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When an Edmonton Basketball Team Ruled The World

Did you know that the longest-reigning World Champion Basketball Team was a women’s team from Edmonton?

Dr. James Naismith, the Canadian who invented the game of basketball, once called these Alberta players “The finest basketball team that ever stepped out on a floor.”

The team was called The Edmonton Grads, or The Grads for short.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the all-women’s team rose to the top of the game and public favour against all odds, dominating as the Canadian, North American, and World Champions for over 20 years!

An Incredible Record!

When we say The Grads didn’t lose, we mean it. 

Throughout the team’s life, The Grads played 522 official games; they won 502 matches. That’s winning 96% of their games!  

A jaw-dropping average, never matched in modern sports. 

It wasn’t for lack of healthy competition, either.

According to the Canadian Encylopedia, the team was so good that they won the Underwood International Trophy (USA–Canada) for 17 years straight (1923 to 1940) and were undefeated in 24 matches held in conjunction with the Olympic Summer Games in 1924, 1928, and 1936.

Kay MacBeth, who played on the team just before World War II, which led to the team’s disbandment, was one of the last surviving players. 

Kay MacBeth remembering her time with The Grads Havard Gould CBC
Kay MacBeth remembering her time with The Grads | Havard Gould | CBC

As she related to CBC, the team’s head coach, Percy Page, insisted on challenging the all-ladies team to the maximum.

Page told them they had to “play basketball, think basketball and dream basketball.”

While they may have been Edmonton locals, the teams they played were world-class athletes from around the globe.

The Grads also “practiced against men all the time” and even played formal games against many male teams – winning all but two matches!

Their dedication paid off. 

The Grads were idolized in Edmonton and claimed as national heroes, which was against all odds at the time.

A big reason for The Grads’ continued success was the “feeder” system that ensured a steady stream of great players.

The Commercial Graduates Basketball Club was a mix of junior and senior high school teams, all coached to some degree by Page.

A “Cubs” team included players still at school or recently graduated. The best players then progressed to the “Gradettes,” which served as a reserve pool where players could up their game before potentially moving up to become one of The Grads once a vacancy opened.

Women in Sports Frowned Upon 

This feeder system was needed for a reason.

In the 1920s, people weren’t just dismissive of women in sports; many were outright against the idea.

Kay MacBeth doing a little ball handling in 2017 | Havard Gould | CBC

For women to be playing basketball, ‘hardening’ their bodies or travelling away from home was all heavily looked down upon as “masculine” behaviour unfitting for a lady.

Even with the support the team gained publicly, it wasn’t complete freedom.

Most women were required to leave the team upon marriage. Since early marriages were common for women then, few had the opportunity to enjoy the lengthy careers common among today’s sports stars.

The Grads also had to have “womanly” behaviour on and off the court.

“We were told to be ladies at all times,” MacBeth said. “You didn’t shove anybody around. You didn’t give them an elbow.”

No smoking, drinking, or chewing gum. “Just play a nice lady-like game; be fast and smart.”

Work, Work, Work and Then Play

nlike a modern professional team, The Grads went mostly unpaid and had many outside work obligations.

“They were clerks and salesgals and typists,” wrote Ann Hall, author of The Grads Are Playing Tonight!, a book about the team and its legacy.

“They had to work the whole time they were practicing and playing.”

These limitations didn’t affect their play much.

Being fast and smart was clearly the key because, “lady-like” or not, their moves on the court spoke volumes to all who witnessed it.

The Grads nearly single-handedly changed women’s perspective in sport for millions worldwide simply by playing an A-game.

The experience of playing on the team never left Kay, who passed in 2018 shortly after being interviewed at the age of 96.”It was certainly a very important part of my life…I was a part of something special,” she said.

That she certainly was.

While The Grads significantly impacted Canadian history, their impact has been largely forgotten.

However, their perseverance and energy were recently remembered with a Canadian Heritage Minute, and hopefully, we can continue to bring their spirit forward.

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