The coach who brought respectability to Canadian women’s basketball is stepping down.
Allison McNeill capped her 11th year as head coach with an inspiring run to the quarter-finals at the London Olympics, but she said she realized in the days following the Games that there were other things in her life that needed attention.
“Right now, this isn’t the most important thing to me, and it always has been,” she said Monday from her home in Surrey, B.C., as she talked of her sick father and brother-in-law.
She said she first thought of continuing through the Pan American Games in Toronto and the Rio Olympics, but decided she couldn’t restore basketball to the place it once held in her life.
She has coached the women’s team since 2002, and leaves the program as the longest-serving national team women’s head coach and is second only to men’s coach Jack Donohue’s 17 seasons.
Canada Basketball’s president and CEO Wayne Parrish called McNeill’s contribution to the game and the young women she’s coached “absolutely enormous.”
“When you think back to the challenging circumstances she faced in 2002, you’d have to say that her sheer determination and incredible dedication has everything to do with our being back in the Top 10 globally today,” Parrish said.
He said they would immediately begin the process to find a replacement and would look both inside and outside Canada for the best candidate.
McNeill took Canada to back-to-back world championships in 2006 and 2010 as the country returned to the global tournament after a 12-year absence.
Speaking on a conference call from her home in Surrey, B.C., McNeill said it’s the athletes she’ll miss the most. She recalled through tears the emotional final game at the London Olympics, Canada’s first appearance at the Games in 12 years.
The Canadians was eliminated in the quarters 91-48 by eventual gold medallist United States, and McNeill told her players at halftime to go out and enjoy their final moments playing together.
McNeill and team veterans Teresa Gabriele, Kim Smith and Chelsea Aubrey talked through tears after the game about knowing it was likely their last game together.
“You realize what as a group you have done and you realize how you did it,” McNeill said. “That’s probably what I’m most proud of, we’ve done it right.”
Smith posted on Twitter: “Saw first hand the hard work and dedication of (at)AllisonMcNeill (at)CanBball would not be where they are today without u #thanks #proudplayer.”
The No. 9-ranked Canadians earned the last spot available for the London Games with a victory at a second-chance qualifying tournament on Canada Day.
McNeill says her time with the national team saw great changes. When she was hired, they played eight games the first year, 12 the next and four the next.
“I thought, really? Is this the national team? Is this what I’ve been hoping to be part of? . . . We had played 23 games in three years. I think most junior-high teams play more than that in a season.”
But McNeill said the team is now the strongest it has ever been and she believes she will see Canada reach an international podium.
She plans to continue working with grassroots programs across the country, a job she’s done even while she was the senior women’s coach.
“I’ve already cried for a few days and I think I’m not going to cry here,” she said on the call, before proving herself wrong.