They were basketball’s version of “A League of Their Own,” only better, a group of trail-blazing women who utterly dominated their sport for a quarter of a century.
And on Saturday, Kay MacBeth, the last surviving member of the famous Edmonton Graduates basketball team, died at the age of 96.
“It’s really an end of an era,” her granddaughter Christin Carmichael Greb said. “It was like the movie, it was the same sort of thing for basketball, there were these women who were amazing athletes that we don’t always hear about.”
MacBeth (nee MacRitchie) joined the Grads – whom Dr. James Naismith, the Canadian inventor of basketball, once referred to as “the finest basketball team that ever stepped out on a floor” – in 1939 when she was just 17, and played in the team’s final two seasons. Known as Canada’s most successful team in history, they won 17 world titles and went 502-20 from their founding in 1915 to 1940, when they folded due to demands of the war and falling attendance.
Coached by J. Percy Page, who would go on to become Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, the Grads collected four straight exhibition Olympic titles (before women were permitted to compete in the Games), winning all 27 matches.
They played nine games against men’s teams. They won seven of them.
MacBeth talked fondly about her days running the Grads’ offence as the team’s five-foot-four point guard. She described herself in an interview last year with The Canadian Press as “fast and a good playmaker and not a ball hog. Any time the ball was in our hands, I pretty much started it.”
But MacBeth never revelled in her celebrity.
Carmichael Greb, a Toronto city councillor, said the family had MacBeth’s Grads jersey framed. But when her mom Kerry went looking for it in MacBeth’s house, she found it gathering dust in a box.
“She had kept it, but she wasn’t overt about it,” Carmichael Greb said. “(Basketball) wasn’t something that she necessarily saw herself as a role model for, it was more that it was part of her life, she loved sports, she just did it because she loved it.”
MacBeth played softball and dodge ball growing up in Saskatchewan, but didn’t take up basketball until Grade 10. She lived most of her adult life in Comox, B.C., before settling in Toronto six years ago.
Carmichael Greb remembered family trips to Comox to visit her grandma and vice versa.
“My sister (Julie) was a basketball player in high school, so when she came to visit they would go out and shoot hoops for a while. My grandmother would teach her how to hold the ball properly, because she always said players today ‘They just don’t do it right,“’ she said, laughing.
“My grandmother was definitely an athlete. And she was very determined and very driven in everything that she did. She was also a golfer, my years knowing her, she was always on the golf course, sports were always a very big part (of her life),” Carmichael Greb added. “And so it was great to know her, because from that era, you didn’t have a lot of female athletes coming up. I was a rower through high school, and so to have that sort of inspiration of a female athlete, someone who lived through a completely different period where there were no women’s sports, it was a great thing to have growing up.”
The Grads went into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2017, and the highlight of the induction news conference was when MacBeth asked former Calgary Flames legend and fellow inductee Lanny McDonald for a kiss.
“How about that?” McDonald grinned through his bushy mustache.
The Grads were also featured in a Heritage Minute last year. They were inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.
“MacBeth and the Edmonton Grads transformed the sport in Canada and were an inspiration to women’s basketball players not only across the country but around the world,” Wayne Parrish, co-chair of Canada Basketball’s board of directors, said in a statement.
MacBeth and her teammates – there were just 38 official players – remained close for year after the Grads disbanded.
“It was a crying session at our last dinner anyway, everybody was upset to some degree,” she said last year. “We decided we’d meet every three years somewhere in Canada, which we did until everybody had become either ill or too far away … The last reunion was some time in the 80s.”
Carmichael Greb hopes her grandmother and the Grads aren’t forgotten.
“If you ask anybody today, any girl in high school, especially in Toronto, they don’t really know who the Edmonton Grads were, so I think from a Canadian history perspective, it’s something that we need to make sure that we keep that history alive so that people know there were these women back in the 1920s, 1930s that were amazing athletes.”
MacBeth is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, seven grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.