MacDon­ald was at top of Grads’ class

Edmonton Journal - - SPORTS - JOHN CHA­PUT

“You are bas­ket­ball play­ers on the court, but ladies off it,” the Edmonton Grads were con­stantly ad­mon­ished by their coach, Percy Page.

As Noel MacDon­ald learned, a bas­ket­ball court was no place for a lady.

Take, for in­stance, an ex­hi­bi­tion played in Italy in 1936 as part of a Grads Euro­pean tour that also in­cluded demon­stra­tion games at the Olympics in Ber­lin. MacDon­ald, then 21 years old, was per­turbed over her team­mates’ un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally sloppy in­bounds passes.

“Some were wild, some were lobbed. They were just ter­ri­ble passes,” says Dale Larsen, daugh­ter of the Grads’ star cen­tre who died in Edmonton last week at 93. “Mom was be­com­ing a lit­tle irate, so she fi­nally grabbed the ball on the next play and took it out her­self.

“She’s get­ting ready to throw it in when this lit­tle Ital­ian wraps his arms around her legs and says, ‘Mack-doh-neld, I lahv you!’ The ball went in and she fol­lowed it! So she grew up hat­ing Ital­ians. When she and my­fa­ther moved to Libya, which was full of Ital­ians, she didn’t trust any of them.”

It was a dif­fer­ent time, a dif­fer­ent game, a dif­fer­ent world. Ath­letes were ex­pected to con­form to rigid stan­dards of be­hav­iour in and away from com­pe­ti­tion and the Grads were paragons of so­cial pro­pri­ety. Never mind be­ing pinched and groped by Ital­ian gigo­los; the play­ers had to be so so­cially up­right that even mar­riage was taboo — which is why MacDon­ald eloped with oil worker and ama­teur hockey player Harry Robert­son in the spring of 1939.

“She wanted to play one more big se­ries,” Larsen ex­plains, “and mar­ried women couldn’t play on the Grads. So she kept the mar­riage se­cret from Mr. Page un­til af­ter those games.”

Page, the team’s head coach through­out its 25-year com­pet­i­tive ex­is­tence (1915-40), was a benev­o­lent taskmas­ter who em­pha­sized team­work, fun­da­men­tals and fit­ness.

“Mr. Page was won­der­ful to the girls, but he drilled them. It was all ba­sics: shoot­ing and pass­ing, shoot­ing and pass­ing, shoot­ing and pass­ing … and con­di­tion­ing. They could run.”

Dur­ing an era when scant re­gard was ac­corded women’s ath­let­ics, and any­thing from West­ern Canada re­ceived lit­tle re­spect from the East­ern es­tab­lish­ment, the Grads were a con­stant source of civic pride, win­ning 502 games while los­ing only 20, mo­nop­o­liz­ing the cham­pi­onships of the prov­ince, re­gion, coun­try and con­ti­nent.

On the fre­quent oc­ca­sions when an elite Amer­i­can op­po­nent was lured here, crowds of 4,000 to 5,000 typ­i­cally jammed the Edmonton Arena to see the Grads de­fend the Un­der­wood Tro­phy as North Amer­i­can cham­pi­ons.

MacDon­ald, who was born in Mort­lach, Sask., and moved with her fam­ily to Edmonton as a school­girl, was with the Grads for only six years (1933-39) and av­er­aged a team-record 13.8 points a game in an era when a typ­i­cal game pro­duced just over half the scor­ing we see to­day.

In their last 18 sea­sons, when they kept in­di­vid­ual sta­tis­tics, the av­er­age score of a Grads game was 48-20.

The jump shot wasn’t de­vel­oped, even for men, un­til the late ’30s. Of­fence was gen­er­ated by crisp ball move­ment and hu­man mo­tion to set up layups, shots on the run, and two-handed set shots.

Stand­ing five-foot-10, MacDon­ald was an ex­cep­tion­ally tall wo­man for her day.

She was not just a nat­u­ral cen­tre, but could have served as a pro­to­type. She could shoot ac­cu­rately – hit­ting 44 per cent from the floor for her ca­reer – from in close or the perime­ter, was an out­stand­ing passer, and pos­sessed agility and leap­ing abil­ity that mag­ni­fied her height.

MacDon­ald won the Velma Spring­stead Award as Canada’s out­stand­ing fe­male ath­lete of 1938 and was elected to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1971. The Grads were hon­oured in 1950, 10 years af­ter they dis­banded be­cause their fa­cil­i­ties were re­quired for the war ef­fort, as the coun­try’s out­stand­ing bas­ket­ball team (of ei­ther gen­der) of the half­cen­tury.

Don Smith, 91, was well ac­quainted with MacDon­ald and the Grads both as a fel­low bas­ket­ball player and a class­mate at John A. McDougall Com­mer­cial High School.

Much like to­day’s Cana­dian women’s hockey team plays midget boys teams to sharpen their com­pet­i­tive edge, the Grads would fre­quently match them­selves against men. Once they met Smith’s lo­cal YMCA team, the Apaches, who were un­der the guid­ance of Arnold Henderson, also the Grads’ as­sis­tant coach.

