TORONTO – Kay MacBeth was just a baby when the Edmonton Commercial Graduates won the world championship title in 1923, but by the time she joined them at age 17, the team – known as the Grads – had been dominating women’s basketball for more than a decade.
When they played their last game in 1940, the Grads had been national, North American and world champions for 17 years and following men’s rules – rather than the more restrictive “ladies’ rules” – for about as long. The women, who ranged from their late teens to their 40s, won 93 per cent of their games, making them the most successful sports team in Canadian history.
The club is once again in the spotlight, this time as the focus of the latest Heritage Minute – a 60-second film highlighting key moments in Canadian history – being released Wednesday.
MacBeth, the team’s lone surviving player, said the Grads, who at one point would be recognized by strangers on the streets of Edmonton, weren’t in it for the fame.
“It was a great life but there’s nothing like the fine points of the game – that’s a thrill,” the 95-year-old said in a recent interview in Toronto, where she now lives.
Releasing the short film on International Women’s Day was a deliberate choice, said Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada, which produces the Heritage Minutes.
“I do think that for young women or teenagers playing sports, here’s another set of role models to look at and say, ‘Oh we’ve really been good for a long time,”‘ he said. “This is a really uplifting story about a great achievement that some Canadians are very familiar with, primarily in Alberta, and a lot of Canadians don’t know more about and should.”
In the new video, set in 1923, the Grads challenge the Cleveland Favorite Knits for the title of world champions, an honour they had bestowed on themselves without playing the Edmonton team. After two games, the Grads won by a combined score of 53-33, marking the beginning of their reign.
MacBeth, who played what was then called a left light point guard, joined the team in 1939 for the last two seasons. At five feet four inches tall, she was known for “being fast and good playmaker and not a ball hog,” she said.
“Any time the ball was in our hand, I pretty much started it.”
But MacBeth didn’t always love the sport, initially preferring to play baseball after a disappointing experience with women’s basketball under the sport’s ladies’ rules, she said.
“That was the worst thing you could ever want to do. You could only stand on one spot on the court, one area of the court – the centre stayed in the middle, the guards on one end and the forwards on the other end. You could only dribble once,” she said.
“I lasted one game, it just was too boring.”
She rediscovered basketball at age 13 after the switch to men’s rules, and turned pro only a few years later.
Though the youngest player on the Grads by far – the one closest in age was five years older – MacBeth said the teammates grew close and stayed in each other’s lives even after the Grads disbanded in 1940.
“It was a crying session at our last dinner anyway, everybody was upset to some degree,” she said. “We decided we’d meet every three years somewhere in Canada, which we did until everybody had become either ill or too far away … The last reunion was sometime in the 80s.
While basketball still holds a place in her heart – she can still do a layup – MacBeth said she’s disillusioned with the sport’s evolution.
“I haven’t really watched much this year really at all,” she said. “I really got fed up with the way they were playing so dirty. I just don’t think it’s a game. And they palm the ball all the time! It’s not the same.”