While the rapture over the Raptors swept the country last week, a display that pays homage to the greatest basketball club in Canadian history was quietly being completed.
Rather than the professionals in Toronto, the exhibit honours a remarkable group of trailblazing women who dominated the game at a time when sport was considered the exclusive domain of men.
The Edmonton Commercial Graduates, an amateur side founded in the fall of 1914, won 502 of 522 games they played in before they were disbanded at the start of the Second World War.
James Naismith, the Ontario-born doctor who invented basketball, called the Grads the “finest team that ever stepped on the floor.” Dressed in black-and-gold blouses, wool bloomers, thick stockings and knee pads, they won 147 games over seven years before suffering their first loss. After that, they won the next 78.
“It almost seems impossible to the extent that it is crazy,” says Mackenzie Cook, a six-foot forward for the University of Alberta Pandas. In 2018, she received the $1,000 scholarship that is handed out each year to a Pandas team member as a means to celebrate the Grads’ legacy. “It is important that we keep memories of them alive.”
The day after the Raptors captured their first NBA title, Grads memorabilia was being arranged in a glass cabinet on the second floor of the Saville Community Sports Centre. The multipurpose facility in Edmonton is managed by the University of Alberta. Above the artifacts there is a mural along the wall painted from a 1923 team photograph.
That year, the Grads won the North American championship over the Cleveland Favorite Knits, who arrived in Edmonton clad in shorts bearing the words “World Champs.” The Grads beat the pants off of them to win the Underwood International series for the first of 17 consecutive times. At the end, organizers decided it was easier to allow them to keep the trophy permanently rather than have to present it to them every year.
It made perfect sense. The Grads were nearly invincible.
Over a quarter of a century, they compiled a record of 114-6 against challengers from the United States. They won 10 unofficial world championships, 18 Canadian championships and were awarded demonstration-sport gold medals at four Olympic Games.
They were easily the most successful team in Canadian sports history. During one seven-year stretch they lost only once at home. They never lost more than three straight games – and that happened just one time. Forever in search of a worthy opponent, they played against men on nine occasions. They lost twice.
“They were like a machine,” says Bob Butlin, a retiree who established the Edmonton Grads Basketball Centre. The non-profit group operates a summer basketball program for girls from the ages of 10 to 17 out of the Saville Sports Centre. “They had five offences and ran them until hell froze over.”
Butlin and Shaun Pope, who oversees the Junior Grads Program, collected souvenirs from former players’ family members. There are boxes of items not yet on exhibit.
“Ours is the only major display of the Edmonton Grads and we are extremely proud of it,” Butlin says. “We want to make sure nobody forgets these girls.”
The last surviving Grads player, Kay MacBeth, died in July, 2018 at the age of 96.
In November, 2017, she attended the ceremony when the Grads were inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. The Raptors also invited her to a game.
“I don’t think there is much known about the Grads outside of Alberta, and I find that kind of sad,” her granddaughter, Christin Carmichael Greb, a former city councillor in Toronto, says.
She believes this is a perfect time to preserve and promote their legacy. Basketball is suddenly at the forefront of Canadian minds.
“It is great that the Raptors won, but we need to remind people about our history with the sport,” Carmichael Greb says. “A Canadian invented it and the Grads were the best team to ever play.”
Before each game players would huddle on the court and cheer.
“Pickles, ketchup chow chow chow
Chew ‘em up, eat ‘em up bow wow.
Hannibal, cannibal sis boom bah
Commercial Graduates rah rah rah.”
In the fall of 1914, girls at the John A. McDougall School in Edmonton entered a high-school basketball league. The team, under the direction of physical education teacher John Percy Page, won all of its games and captured the city championship. It went on to win the provincial title the following season, after which members decided to keep playing even after graduation.