“We had an ex­cel­lent cen­tre, Dick Coutts, who stood six-one or so,” Smith says, “and as we’re about to start Arnold tells me, ‘Don, you go play cen­tre. We want Noel to get the toss so they can work on their plays.’ I was five-10, just about as tall as Noel, but I said, ‘I don’t have to let her. I can’t beat her any­way!’

“Those girls were fan­tas­tic, in tremen­dous con­di­tion. There were times when you’d shoot the ball and it would go three feet or so, and all of a sud­den there’s some lit­tle girl jumped out of nowhere to knock it down. We re­ally en­joyed play­ing against them. We would beat them about half the time, but it was al­ways a well-fought game.

“The girls were all good. Noel, of course, was the best. There’s no get­ting away from that. But the team as a whole meshed to­gether.”

The Grads epit­o­mized sports­man­ship, but ex­er­cised no com­pro­mise or mercy for any op­po­nent who couldn’t match their stamina. They es­chewed zone defence and em­ployed con­stant man-toman cov­er­age de­spite their small ros­ter of six to eight play­ers. They watched op­po­nents work out and also peeked at them away from prac­tice, look­ing for cig­a­rette smok­ers that they could run to ex­haus­tion.

When the op­po­si­tion was up to the Grads’ high stan­dards, MacDon­ald re­li­ably took her game to its high­est level. In a 1934 Un­der­wood Tro­phy game against Tulsa, she was as­signed to cover Al­berta Wil­liams, an inch taller than MacDon­ald and a three-time All-Amer­i­can in col­lege. Edmonton won 48-41 as MacDon­ald outscored Wil­liams 20-4 and was lauded in The Jour­nal for “a brand of check­ing and in­ter­cept­ing that left noth­ing to be de­sired.”

Per­haps the Grads’ hard­est-fought tri­umph was over a team from El­do­rado, Ark., that won the first game of the be­stof-five Un­der­wood se­ries 44-40 and led 35-31 in the last minute of the sec­ond game. In those days, ev­ery bas­ket was fol­lowed not by an in­bounds pass by the team scored upon, but by a jump ball at mid­court. Af­ter Edmonton scored to nar­row the gap to two points, MacDon­ald won con­sec­u­tive tips and fol­lowed each by drain­ing 20-foot shots, the lat­ter swish­ing as the buzzer sounded to give the Grads a 37-35 vic­tory. An ex­hausted MacDon­ald col­lapsed, was car­ried off the court by Robert­son, and had a cry­ing jag in the dress­ing-room be­fore she re­cov­ered her equi­lib­rium. Edmonton won the se­ries in four games.

A bas­ket­ball court was no place for a lady, but it was an ideal mi­lieu for any­one will­ing to work, sac­ri­fice and per­se­vere to achieve vic­tory.

“She had an in­de­fati­ga­ble spirit,” Larsen says. “Once she got go­ing, you just couldn’t stop her. That was with ev­ery­thing she did. She had that killer in­stinct.”

Like most alumni of McDougall Com­mer­cial – which pro­duced 36 of the 38 women who played for the Grads – Mac- Don­ald made her liv­ing in the busi­ness world. She would fol­low Harry Robert­son as he pur­sued the trav­el­ling life of a pe­tro­leum ex­plo­ration ex­ec­u­tive and raised her chil­dren, Dale and Don­ald. While in Este­van, Sask., she taught and coached bas­ket­ball. She even pro­moted the sport dur­ing the 11 years she spent in Libya as a sec­re­tary.

“Per­se­ver­ance and ba­sics,” Larsen says. “She pounded that into ev­ery team she coached, into Don­ald and me. Ba­sics are the foun­da­tion of ev­ery­thing.”

The in­evitable ex­tinc­tion of the Grads draws near. Mar­garet MacBur­ney Vash­er­esse and Betty Baw­den Bowen died last year. MacDon­ald’s pass­ing leaves, at most, five sur­viv­ing play­ers: twins Edith Stone Sut­ton and He­len Stone Ste­wart, He­len Northrup Alexan­der, Kay McRitchie McBeth and Betty Ross Bel­lamy, whose sta­tus and where­abouts are un­cer­tain to those familiar with the team.

Fame is fleet­ing and lit­tle re­mains of the ac­claim MacDon­ald and her team­mates earned in their youth — a shame, in­deed, be­cause three gen­er­a­tions ago they, as much as any­one, put Edmonton on the map.

A me­mo­rial ser­vice is planned for Satur­day at 11 a.m. at Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter Day Saints, 14325 53rd Ave. (just off the White­mud).


The world cham­pion Grads of 1938: left to right back row, Muriel Daniel, Jean Wil­liamson, J. Percy Page, Noel MacDon­ald, Ma­bel Mun­ton; left to right front row, So­phie Brown, Etta Dann and He­len Northrup.


MacDon­ald, in her Grads jacket, sits dur­ing one of many team re­unions. MacDon­ald, far right, and team­mates pose dur­ing a team gath­er­ing.


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