From Walk-On to Beloved Teammate: Edona Thaqi Looks Back on Women’s B-Ball Career

Scholarship guard persevered through injuries and left an indelible mark on her teammates and coaching staff



Edona Thaqi, GGSB ’22, walked onto the court with her family for a special ceremony on Senior Day.


“S” stood for success that week. She knew it. But when Head Coach Stephanie Gaitley told her she was wrong, the player knew better than to argue. She joined the rest of her team on the baseline and prepared to run sprints.

After four years playing for Fordham women’s basketball, Edona Thaqi, Gabelli Graduate School of Business ’22, was well past her days of forgetting the team’s “weekly emphasis.” At the beginning of practice, Gaitley liked to quiz players. Forgetting meant running, but Thaqi hadn’t forgotten. “Success starts in practice,” bounced around in her head as she lined up with her teammates.

As the team waited on the baseline, Gaitley gravely asked Thaqi for the word again, but the tension didn’t last much longer after the head coach turned to one of her assistants. The jig was up.

“When I received that scholarship it just felt like all my hard work had paid off.” Edona Thaqi, Gabelli Graduate School of Business ’22

For Thaqi, “S” didn’t stand for success that day. “S” stood for scholarship — her third as a Fordham player. The team began to cheer raucously as they crowded around their teammate. 

“When I received that scholarship it just felt like all my hard work had paid off. And seeing it in that form just makes you feel better knowing all that I went through and all the trials to get here just made it that much sweeter,” Edona said. 

After a long college career with little playing time and multiple setbacks, Thaqi was once again a scholarship athlete in a Division I program. This time, basketball was helping her through graduate school. For a talented player and even better teammate, it marked the beginning of a fitting epilogue in a story that began thousands of miles away from the Rose Hill Gymnasium.

A Family Starts a New Life

In 1985, Hatman Thaqi immigrated to the United States from Kosovo. She made her departure during a time of severe social unrest in the former Yugoslavian republic. She was 23 years old.

“We had a hard time … me and my husband decided to go somewhere and we tried, we came here,” Hatman said. “He came first, and I came six months after. We started a new life.” 

With her husband, Mete, and two children, she began a new life in the Bronx that presented its own challenges. She learned a little English in school but did not speak it fluently. Her husband found work in a pizzeria, but money was tight in the early days. 

“But we tried to do something, and we cannot do it for ourselves, so we tried to do it for our kids.” Hatman Thaqi, mother of Edona Thaqi

The only solace for her was her belief in the United States to provide a way forward for her children, to provide them with a life that she couldn’t have.

“We had to leave everything there and come here … here we only work, work, work to try to live,” she said. “But we tried to do something, and we cannot do it for ourselves, so we tried to do it for our kids.” 

In 1998, Hatman gave birth to Edona, 13 years after the family first arrived in New York. When she was six weeks old, the family moved to Stamford, Connecticut. She attended K.T. Murphy Elementary School, and it didn’t take long for her parents to discover where her interests lay. 

An Enthusiastic Athlete

In the fourth grade, Edona’s gym teacher approached her mother and told her to sign her daughter up for basketball. Without much coaching, she played many sports with enthusiasm and also went on to play soccer and swim for a time. But basketball seemed to be her favorite, and her parents realized they should encourage her to follow dreams that they couldn’t pursue. They were both athletic as children themselves, but life in Kosovo was harder, and they had to grow up faster.

“You could tell that with work she could be a skilled player.” Brian Kriftcher

“At that time, I didn’t know where to send her,” her mother recalled. “I remember the gym teacher gave her a paper to start a house league in Stamford for little kids … she started basketball there.”

After a few years learning the game at lower levels, Edona joined the Stamford Peace, an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, in 2009. Most high school basketball prospects get attention from college programs through AAU play. Organizers for the Stamford Peace had just started a women’s basketball program, and it didn’t take long for founder Brian Kriftcher to notice Edona’s potential.

“When she was in the seventh grade you knew she was a talented kid … you could tell that with work she could be a skilled player,” Kriftcher remembered. 

By age 40, Kriftcher had already made a successful living on Wall Street, but he felt a calling to do more with his time. He founded the Stamford AAU program in the hopes that he could use his funds and time to mentor kids as they followed their dreams in basketball. As one of the earliest members of the women’s program, Edona quickly became one of his most promising players. He became her coach soon after.

Brian kriftcher and edona thaqi stand in rose hill gym smiling
Brian Kriftcher has mentored Edona Thaqi from adolescence to her last game. (COURTESY OF BRIAN KRIFTCHER)

Looking back on her daughter’s career, Hatman credits Kriftcher as the person who guided Edona to college basketball.

“The person who helped her so much with everything was Brian Kriftcher,” her mother stated fondly. “He saw her potential at that time.” 

Under Kriftcher’s tutelage, Edona continued to improve throughout high school, and as her passion deepened, a future in college basketball seemed more and more likely. But after a doctor’s visit at the beginning of her senior year — considered the prime time for recruitment — a harsher reality set in.

An ACL injury put Edona out of action for most of the season. The injury temporarily halted any dreams of a future in the sport. With the support of her coach and family, she slowly recovered and returned to the court for a brief time before another untimely setback.

“I came back for maybe six months (my senior year) and I tore my ACL again,” Edona said.

