Image yourself more than 3,500 miles from home in a different country with a different time zone and countless cultural nuances.
The music, food, linguistics, mannerisms and people all seem unfamiliar. You just imagined what Gannon University junior Raphell Michael Kofi Thomas-Edwards went through on his journey from England to America. Basketball took him halfway around the world.
Thomas-Edwards, 20, grew up in Leicester, England, with his mother and father in a center city apartment-style flat building. These apartment flats are usually more than 12 stories tall and are used to house lots of people in large urban cities. Leicester is the 10th largest city in the United Kingdom with a population of more than 330,000 people.
Thomas-Edwards’s last name came from his mother, who is Ms. Thomas, and his father, who is Michael Edwards. His middle names are Michael and Kofi. Kofi translates to “born on Friday” in Akan, a culture native to the Ivory Coast.
Thomas-Edwards’s father left the family to live in Nottingham, 45 minutes north of Leicester, when Raphell was only 2 years old. After his father left, he and his mother moved in with his grandmother and grandfather.
Flash forward 10 years and Raphell is 12 years old and moving out of the cramped apartment flats and into a house with his mom, farther from the heart of Leicester. It is around this time that Raphell started his basketball career.
During Thomas-Edwards’s seventh-grade year, he tried out for Youth Games Highfields, an organization for youth basketball in England. He was cut.
“I was horrible, terrible,” Thomas-Edwards said. “I couldn’t use my right, couldn’t use my left, I didn’t talk.”
But this only fueled his passion for the game. After being cut, Thomas-Edwards would get up every day at 6 a.m. to take the city bus to an outdoor, concrete court to work on his game.
Thomas-Edwards, now 14 years old, used his government-issued bus pass, given to him monthly, to travel the hour-long early morning ride to school to practice. But the basketball gods planned on testing the dedication this newcomer had to the game.
Raphell lost his bus pass at the beginning of the month and was ride-less. With no money to buy a new pass and too nervous to risk punishment from his mother, he made a decision. Thomas-Edwards would not let this little dilemma hold him back.
He decided to wake up even earlier – 5 a.m. – to walk more than two hours to the outdoor court he had been practicing on.
While walking to the court, Thomas-Edwards would practice his dribble with the basketball. Raphell would occasionally dribble the ball accidentally into the street as cars whizzed by on their early morning drives to work.
“I don’t know how many times it hit off my foot and went into the road,” Thomas-Edwards said with a laugh. “One time I ran after the ball and the car stopped with my leg halfway under it!”
After a year of practicing his game, Thomas-Edwards had another chance to play the game he loved. It was a tryout for the National League under-15 team that played overseas.
He made the team and ended up meeting one of his main coaches and biggest influences, Karl Brown, an Englishman from Leicester who played basketball in America for Georgia Tech. A year later, Brown was pointing Thomas-Edwards in the direction of his first basketball camp, a place where Thomas-Edwards would pick up some drills to practice during his early morning workouts.
The Bucknall Essential Skills Camp in London was a week-long camp for roughly 500 youth basketball players, ages 13-18. Steve Bucknall was the first ever Englishman in the National Basketball Association, playing for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989.
Having worked hard at the Bucknall Essential Skills camp, Raphell improved enough to make the East Midlands team that same year. East Midlands is part of England’s Regional Development Program. The program serves as both an annual identification and development process for England’s 10 regions. Thomas-Edwards made East Midlands at age 15 and then moved up to Midlands, a level higher, that same year. Thomas-Edwards had improved so much in four years, but he was met with another disruption. It was the first real blow to his confidence.
Raphell made the under-16 team, which went to the European Championships, but did not play very much at all. Thomas-Edwards said in the eight games that his team played over a two-week span, he only spent 40 minutes on the court – and he wasn’t happy about it.
“I was like, damn, why didn’t I play?” he recalled.
At age 16, Thomas-Edwards attended a two-year school for basketball, the Barking Abbey Basketball Academy in London.
In England, at 16 students must finish high school and then attend a college, which are equivalent to the junior and senior years of high school for students in the United States. After students in England graduate from college, they move on to a university.
Thomas-Edwards only lasted one year at Barking Abbey. He met another bump on his road to collegiate basketball in the United States. He met a girl.
“I was chilling with this girl too much, she was missing class, I was missing class, and eventually they told me I have the worst attendance in the school so we can’t keep you here,” Thomas-Edwards said.
Luckily Thomas-Edwards’ guiding hand and mentor, Karl Brown, just finished starting his own basketball academy as part of Gateway College, and invited Raphell to attend. The Leicester connection saved him.
Two more years passed and Thomas-Edwards was playing, and dominating, on the under-18 National Team. He averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds per game in the Sholet Tournament in France. He achieved All-Star Five for the tournament.
