Basketball's Best

It started with a high school girls’ basketball team in Edmonton, and ended with one of the best winning records ever.

Written by Valerie Drake, Illustrated by Stephane Boutain

November 16, 2017

drawing, Edmonton Grads players dribble ball in game agains men.

Edmonton, 1923

Charlie’s face was bright red, and beads of sweat were rolling from his eyebrows to his chin, but he didn’t seem to notice. He stared at the gym’s scoreboard. “I still can’t believe it,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “How did we get beaten by a bunch of girls?”

His teammates just shook their heads. They couldn’t believe it either.

“What a pack of ninnies!” said a girl’s voice. Charlie’s younger sister tossed a towel at her brother. “Did you really think you could win? Nobody beats the Edmonton Grads!”

Louise grabbed a basketball from under a player’s arm and dribbled it down the court. She jumped for a layup but bounced the ball off the backboard and onto the court, where a smiling young woman in a skirt and blouse picked it up.

“You were close,” the woman said. “You just need to relax a bit. Don’t shoot it quite so hard.” In the blink of an eye, she expertly dribbled up to the net, jumped and with a soft flick of her wrist, the ball obediently dropped through the net.

“Can you teach me that?” Louise asked eagerly. “I’d give anything to play with you, Daisy!”

The woman grinned. “Keep practising, and in a few years, you’ll be old enough to try out. But you’ll have to work hard. Not just anyone makes it onto the Edmonton Grads! Right, ladies?”

Daisy Johnson turned to her teammates, who were chatting and laughing as they left the change room. “Right!” several of them said.

Eleanor Mountifield stopped and pretended to be very serious as she laid a hand on Louise’s head. “You don’t have to be the tallest or the fastest or the strongest basketball player to be on the Grads, but you do have to be the hardest-working.”

She winked. “Otherwise, you might end up like these chumps.” She jerked her thumb toward the young men’s team as they started to head for the showers. Eleanor lowered her head to Louise’s ear. “Nice guys, I’m sure, but they need to learn a thing or two about basketball, wouldn’t you say?”

Louise erupted into a fit of giggles as the young women walked away. “Good luck in your big game,” she called, waving as hard as she could. “Beat those Americans for us!”

Daisy and her teammates waved and cheered as they left the gym. “Do you think we can beat Cleveland?” Connie Smith asked.

“Of course we can!” replied Daisy. “Just because they’re from the States doesn’t mean they’re any better than us. We’ve got a pretty good winning streak going. All we have to do is keep it that way ’til the end of the weekend and we’ll be the North American champs.”

“The first-ever winners of the Underwood Challenge Trophy for girls’ basketball!” yelled Eleanor.

“Keep it down, Mountifield,” said Daisy firmly but gently. “No gloating; no unsportsmanlike behaviour. Remember what Coach Page says? ‹Ladies first; basketball players second.›”

“Well, that’s not as important as the other thing he likes to say,” Eleanor retorted. The whole team chimed in. “You must play basketball, think basketball and dream basketball.”

A pleasant-looking man in a tie and cream-coloured sweater who’d been waiting near the door smiled at them. “Glad to hear you remember, ladies. All our practising will pay off when we beat Cleveland.”

Edmonton Grads Pennant and Basketball art.

June 12, 1923

“I think we found the last two seats!” Louise plunked down into the bleachers at the Edmonton Arena and patted the spot beside her for Charlie.

“I don’t even know why we came,” said Charlie. “The Grads won the first game, and we both know they’ll win tonight, too.” He grinned. “Although I have to say, they play pretty terrific basketball.”

Louise grimaced. “Well, I want to see it for myself. Imagine, Cleveland showing up in shorts that say World Champs before they’d even played the game!”

The whistle blew and right away the Edmonton players took off down the court, running and passing with all the precision they’d learned in hours and hours of practice. And there it was — their first basket!

Louise leaped out of her seat. “Go Grads! Show Cleveland who the world champions really are!” As Daisy dribbled the ball down the court, she grinned and waved. Louise waved back, then turned to her brother. “Did you see that? It’s like I said.” Charlie chimed in with her “Nobody beats the Edmonton Grads!”

We imagined Louise and Charlie, but Daisy, Eleanor and Connie were all real basketball players for the amazing Edmonton Grads. In 1914, Percy Page was a teacher at MacDougall Commercial High School in Edmonton. When the other coach took on the boys’ basketball team, Page said he’d coach the girls. They won the provincial championship in 1915. The team was so good, and they were having so much fun, that they decided to stay together after they finished high school, calling themselves the Edmonton Commercial Graduates, which was soon shortened to the Edmonton Grads. Although there’s some disagreement about exactly how many games they played and won between 1915 and 1940, their record is one of the best in the history of sports. That’s the history of all sports for all teams in the entire world. After beating the Cleveland Favorite-Knits (sponsored by the sporting goods company Favorite-Knit Mills) in 1923, they won the Underwood Trophy every year until 1940. Throughout their time playing together, they won 95 percent of their games, beating seven of the nine men’s teams they played. Although women’s basketball wasn’t an official Olympic sport then, the Grads played in tournaments held at the time of the Olympic Games in 1924, 1928 and 1936, winning all 24 matches. About 50 young women played for the Grads over their 25 years together. The team finally gave up basketball in 1940, partly because the Royal Canadian Air Force needed their gym for training, but mostly because there was no one left for them to beat. Percy Page was named to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955. The Edmonton Grads were added in November 2017.

This article originally appeared in the Deceber 2017 issue of Kayak Canada’s History Magazine for Kids

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