This Canadian basketball team ruled the world — and now gets a moment of fame
'It was my life,' former player says of her time on the court with the Edmonton Grads
Kay MacBeth is 95 years old and the last surviving member of one of the greatest dynasties in sports, a group of Canadian athletes whose accomplishments have been, until now, often overlooked.
"I was part of something special," she says. "I didn't realize how special."
MacBeth, as a teenager, was a player on the Edmonton Grads, an unbelievably successful women's basketball team. The Grads became Canadian, North American and world champions in the 1920s, titles the team held for years.
The Grads played hundreds of games against challengers from Canada, the U.S. and Europe, winning about 95 per cent of their matches, an astonishing success rate for any team in any sport.
Many Canadians have never heard of the Grads, but now a Heritage Minute spot about the team has been released, in honour of International Women's Day.
Dr. James Naismith, the Canadian who invented the game of basketball, said the Grads were the "finest basketball team that ever stepped out on a floor."
Created in 1915, the team disbanded in 1940, the record-setting run ended by World War II and the lack of suitable competition. The Grads simply won too often.
'It was my life'
MacBeth, who now lives in a retirement home in Toronto, was on the final team.
"It was my life," she says. "I loved it."
The Grads first won a Canadian title in 1922 and were declared world champions the next year, after defeating a team from Cleveland.
Women's basketball was not an Olympic sport in that era, but the Grads regularly toured Europe and competed against other squads in matches held in conjunction with the Olympic games.
The Grads often won by devastating margins. In 1928, for example, they beat a French team 109–20.
"They were a group of ordinary women who did the extraordinary," says Ann Hall, who wrote The Grads Are Playing Tonight!, a book about the amateur team and its legacy.
"They were clerks and salesgals and typists," she says. "They had to work the whole time they were practising and playing."
They were also role models. When the team was founded, many people thought the idea of women competing in sports was unseemly and even unhealthy. The success and popularity of the Grads changed attitudes.
Naismith wrote the team a glowing letter in 1936, praising the team for what else it accomplished, beyond its wins, championships and trophies.
Playing for the Grads was a serious commitment. For 25 years, the team's coach was J. Percy Page, who demanded both effort and excellence.
"You must play basketball, think basketball and dream basketball," he told his players.
Making the team wasn't easy. Staying was tough too.
"There was no drinking," MacBeth says. "If you smoked, you were off the team."
Page emphasized teamwork and, no matter how important the game or tough the competition, sportsmanship.
"We were told to be ladies at all times," MacBeth says. "You didn't shove anybody around. You didn't give them an elbow. Just played a nice lady-like game, be fast and smart."
MacBeth shook her head at the thought of women being discouraged from playing sports.
"We practiced against men all the time," she says. And they practiced hard. Anything less than full effort and the offender would be ordered to run dozens of laps around the court.
Shooting Stars, a National Film Board documentary released in the 1980s, told the story of the Grads. The Heritage Minute is expected to reach millions more Canadians.
"It was certainly a very important part of my life," says MacBeth. More than 75 years after the team folded, she hasn't lost her instincts.
Handed a basketball and asked to hold it to demonstrate her shooting style, MacBeth immediately fired the ball.
It was too low for her taste.
"I can't do anything," she says. "I have a bum shoulder."
Then she fired the ball again, this time right into my stomach.
The competitive spirit that drove the Grads to hundreds of victories hasn't left her. Nor has her satisfaction with being part of one of the most successful sporting teams in history.
"It's still with me," she says. "It's in my heart."
And the message from all those wins all those years ago?