A lot of mention has been made of the fact that many of the players that took to the courts for the NCAA Division 1 Men’s and Women’s basketball tournaments this year hailed from Canada. In the final championship game between Arizona and Stanford in the Women’s Division, the winning Stanford team included a champion from north of the border, Toronto's Alyssa Jerome .
It is a fitting finish given that it was a Canadian who is credited with inventing the game of basketball. It all began at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, known today as Springfield College, where a young physical education instructor by the name of James Naismith, who was born in Almonte, Ontario, was working. The story goes that in December of 1891 Naismith wanted to come up with an activity for his class to play during the winter months, so he devised a set of thirteen basic rules for a game he called Basket Ball. He secured a peach basket to a railing ten feet above the floor, one at each end of the gymnasium, and provided his class with a soccer ball and the rules. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
By 1893 the game had been promoted throughout the YMCA system and it was through that vehicle that basketball made its way to Canada. By 1900, basketball was being played by both men and women at local YMCAs and YWCAs, and in schools and clubs.
Just as it is today, basketball was popular amongst women attending post-secondary institutions with inter-class and inter-collegiate games being commonplace on campuses in Canada during the early 1900s. It was not until February 6, 1920, however, that the first recorded female inter-university game was held which saw the McGill Martlets emerge victorious over the Queen’s Gaels with a final score of 21-16.
Last February, before the world shut down, U Sports, which oversees university sports in Canada, marked the 100th anniversary of this historic milestone by naming the Top 100 women basketball players of the century. Included amongst the 2011-2020 honorees was Lakehead University alumnus Jylisa Williams, who played for the Thunderwolves from 2013-15. During her time with the team she recorded 790 points in 31 games and in 2015 she broke the OUA Single-season scoring record (506 points), the single-game scoring record (50 points) and was the 2015 leading CIS scorer with an average of 28.8 ppg.
Williams was an example of the strong history that women’s basketball has enjoyed at Lakehead. The significance of the impact that the women’s game had on LU was evident in 1996 when the school inducted their inaugural class into their Wall of Fame. The first team ever to be honoured were the members of the Lady Nor’Westers 1984-85 Basketball team. Led by coach Stu Julius the team won the Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) title as underdogs, earning them a spot in their first CIAU championship, an accomplishment they repeated the following season.
A great women’s basketball story from our nation’s history that has a local connection, involved the famous Edmonton Grads, a group of female basketball players that were truly legendary and unstoppable. Of the 522 official games they played between 1915 and 1940, they won 502 of them, enjoyed a 147 game win streak, claimed 19 Canadian championship titles and claimed 17 straight Underwood International Trophies against the United States. While women’s basketball did not become an official Olympic sport until 1976, it was played as a series of exhibitions alongside earlier Games, with the Grads claiming gold in 1924, 1928, 1932 and 1936.
The Grads made a stop in the Lakehead in 1928 and played an exhibition game against a local all-star team called the Twin City Selects. Performing before a crowd of over 700 spectators they emerged victorious over our local girls by a score of 55 to 9. Helen (Gerry) Reith, a local standout with high school and Y teams, and a NWO Sports Hall of Fame Inductee, received an offer from the Grads famous coach Percy Page to try out for the team, an offer which she declined, preferring to stay in her hometown.
As I was reading through various articles describing women’s basketball during the timeframe of the Edmonton Grads I was reminded how much gender has always played a role in sport, which was evident in the fact that there existed specific ‘Girls Rules’ in basketball. Developed in the 1890s by Sandra Berenson, a physical education teacher at Smith College, she modified Naismith’s rules by adapting them for women. Her initial rules saw the court divided into three sections with teams of up to nine players who were limited to only holding the ball for three seconds and only dribbling it three times before passing. By the late 1930s the three zones were reduced to two with teams comprised of six players. I must admit that I was rather surprised to learn that it was not until 1971 that women adopted the full-court, five-person game that had been played by men for decades.
To add to the legacy of the Grads, they did not always follow ‘girl’s rules’ but rather achieved the majority of their success playing basketball by standard rules, and even won seven of nine games that they played against men’s teams. While there is admittedly still a way to go to lessen the gender gap in the world of sports, one has to believe that if the members of the Edmonton Grads were alive today they would be pretty proud of the advances that women have made in the sport that they so proudly served as trailblazers in for so many years.
Until next time, keep that sports history pride alive and stay safe.
Photo 1 Caption: Given that Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball while a teacher at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, it was not surprising to find it being played amongst YMCA and YWCA locations over a century ago, including locally by this 1920-21 Port Arthur YWCA Ladies Basketball team.
Photo 2 Caption: Basketball has been a popular team sport enjoyed by local women for many years, including the members of the 1929-30 Fort William Collegiate Institute (FWCI) Girl’s basketball team including (l-r) Dolly Begin, Marg Gerry, Ruth Black, Ruth Cooper, Ellen McIvor, Doreen Ross, Marg Holley, Helen Gerry, Gertrude Godley (coach)