HUDDLE UP: Basketball, Life, Leadership is About Team

Q&A With Principal Sabrina Breland


Sabrina Breland, principal at East Rock Community & Cultural Magnet School, is a New Haven native, star basketball player and coach. In 1991, she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. At Wilbur Cross High, she was member of the 1984 State Championship Team. She was voted to All-State and All-District teams and that year was voted the number one high school player in Connecticut (she averaged 29 points per game). Ms. Breland, whose last name was “Johnson” before she married, played for Rutgers before transferring to St. John’s University, where she was a key member of school’s 1987-88 team which won the Big East Championship. She coached the girl’s Hillhouse High School team to two Class L State Championships. She was inducted into the Hillhouse Athletic Hall of Fame in 2022.  Ms. Breland sees lots of connections between basketball and leadership. She answered our questions:

  • What got you into basketball?

I grew up on East Street and there was a park directly across the street from my house (Jocelyn Square Park).  It was equipped with interesting playscapes and a full basketball court.  I loved those playscapes, but I was drawn to the hoops where I spent countless hours playing basketball with other neighborhood kids.  What intensified my commitment to basketball was when my sister started playing for East Rock and was considered the best player on the team.  I was so proud and wanted to be on the team with her.

  • How did you end up playing basketball in college? How did your experience as a college basketball player help shape your approach to leadership as a principal?

I was on the girl’s basketball team at Wilbur Cross High School and played a major role on the team in 1984 when we won the Class LL Girls Basketball State Championship.  After the championship game, I received interest from a number of high-level Division I women’s basketball programs. I was intrigued with the possibility of continuing my career on the college level.  I was a junior in high school at this point and began exploring my options. 

I eventually decided to attend Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  During the 1985-1986 academic year, I learned so much about myself, basketball, people and life.  I was without my normal support system and had to learn to navigate the world with minimal assistance.  Doing so increased my confidence, my focus and my resiliency.  I was no longer the best player on the team and I had to learn to adjust and play a role.  I learned that perseverance, hard work, teamwork, commitment and God can get me through anything.  As a principal I still lean on God and a solid team to get me through the tough times.  God and my team are also there to celebrate wins and milestones.  I continue to use my support system to problem solve and remind me of ALL of my blessings.  I try to embrace a shared leadership model in which I consider many different vantage points before making a decision.  I never want to make a permanent decision based on temporary emotions or situations without first discussing things with a team.

  • Do you love or do you like playing basketball? What was your favorite thing about playing?

I love basketball.  Basketball is a safe place to be me.  When I played basketball nothing else was important.  My problems and shortcomings took a backseat.  Basketball gave me freedom from ALL of my problems.  It gave me PEACE and most of all it gave me a free education.

  • What is the importance/value of sports in your life? What did playing basketball teach you? What lessons do you still apply in your life today?

Sports taught me the value of working within a team to accomplish goals.  Everything is easier when you work together.  While playing basketball or any team sport, community is highlighted and pushed.  Basketball has reminded me that no one person is more important than the team/community and every move made should be to build the team/community up.

  • Why did you want to be a principal? What are the hardest things about the job? 

I wanted to be a principal to help support and grow my community.  I have lived in the New Haven area for almost my entire life (except when I left to attend college).  I love it here and believe that New Haven is a wonderful place to be.  East Rock School and Wilbur Cross High School afforded me so many opportunities in life and I wanted to help others experience all that is good in public education.  I know it doesn’t seem like it, but public education can be life-changing because it definitely changed my life’s trajectory.

  •  What are your priorities for East Rock School this year?

When I was transferred to East Rock School in the summer of 2018, I was excited to be back in the community that gave me so many wonderful memories.  I was a member of the first second grade class when the school first opened its doors in 1974.  Although some of the programming that was available to me as a student was no longer offered, East Rock Community & Cultural Studies Magnet School was still an awesome place to learn and work.  The staff was a cohesive team and 95 percent of students were truly dedicated, responsible, ethical, accepting and motivated.  Lately, morale is lower than I would like it to be and the number of students exhibiting inappropriate behaviors have increased.  My priorities for East Rock School are to increase the morale in the building, assist in restoring focus and dedication — all while helping students reach their potential.

  •  What made you start the basketball program at school? What do you hope kids will learn from playing basketball?

When I attended East Rock School as a student, homeroom basketball was an activity that I loved and enjoyed so much.  When speaking with a few of the students at lunch in the fall of 2018, I shared my love for the game.  They asked if we could start a homeroom basketball league here.  I shared that I was not sure if I could pull that off but felt like I could start a school team and ask other area teams if they would be interested in competing against us.

  •  What advice would you give students who are interested in a career in sports and how can they balance school and athletics?

I would definitely support students pursuing their sports dreams. However, I would remind them that it won’t be easy — but anything worth having takes work and often sacrifice.  I would further add that sports are fun and rewarding, but the best reward will be getting an education. 

Time management is important and keeping a healthy balance between balls and books is the optimal way to navigate the student-athlete journey.  I would caution against using any controlled substances to help maintain focus, performance or drive.  I would ask them to never get too high or too low.  None of us are perfect and we all lose along the way.  But while on the journey, I would ask them to treat ALL people with respect, take NO shortcuts and remember to love themselves at all times. 

  •  Do you still play basketball? Do you watch basketball?

Due to arthritis and a knee surgery on September 26, I am not able to play basketball right now, but hopefully I can play a few games for fun in the near future. I watch my [L.A.] Lakers faithfully and recently attended my second women’s basketball Final Four and my first men’s basketball Final Four.  The two Final Fours in Texas were just what the doctor ordered.  I needed the time to rejuvenate. 

  •  What did you think of the women’s NCAA title game and the state of the women’s game?

I watched the women’s Final Four live and the crowd was exhilarating!  Iowa’s fans were how I would love to see all fan bases!  It was so fun.  I wanted South Carolina to win, but I definitely respected the love that the Iowa fans had for their girls.  Caitlyn Clark is “that girl” and her swagger and skill are helping to shine a light on women’s basketball and for that I am excited!  When I found out the tickets for the women’s game were more expensive and harder to come by than the men’s game tickets, I was completely surprised and happy to see women’s basketball appreciated.