After his stellar performance, the chance to play Division I collegiate basketball in America was coming to life. Two schools contacted Thomas-Edwards after the Sholet Tournament, the University of Maine and Davidson College, alma mater of NBA star Stephen Curry.
With confidence at an all-time high, Thomas-Edwards said he was headed into the under-18 European Championships looking to get more Division I offers. Unfortunately, the pressure he put on himself was too much and he played inconsistently, Thomas-Edwards said.
With averages of 10 points and seven rebounds a game, Thomas-Edwards said he underachieved for his talents and abilities.
“One game I would have 21 (points) and 13 (rebounds) then another game I’d have no points and four rebounds,” Thomas-Edwards said.
After the U18 European Championships no other schools contacted him and back to Gateway College Basketball Academy he went. It was then Raphell got his break.
At one of the Gateway practices, a coach with connections to college basketball in the United States came to watch one of Raphell’s teammates, and best friend, Elliot. While watching him, the coach saw Raphell and noticed he was a good player too, so he invited him to a camp at the University of Buffalo.
While at Buffalo’s prospect camp, Raphell played very well, catching the eye of then head men’s basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon. Witherspoon offered him a full scholarship a week later, Thomas-Edwards said.
“Raphell has a unique combination of size, strength and speed,” Witherspoon said. “He is an intense competitor that works hard and does not complain.”
These qualities are not found in every basketball player especially in his combination of size, power and quickness. Thomas-Edwards is 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 240 pounds. But his ability to run the floor and move laterally is very special, Witherspoon said.
Leaving Leicester to head to the United States to play Division I basketball was a big deal and Raphell’s mentor, Karl Brown, was proud of his accomplishment.
“Raphell made the England under-16 team but was still learning his craft,” Brown said in a 2011 interview with the Leicester Mercury. “But in his last two years at Gateway, he has become one of the best two or three players at his age group in the country. That was due to his hard work.”
But Thomas-Edwards’ time at Buffalo was not all rainbows and butterflies. His freshman year he played only 29 minutes for the season, scoring just five points and grabbing four rebounds on the year. His sophomore year was much more productive as Thomas-Edwards played 358 minutes scoring 54 points and grabbing 71 rebounds.
Just as Thomas-Edwards seemed to be getting the hang of things in western New York, he hit another bump in the road. The University of Buffalo decided to make a coaching change for the men’s basketball team.
The coaches who recruited Thomas-Edwards to come to America and pursue his basketball dreams were let go and Thomas-Edwards was left in a bind. The new head coach, former Duke University guard Bobby Hurley, decided Raphell was too small for a post player and not skilled enough for a wing, Thomas-Edwards said.
It was at this time that Thomas-Edwards first heard of Gannon University. Witherspoon was friends with current Gannon men’s basketball coach John T. Reilly, and a few short weeks later, Thomas-Edwards transferred to Division II Gannon.
“Coach Spoon felt like Gannon was the right choice because I had already played two years in college and he knew how coach Reilly ran his program and thought I would be a great fit,” Thomas-Edwards said.
Reilly said he is thrilled to have Thomas-Edwards on his team and at the university. Like Witherspoon, Reilly recognized the unique body frame and skill set Thomas-Edwards brought to the table.
“I love Raphell,” Reilly said. “He is a big, strong player who works hard and is about the right things. Raphell is a good player but more importantly a good character guy.”
With Thomas-Edwards at Gannon, his teammates are already impressed with the type of player and person he is. Aleksander Malinic, 18, a fellow European forward, being from Belgrade, Serbia, has grown close to Thomas-Edwards since they both decided to attend Gannon.
“Kofi is quiet when you first meet him but once you get to know him he won’t shut up,” Malinic said jokingly. “He is a great guy and works real hard. We sometimes go and shoot at 2 or 3 in the morning just to get better.”
Basketball has been a passion of Raphell Thomas-Edwards since he was 10 years old. The game has brought him halfway around the world and has paid for all his schooling since coming to America. The sport he so loves has been good to him but only because he has paid the price. A few cuts from teams, including the youth league in England and even the University of Buffalo, all have influenced Thomas-Edwards to where his is today.
The Leicester, England, basketball community is proud of what Thomas-Edwards has done thus far. Brown has seen what persistence can do for student-athletes.
“It shows that if you work hard at your education, you will open doors for yourself,” Brown said in the Leicester Mercury interview. “Raphell has worked extremely hard and we are very proud of him.”
Brown has had a goal since his basketball career at Georgia Tech, and professionally overseas, ended. It was to provide inspiration to the English youth and give them a channel to their dreams. That is why he started the basketball academy at Gateway College.
“One of my goals has been to find an England international who could follow in my footsteps,” Brown said. “They can then go on to inspire other people. It has happened quicker than I thought.”