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Publication: Globe and Mail, The
Issue: 25 March 2009, page R5
Title: MARY CAMPBELL (Obituary)
Web Link: link
MARY CAMPBELL, 98: ATHLETE AND TEACHER
She helped lead the 'basketbelles' to world championship in 1930
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 25, 2009
Mary Campbell learned to play basketball in a church basement where posts held up a low ceiling. She jived and shimmied around the obstacles, developing quick-stepping skills she would later credit for helping her lead a team of young Canadian women to a world championship.
The basement of St. Giles United Church in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant offered a rare venue for girls to play sports in the years following the First World War, when basketball was in its infancy.
At 18, Ms. Campbell earned a spot on the varsity roster of the University of British Columbia. Standing just 5 foot 6 and weighing a slight 120 pounds, she relied on guile more than force to score from her position as a forward.
A new gymnasium opened on campus for the 1929-30 season. The basketbelles, as they were described in newspaper reports, played against amateurs in a citywide league. They earned a shot at the Western Canadian championship against the mighty Edmonton Grads, which they lost.
Under the guidance of coach Percy Page, the Grads were acknowledged as the greatest women's basketball team of the age, demolishing all opponents in Canada and around the world.
But in the summer following the stock market crash of 1929, the Grads were unable to travel to Europe for International Women's Games, so Mr. Page proposed the university team take their place.
Parents, players, the student council and the community raised funds.
After 17 days of travel, the Canadians arrived in Prague for the Games, a quadrennial gathering organized in response to the refusal to allow full participation of women in the Olympics.
Ms. Campbell's squad expected to take part in a tournament, but learned the world championship would be settled in a single game showdown against France, the European titleholders.
The women got an even greater shock when they saw the venue, an outdoor court of cinder. As well, the rules forbade substitutions except in case of injury, and no rest was taken between quarters.
"The ball was smaller than ours, and the basket a bit higher," Ms. Campbell told me four years ago on the 75th anniversary of the game.
The larger French players tried to intimidate the visitors by using roughhouse tactics.
"They were great big bruisers," she said. "It wasn't a basketball game as we knew it."
Relying on speed and savvy, the Canadians built a 14-8 lead by the end of the first half. The play got tougher in the second half, as the referee seemed reluctant to call fouls. But with 10,000 European fans surrounding the court, the tourists survived the French assault to record an 18-14 win. The victors were presented with ribbons and gold medals, as well as an etched crystal vase proclaiming their triumph as world champions.
After graduation from university, Ms. Campbell embarked on a teaching career that would last four decades. She taught physical education at John Oliver High School in Vancouver, creating a local powerhouse in track and basketball.
In 1961, she joined the teaching staff of the new Windermere High, where she headed the English department.
She trained uncounted young athletes over the decades, few of whom ever knew she had played for a world championship team. The UBC squad was all but forgotten for many years until university sports historian Fred Hume and others revived interest in the team in the early 1990s. Feminist scholars also found much to admire in young women who travelled halfway around the globe to contest a world sport championship. Ms. Campbell's death leaves a childhood friend, Lois (née Tourtelotte) Fisher, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, as the last surviving member of the storied 1930 team.
Mary Elizabeth Campbell was born on Oct. 11, 1910, in Vancouver. She died there on March 4. She was 98. She leaves a niece and two nephews.