Edmonton Grad was an icon in her day
All-time leading scorer of legendary women’s basketball team helped set new standards for athletic success
Noel MacDonald, whose skill shooting a basketball for the storied Edmonton Grads program enshrined her as one of Canada’s best-ever female athletes, has died at age 93.
MacDonald died Tuesday at an Edmonton extended-care facility after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, a family member said.
“After a while she didn’t remember a lot, but she certainly did remember being on the Grads and being a part of that,” said the relative, who asked not to be identified. “Those were the days that she relished.”
The team’s all-time leading scorer, MacDonald was perhaps the best-known member of a program that set new standards for athletic success.
In their 25 years of operation, the Grads won 502 of the 522 games they played against Canadian and international competition, with many of those victories coming against men’s teams.
Born in Saskatchewan but raised in Edmonton, MacDonald grew to a height of five-foot-101⁄ making her the second tallest girl in the city’s school system.
In the early 1930s, she was attending John A. McDougall Commercial High School — the same school where the Grads first formed in 1915 — when she was recruited to the squad by coach J. Percy Page.
She initially played for the Grads’ feeder team, the Gradettes, for a year before making her debut with the big club in 1933 as a starting forward and backup centre.
In one of her first games, she was tasked with guarding Tulsa, Okla., star Alberta Williams, a three-time all-American who was an inch taller than MacDonald. The Edmontonian won the battle, scoring 20 points while holding the more accomplished Williams to just four.
MacDonald served as Grads’ captain from 1936-39, leading her squad to several North American, Canadian and provincial championships as well as top prize at an Olympic exhibition tourna- ment in Berlin.
A dynamic scorer who loved to use a running release shot, MacDonald never strayed from Page’s disciplined team approach.
“None of the girls smoked nor do I know of any of them drinking while on the team,” she once said. “When a challenging team came to town, one of the first things we made a point of finding out was how many and who smoked. If a number of them did, we could relax a little because we knew we could run them into the ground by halftime.”
MacDonald retired in 1939 and the Grads program shut down a year later due to the Second World War. For a while, she took up coaching positions in Alberta and Saskatchewan, including at the University of Alberta.
With 1,874 career points and an average of 13.8 points per game, MacDonald is in the record books as the Grads’ alltime leading scorer.
She received the Canadian Press female athlete of the year award in 1938, labelled by one journalist as the country’s “best female basketball player” of her era.
“She was a big deal in her day. She was an icon,” the family member said.
MacDonald married a hockey player, Harry Robertson, and the couple had two children, a son and a daughter. In part due to Harry’s job with Imperial Oil, the family moved to different places, including Libya, Victoria, and Alaska before eventually settling in Arizona.
Harry died in 1990, after which Noel moved back to her childhood home in Edmonton.
Memorial services will be held in Arizona, where most of MacDonald’s friends and family reside, the relative said.
MacDonald was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1971.
Noel MacDonald, top row, second from right, with the Edmonton Grads at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, received The Canadian Press female athlete of the year award in 1938.