It started in the small town of Rouen, France. A 10-year-old boy who found a game he would come to love, watching his friends’ practices from the sidelines, soon joining them and finding inspiration watching Scottie Pippen in the 1996 NBA Finals.
Playing for the senior club team in his hometown, he also practiced with the pro team and sat on the sidelines for their games as an 18-year-old. But in the 2004-05 season, Justin Serresse tore his ACL.
“It was a rough time in my life and my family’s life,” says Serresse, the head coach of the Laurier Golden Hawks men’s basketball team. “With family issues occurring at the time as well, it wasn’t easy at all.
He played half of the 2005-06 season with his senior team but wasn’t deemed healthy enough to play with the pro team anymore. The decision had come then, through a conversation with his dad, to move to Canada to play university basketball in 2006.
Moving in with his uncle in Sudbury, Ont., Serresse coached his younger cousin’s basketball team for his first two years in Canada. He then made Coach Shawn Swords’ Laurentian Voyaeguers squad in 2008 and played there until 2010.
The next move was to the nation’s capital to find work and apply for a Masters in Sports Management at the University of Ottawa. The problem? He had an urge to get into basketball again. Coach Swords was kind enough to help him become a volunteer assistant under Coach James Derouin with the Gee-Gees
With a willingness to do whatever it took to help the team, Derouin took Serresse under his wing. Upon completing his studies, Serresse wanted to move back to Sudbury for work, complete his thesis, and possibly reunite with Coach Swords on his staff. That’s when Coach Derouin offered him a position as the Gee-Gees’ lead assistant in 2011. Serresse moved back to Ottawa the next day.
“It was just circumstances really. Just being a player’s coach and developing players – that was my passion,”
Serresse says. “Being on the court, every morning, every day in the summer. It was getting those guys better, on YouTube for hours watching drills and I was just the player development guy. That’s really what got me to coaching…I think that’s when you win the championship. That’s when you mold your team to become the best team possible. In the season, you see that work flourish.”
That passion led the tandem of Serresse and Derouin turning Ottawa into a national powerhouse, winning multiple OUA medals and reaching the podium at the U SPORTS Final 8.
In 2016, Serresse applied for the Laurier head job, and after a solid reference from Derouin and a meeting with a sports psychologist appointed by the Golden Hawks, he got his call. At 29 years old, and just shy of his 30th birthday, Serresse became the youngest coach in the country.
“X’s and O’s are one thing but it’s how you work with young people. (The sports psychologist) came back and said he has some really good attributes in terms of connecting with his team,” says Peter Baxter, Laurier’s Director of Athletics and Recreation. “He came in to the interview, he was well-prepared, he gave a great presentation. You have the opportunity sometimes, to go with maybe a known quantity or somebody who’s up and coming. He earned the job and won it outright.”
While some aspects of his role were new, others were not thanks to his experience behind the bench.
“You can have all the talent in the world but if you don’t have a commitment to the values and the team culture and to one another, it won’t happen. Culture wins.”
Peter Baxter - Laurier’s Director of Athletics and Recreation
In three years, Laurier has gone from being 9-11 in his first season, to 14-5 so far this year and Top 10 ranking for the first time since 2012, where they current sit at No. 9 in the nation. Along with the success has come a growing reputation, as teams know they have to bring their best against the Golden Hawks.
“He’s always working, he’s always trying to look for ways to improve,” says said fifth-year guard Chuder Teny. “He stays until like 3 a.m. after games just to watch film on our next opponent and make a film for us so we could study the game right when we wake up. He’s been really working hard trying to build this culture that he’s been emphasizing since he got here and it’s paid off. It’s all about hard work, efficiency and being coachable.”
From witnessing his first varsity preseason game at Laurier on a recruiting trip in 2004 to becoming the team’s bench boss, the story of Justin Serresse has been all about circumstance and opportunity.
“The key is always learning,” he says. “I’m always open and willing to learn. It’s just having a mentality that, we want to grow but we cannot grow if we don’t learn.”
Abdulhamid is a fourth-year double major in Communication Studies and Cultural Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He has been the lead sports reporter for the university’s campus newspaper The Cord Weekly since 2017, and is also the Sports Manager of Radio Laurierfollowing two seasons as a volunteer with the station. His passion for sports lives on through his love for telling the stories of those inspire others.