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tom hawthorn

Kay MacBeth takes pills for high-blood pressure and pushes a walker to get around after fracturing her pelvis. She drives her own car and on Wednesdays can be found practising with the Heartstrings, the Evergreen Seniors Club string band for which she strums baritone ukulele.

"I don't know how much longer I'm going to play," she said. "It's getting a bit too much for me to drive that thing around, to get in the car and get my walker out."

Time eventually denies us our greatest pleasures.

Mrs. MacBeth has been a widow now for 15 years. She long ago gave up sports, even golf, a rare activity in which skill can compensate for the ravages of advanced age.

More than seven decades ago, when she was a fresh-faced schoolgirl graduate in Edmonton, she was invited to join the storied Edmonton Grads, the greatest women's basketball team the world has ever seen.

The Grads played more than 400 official games, losing just 20, according to M. Ann Hall's definitive account of the team, The Grads are Playing Tonight!, published recently by the University of Alberta Press.

From 1922, when the Grads first won the Dominion championship, until 1940, when the club disbanded, the Grads used just 38 players. That roster is now down to just two survivors – Edith (née Stone) Sutton, 101, of Edmonton, and Mrs. MacBeth, 90, of Comox.

Young Kay MacRitchie, as she was known in 1939, leapfrogged from a junior team to the Grads, becoming the first Grad not to first compete with the Gradettes feeder team, according to the new book. The spectacular rookie worried about how her new teammates and the overlooked Gradettes would react.

"I was only 17," she recalled. "I felt they'd be angry at me, because they'd played for quite a few years. I was excited, of course, but I didn't show it. I was the youngest. The next closest to me was five years older. I was scared to say anything, or do anything, but I gave it all I had when it came time to play."

She had grown up playing dodgeball in Saskatchewan and only learned basketball in Grade 10.

She developed a sharpshooter one-handed shot, but Grads coach J. Percy Page, who was soon to be elected to the Alberta Legislature and later served as lieutenant-general, thought it unladylike to use anything but a two-handed shot.

"I was fast and I was a better dribbler than most," she said. "I called myself the Court Master. I'd rather make a pass than take a shot."

Unmarried, still living at home while working as a government clerk, she helped the Grads continue their enviable record as holders of the Underwood International Trophy. The cup, donated by the typewriter company, was awarded for the winner of the competition pitting Canada's best against teams from the United States. In Mrs. Macbeth's two seasons, the Grads defeated challengers from Chicago; Cleveland; St. Louis; Des Moines, Iowa; and Wichita, Kan.

The Grads won their final Canadian championship in May, 1940, when low attendance and the demands of the war caused the amateur club to cease operations.

When her parents moved to Vancouver, she went with them to join the local Hedlunds basketball team for a few seasons, while also playing softball in summer.

In 1946, she married long-time beau Ross MacBeth, who had spent four years overseas as a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot. The pending marriage forced her to turn down a chance to play semi-professional baseball in Arkansas. She raised a family and settled in the picturesque Comox Valley on Vancouver Island.

Over the years, the feats of the amazing Grads faded from memory. Few remember a team once heralded for many years as world champions.

"When I went to Edmonton in '33, everybody knew the Grads," she said. "Hardly anyone knows them now."

The wonderful new book by Ms. Hall, emeritus professor at the University of Alberta, provides an informative and richly detailed account of the women who were sports pioneers. It is authoritative and deserving of a wide readership.

The Grads exhibited their prowess as far afield as Europe decades before women's basketball debuted at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

Just a few years ago, the surviving alumni numbered enough to field a team. Among them was Helen (née Northup) Alexander, nicknamed Peewee by teammates for her 5-foot-2 stature, Lilliputian by basketball standards. A long-time resident of Sidney, she died in 2009, aged 93.

"A good little player," Mrs. MacBeth said. "One of the smarter ones."

The most recent to die was Helen (née Stone) Stewart, in Vancouver, in June, at the age of 101. It is now the duty of her twin sister, Edith, and Mrs. MacBeth to act as witnesses for the greatness of the Grads.

It is not a responsibility without frustrations.

"When anyone phones me I feel stupid because I don't know what happened way back in the Twenties," said Mrs. MacBeth, who became a nonagenarian last week. "They expect me to know all that."

Mrs. MacBeth was the penultimate player to join the Grads, a teenager among seasoned veterans who'd lived the team's previous glories. They are gone now and it is left to a rookie to tell the stories of departed legends.

Special to The Globe and Mail