The back-to-back injuries sidelined Edona at a time when she needed to be playing basketball most. She and Kriftcher both understood that Division I basketball was no longer a reality at the time, but there were still ways forward. In 2017, she enrolled at the University of Connecticut (UConn) at Avery Point and joined the basketball team. Junior college athletics weren’t as glamorous, but she made the most of her opportunity.

The Path to Fordham

In 32 games for the Pointers, Edona started in 15 of them and scored 14.5 points per game. The competition was weaker, but after two setbacks in the span of a year, her success in college was a testament to her strength as a competitor.

“I just played according to my aspiration. I just did whatever it takes to get there,” Edona said. “I sat with my coach and realized three things. What are my goals, what am I willing to sacrifice to get there, and are they still my goals knowing all that it takes to get there?”

“Her energy was great. She was such a team person, always the ‘we’ before the ‘me.’” Stephanie Gaitley, women’s basketball head coach

At the end of her first season at UConn Avery Point, Kriftcher once again began making calls on behalf of his former player. Though he no longer coached Edona, he still found ways to guide her to the next level. With a year of junior college basketball under his player’s belt, Kriftcher made a call to Coach Gaitley at Fordham. They didn’t know one another well, but he thought he should try anyway.

“Coach Gaitley, being the magnificent person she is … was gracious enough to take the meeting and said effectively, ‘I love walk-ons,’” Kriftcher said.

By taking on Edona, Gaitley could offer little more to her than a spot on the roster. Playing time would never come easily and work at practice would be challenging. But after more than two decades as a head coach, Gaitley also had learned the value of hungry players. She wanted Edona on her team.

“Her first year there, she was obviously nervous, but the kids loved her,” Gaitley said. “Her energy was great. She was such a team person, always the ‘we’ before the ‘me.’”

“She’s someone that’s always about others, and that’s what I love about her.” Stephanie Gaitley

Becoming a Team Player

In her first two seasons as an undergraduate student at Fordham, Edona only played 21 combined minutes in 13 appearances. Most of the time, she appeared when the Rams either had the game well in hand or were too far behind to compete. 

But judging Edona’s contributions to the team on her in-game performance alone would be a disservice to her as a member of the program. Though she was never a consistent starter, Edona immediately gained a reputation as a model teammate. Gaitley considered her an integral part of the team’s success in recent years.

“She’s someone that’s always about others, and that’s what I love about her,” Gaitley said. 

Edona’s efforts off the floor must have been on the minds of Fordham’s staff long before her final year. In the spring of 2020, her junior year, she received her first athletic scholarship. It wouldn’t be the last.

In both her final year as an undergraduate student and her first year in graduate school, Edona again received scholarships through women’s basketball to attend Fordham University. An 18-year-old recovering from two ACL injuries at a junior college couldn’t have imagined such a reality.

“I earned my second scholarship, and the rest was kind of history,” Edona said.

Celebrating the Final Days

Edona’s career at Fordham was not always fortuitous, even if she loved being a Ram. In her senior year, one in which she could have fought for more playing time, she suffered yet another ACL injury before the season started. She was out for the entire year.

edona thaqi and family walk in the rose hill gym
Edona Thaqi poses with her family at the Senior Day ceremony for women’s basketball. (COURTESY OF FORDHAM ATHLETICS)

“It was just so devastating because the summer before I had worked 10 times harder than I had ever worked before,” Edona said about her reaction to the injury. “I wanted to come in, in such great shape and put myself in a position to play … I felt lost.”

Just as she did before, she leaned on her family and coaches to get her through another dark period. The decision to return as a graduate student appeared obvious to her, and everyone from Fordham and Stamford supported her. At first, Gaitley wasn’t sure if she could give Edona a third scholarship for graduate school, but she didn’t hesitate once she got the opportunity.

“If I have a walk-on, of course I want to reward them, because they’re working as hard as anyone else,” Gaitley said.

Throughout her final season, Edona served a very similar role that she had before her injury. She spent time with her teammates, practiced hard and made the most of the time she had left. It wasn’t an exciting ending but a satisfying and deserved one.

“Whatever happened, happened,” Edona said of her career. “I know I can look back (on my time at Fordham) and know that I gave it all that I had.”

On Feb. 26, Fordham women’s basketball celebrated Senior Day, honoring departing players in the Rams’ final home game of the year. In a ceremony before the game, Edona walked out onto the court with her family and Gaitley. 

For the program, it was as much a thank you as a farewell. For her mother, it was a moment of intense pride for everything her daughter accomplished. In a way, Edona chased a dream the Thaqi family hoped she might — the one they chased when they left Kosovo more than three decades ago.

“This was my dream, to work with somebody like Edona. For her to say that I have influenced her is the ultimate compliment.” Brian Kriftcher

“She made us proud every time, all the time,” her mother glowingly exclaimed. “We are so happy with her success, with everything she did in her life.”

Three weeks after Senior Day, Fordham appeared in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament and hosted its first round game against Bucknell University. Though Edona didn’t play, Kriftcher was one of many in attendance to support her in what was likely her final basketball game.

“This was my dream, to work with somebody like Edona. For her to say that I have influenced her is the ultimate compliment,” Kriftcher said. 

Using her education and connections at Fordham, Edona now enters the workforce with plenty of knowledge and support. She recently accepted a position in the NBA as a broadcast assistant. The next chapter for one of Fordham’s most determined student-athletes begins now.

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