The Commercial Graduates were established on June 15, 1915 and over the next 25 years were the sporting world’s most successful team. Page, who went on to become Alberta’s eighth lieutenant-governor, was their one and only coach. His wife, Maude, served as the players’ chaperone. The team shut down when its gym was converted into a military barracks in the early stages of the Second World War.
From beginning to end, the Grads won 96 per cent of their games. They trotted the globe before the Globetrotters, travelling more than 200,000 kilometres to face challengers all over the world.
In 1924, they received an invitation to play in the Paris Olympics at a time when basketball was still a demonstration sport. They were invited to the Summer Games again in Amsterdam in 1928 and Los Angeles in 1932 and then participated in the historic Berlin Olympics in 1936. Women’s basketball didn’t become an official Olympic event until the 1976 Games in Montreal.
That summer, they marched into a newly constructed 100,000-seat coliseum along with nearly 4,000 athletes from 50 other nations. The Hindenburg flew overhead during the opening gala, which German Chancellor Adolph Hitler watched from a viewing platform with other members of the Nazi Party.
The Grads won nine straight games at those Olympics, including a 100-2 trampling of an English squad. They went 27-0 in four Olympiads and won games by an average score of 69-11. The team ceased to exist before the next Summer Games were held in 1948. The Olympics were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of the war.
In a 1950 Canadian Press poll of sports editors and sportscasters, the Grads were selected Canada’s greatest basketball team, women or men, of the first half-century.
Players became stars of both the sports and social pages. They were introduced to heads of state and escorted through the Houses of Parliament. Their triumphant returns to Edmonton were treated like Royal visits. Once, 20,000 people lined the streets downtown for a parade in their honour. The population of Alberta’s capital city was only about 60,000 at the time.
The Grads players were never paid, nor did they ever receive government grants or gate receipts. They worked as teachers and stenographers and in department stores during the day and practised for two hours three nights a week.
They were a fast-passing, fast-breaking team and fans would literally cling to the rafters to watch their home games. Nearly 7,000 turned out for a game in 1930, the largest crowd to ever watch basketball in Canada at the time.
More than 6,200 spectators bid adieu in their final game, a 62-52 victory over a heralded squad from Chicago.
Over 25 years, they had only 38 players. Page developed an intricate farm system, but for most it was a waste of time. Cracking their lineup was incredibly difficult.
They shut out a team from Calgary once. Another time, one of their players, Margaret MacBurney, sank 61 consecutive foul shots during a halftime shooting exhibition. Take that, Stephen Curry.
They were inducted as a group into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983 and in 1987 a documentary, Shooting Stars, was made about them by the National Film Board of Canada. Two years ago, they were featured in a Heritage Minute video by Historica Canada.
The Grads players held reunions about every four years until the mid 1980s. Now only memories of them survive.
One night this week Mackenzie Cook presided over a basketball practice in Edmonton attended by 24 girls. The 10-year-olds to 13-year-olds are all participating in the Junior Grads program. The gym is downstairs from the mural painted in a hallway four years ago.
Another mural pays tribute to Canada’s national women’s team. The symbolism is striking: Without one group, there may not have been another.
Cook is assisted during practice by three teammates from the University of Alberta: Megan Tywoniuk, Marinya Marcichiw and Brooklyn Legault. Cook and Tywoniuk both came up through the Junior Grads. Tywoniuk received the Grads scholarship the year before last.
Sometime next week, the girls will be brought up to see the tribute to the Grads. They will gaze at the mural and peruse through the memorabilia. They will watch the National Film Board movie about them. Then the aspiring young players will be asked to write about them.
“It is great for young girls to see that women’s sports has as much impact as men’s,” Tywoniuk, a tenacious 22-year-old guard, says. She is 5-feet-11 and entering her final year with the Pandas. “It is good for them to have a role models.”
The Grads went 502-20. They did it at a time when women were discouraged from participating in sports. And nobody has ever done it better, before or since.
“They were amazing,” Tywoniuk says. “It is the first tangible evidence of women’s basketball excelling.”