. She was nervous how Aria would feel moving to Connecticut, especially in her first year of non-virtual learning and in a place like Storrs, where the majority of the population is white compared to the vast diversity in Philadelphia.

“Of course, we see a lot of diversity in football, but for her, you know, she is in her school, in her classrooms, so she’s not getting that,” Mickey said.

“I always worried about, or just thought about, who she was going to look up to. Who was going to come out the woodwork. Would it be some singer or preteen-tween Disney Channel star?”

The UConn football coaches and players were quick to adopt Aria as part of their family, spoiling her with affection every time she runs through the Burton Family Football Complex.

Mickey and Aria were also introduced early to Geno Auriemma.

And the Huskies’ Hall of Fame coach was quick to place dibs on the then-6-year-old, who now, two years later, stands just below 5-feet.

This 8-year-old was inspired by UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards

UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma with Aria Grace inside Werth Champions Center. Grace is the daughter of UConn football defensive analyst Mickey Grace.

“He was like, ‘What’s your favorite subject in school?’ And she’s like, ‘What’s a subject?’” Mickey said. “And I was like, ‘Geno, she’s 6.’ And he was like, ‘You have an offer from the University of Connecticut. If I’m here, you can come play for me.’”

Last spring, Mickey took Aria to her first women’s basketball game. Aria watched Auriemma challenge his team and saw how competitive his players were, like Paige Bueckers and Nika Mühl.

But the person who caught Aria’s eye the most was Edwards. Because like Aria, Edwards also has colorful hair.

Mickey says Aria picks her own colors for her braids and has worn nearly every combination under the sun from pinks and purples to lime green and various shades of blue and even rainbow theme too.

While Edwards’ hair caught Aria’s attention first, underneath the purple and gold was a strong Black female presence that Aria gravitated toward. While Mickey didn’t know Edwards personally back then, players on the football team reassured her that Edwards was a mature, kind and respectful player for Aria to look up to.

“The fact that all the players very much approved of her admiration for Aaliyah, I was like ‘OK, this is a good person,’” Mickey said.

That summer Aria asked Mickey to get the “Aaliyah” braids. While Edwards wears purple and gold in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, Mickey knows Aria isn’t old enough to understand who Bryant is nor his impact. Her daughter simply choosing the colors purely because of Edwards.

And everywhere Mickey and Aria went in Connecticut that summer, no one once asked her if she was a Lakers fan. They all immediately recognized the Husky’s signature look.

UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards inspired by Huskies legends - ESPN

“Do you have Aaliyah braids?”

“Are those for Aaliyah Edwards? Do you know her?”

“You’re like a mini Aaliyah!”

Heading into this basketball season, Aria again asked for the “Aaliyah” braids. She told Mickey’s cousin over FaceTime about her new look.

Mickey’s cousin works for NIL store (the company that helps schools and athletes take advantage of name, image and likeness through personalized merchandise) and told Aria that he’d send her an Aaliyah Edwards’ jersey as a gift.

One of UConn’s equipment managers found an extra small pair of basketball shorts in one of the athletic departments’ closets and helped Aria complete the look.

“I had to convince her, I had to find a reason for her not to wear this to school,” Mickey said between laughs. “Like she was just gonna go full UConn basketball shorts and a jersey to school and a headband.”

Aria Grace standing outside Werth Champions Center dressed up as UConn women’s basketball star Aaliyah Edwards for Halloween.

During First Night last fall, Aria met Edwards for the first time in person when she and Mickey were invited to watch one of the women’s basketball team’s practices.

All the players came to say hi to Aria, yet, Mickey says, her daughter was focused on Edwards, asking her questions, hanging on to her every word and following her around in awe.

Aria told Edwards that day: “I’m gonna be you for Halloween.”

The video went viral after Mickey, Edwards, UConn women’s basketball and NIL store all shared it on their social media platforms.

The 30-second video shows Aria dressed up just like Edwards, standing outside Werth Champions Center and posing with a basketball.

The last picture of the video shows Aria and Edwards standing side-by-side smiling inside the practice gym.

“Hi, I’m Aaliyah Edwards,” Aria says in the video. “I’m originally from Canada. I play UConn basketball and I’m No. 3. I have gold and purple braids for Kobe Bryant. I played on the Olympics team.”

Throughout the whole year, Edwards has shown Aria that same love and affection back. She makes sure to say hi to Mickey and Aria at every game they attend.

She talks with Aria often, even coming in as a sounding voice when Aria needs a nudge to get her schoolwork done.

“Aaliyah is just as excited about her as she is about her,” Mickey said.

“And I’m really grateful for that because she doesn’t have to take the time to do that. Like she could find it annoying.

She could say ‘This is frustrating.’ or ‘I don’t want to do this right now.’ She’s never too big or too wrapped up or too emotionally distracted to give Ari the time of day.”

And it’s never simply been about basketball. Aria played the sport for a season, yet Edwards is a vehicle into so many other life lessons outside of sports.

She’s teaching her about Canada and what it means to come from another country, about the vital importance of hard work, how to use grief to motivate yourself (Edwards lost an older brother when she was a young teenager), the legacy of Kobe Bryant and what it looks like to be authentically yourself.

“It means so much for me just because Aaliyah is such a great metaphor for what the culture does and how the culture, especially for people of color matters,” Mickey said.

“… (Aria)’s being grandfathered into the legacy and respect of Kobe Bryant because of Aaliyah’s respect from her brother.

This 8-year-old was inspired by UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards

She gets grandfathered into this thing that she otherwise would have had no pathway for and that’s what the culture does.

“And that’s why culture is so important for people of color to find other people to look up to who are also of color, who wear braids, who isn’t afraid of color in their braids and uses those colors to represent and mean more things.

So now this idea that her hair can mean something. That her self-expression could have more purpose.”

Seeing a Black female, who lives authentically herself, is more important to Aria than anything Edwards will ever do on the court.

When asked what Aaliyah Edwards gear Aria owns, the 8-year-old mentions the jersey and a poster, but then she smiles and says, “and her face.”

Mickey snuck Aria out of school during her lunch hour to attend the Huskies’ NCAA Tournament Regional send-off on campus last month.

A member of the football team’s staff held Aria up on their back during the send-off as she held a homemade WNBA sign.

Aria Grace holds up a homemade WNBA sign for Aaliyah Edwards during UConn women’s basketball’s team send-off before the NCAA Tournament regional last month.

Mickey drew purple and gold braids onto the orange WNBA player logo and Aria highlighted a 3 out of the letter B to represent Edwards’ jersey number. In Aria’s handwriting, it read: “Aaliyah, where are we going?”

“Wherever she goes, we’re gonna be fans for,” Aria said.

Edwards is projected to be a top-five pick in Monday’s WNBA Draft. Her professional career begins at the end of the month during the league’s training camp.

“We just really wish the best for her,” Mickey said. “She’s a great person and she’s very deserving.”

While Mickey hopes Edwards is drafted to a nearby team to make it easier to see her play, Aria is looking forward to learning what new color of braids she’ll wear to keep up with Edwards’ new team.

“She talked about it this morning actually, when she was brushing her teeth,” Mickey said. “She’s like, ‘I hope Aaliyah gets to go somewhere who’s yellow and purple.’”

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