MacDonald was at top of Grads’ class
“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.