HALIFAX -- The best coaches don’t just teach Xs and Os -- they develop good athletes, and better people.

That’s the philosophy of Halifax basketball coach Lezlie States, who has been influencing the lives of girls basketball players in the north end of Halifax since 2009.

States runs drills with a diverse group of 14-year-old girls who play for her Maritime Elite Girls Basketball Academy, or MEGA for short.

Their home court is the Community Y gym in Halifax’s north end, the same neighbourhood where States grew up competing with and against her four brothers.

“Mom would always say, ‘You go with them, but don’t come back crying’,” recalls States.

Her late father Bobby Smith worked as a mail carrier for Canada Post, and was a terrific hockey and basketball player, whose love of sports was passed on to Lezlie and her brothers Mark, Craig, Thane and Wade.

“He never let mom take sports from us. She could take everything else but she couldn’t take our sports, which we loved,” says States.

That upbringing is one of the reasons that States prioritizes creating a family atmosphere in the gym.

“It doesn’t matter the colour of your skin. If you want to play on a team and want a second family to play with, coach Lez is always there for you,” says Sasha Neil-Dabb, a player with MEGA.

It’s a style of coaching that has attracted athletes from outside of her community.

Emily Smith-Huphman drives in from Nova Scotia’s South Shore three days a week to practice and play for Lezlie.

“I just heard it was an amazing program because my grandmother works with people who had kids on the team,” says Smith-Huphman.

But in 2020, a year like no other, States’ teachings go well beyond the court.

This summer, States was approached by players who had questions about the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and closer to home, the Santina Rao incident at a Halifax Walmart

“For the girls to approach me and say they wanted to have a space to talk, and needed to talk, it was very easy for us to make something like that happen,” says States.

So in recent weeks, MEGA put the basketballs away and held three information sessions for their players, past and present, bringing in guest speakers to lead conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement.

“To talk about what social injustice and racism means for athletes, Black athletes, and how you’re expected to still perform every day, on the court, on the field, while also being impacted by social injustice all around you every day,” says States.

States says sometimes it can be hard for 14-year-old girls to articulate what they need to say.

“But if you give them the room and the space and the ears, they will tell you what’s on their minds,” says States.

Her athletes all agree, and appreciate that their coach has given them the platform to discuss issues bigger than basketball.

“She’s always just there if you need someone to talk to,” says Smith-Huphman.

“We’re all human beings, we all love basketball,” adds Neil-Dabb.

Coach Lez says that passion for sport can, and should, broaden her players' horizons.

“To meet people outside your comfort zone, people you would never ever meet any other way,” says States.