1890 - 1899
Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a Canadian teaching physical education at the International YMCA Training School, now Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. The indoor game was designed to help keep his young male students in shape between the football and baseball seasons. Introduced to YMCAs by Springfield College trainees, basketball appears first in Canada in St. Stephen, New Brunswick and in Montreal, and then spreads quickly throughout Eastern Canada. Girls and women immediately take up this new game, often a modified version, playing it in schools and colleges.
1900 - 1909
As the west opens up in Canada, so does basketball come to the new province of Alberta. Raymond claims the honour of the first boy's high school basketball team in 1903, followed in 1904 by Lacombe for the first girls' high school team. The Calgary school board introduced basketball to its physical education curriculum in 1906. The lack of indoor facilities hindered the game until schools, and especially YMCAs, began to equip their buildings with gymnasiums. With the opening of the Edmonton YMCA in 1908, the first boys' and men's basketball league in northern Alberta had a place to play, and within a year, there was a junior, intermediate, and senior league. By the end of this decade, basketball was being played in most major centres in the province, certainly where there was a YMCA, and intercity challenge matches became more frequent.
1910 - 1919
Basketball continued to expand throughout the province with teams and leagues sprouting up all over. In 1911, for example, the University of Alberta organized its first men's team, and by 1915 it had a women's team. The men's team played in the Edmonton YMCA senior league, and the women's team played in an Intercollegiate Basketball league in the city. The Calgary Interscholastic Athletic Association established a basketball section in 1913. In southern Alberta, teams from Raymond, Stirling, and Magrath travelled south of the border to compete with teams in Montana and Utah. World War I impacted men's basketball, especially at the senior interscholastic levels, as more and more players enlisted. In Edmonton, where girls' teams from McDougall Commercial High School were gaining a reputation for success, many wanted to continue playing basketball after they graduated. In 1915 they formed the Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club, later known as the "Edmonton Grads", and a basketball dynasty was born.
1920 - 1929
With basketball's popularity increasing, new organizations were founded to oversee its growth. At the college level, the Western Canadian Intervarsity Athletic Union (for men only) was formed in 1920 with the University of Alberta winning the first basketball championship (the Rigby Trophy). In 1921, the Alberta Basketball Association was organized, headed by Cecil Race, registrar at the University of Alberta. He also played a major role in the founding of the Canadian Basketball Association in 1923. The first Alberta provincial championships, for both women and men, were now underway.
In 1922, the Edmonton Grads beat the London Shamrocks for the first women's Canadian title, and the following year the Cleveland Favorite Knits came to Edmonton for the inaugural Underwood International Trophy challenge, and were defeated by the Grads. This was the beginning of big time basketball in Edmonton, played in the Arena on a wooden floor over the ice before thousands of cheering spectators.
Basketball was growing across Canada, and the first sanctioned National Basketball Championships were held in 1924 for both women and men. The Grads won the women's championship and the Union Jacks from Raymond, Alberta won the men's. The Grads travelled to Europe in 1924, in conjunction with the Paris Olympics, where they defeated a series of teams and were declared world champions by the International Basketball Federation. In 1928, they journeyed to Europe again, beat all opponents, and retained their world title.
1930 - 1939
The Depression era was a difficult time for most sports including basketball, because it was difficult for teams to find the funds to travel even within the province and certainly to bring in teams from far away. While the Grads continued to dominate women's basketball by winning all available championships, the Raymond Union Jacks were a strong Alberta contender winning the provincial men's title 15 times between 1921 and 1941, and advancing to several inter-provincial championships.
Men's basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936, and although the Grads traveled to Berlin as part of the Canadian contingent, they were forced to watch from the sidelines. They did, however, win all their games during a European exhibition tour, and were yet again declared world champions.
1940 - 1959
Many sports including basketball were also affected by World War II as men took off to fight and women were left to maintain the home front and contribute to the war effort. The war made travel even more difficult and many competitions, especially Dominion championships, were routinely cancelled as were all European and world championships, including the 1940 and 1944 Olympics.
The Edmonton Grads, for example, disbanded in June 1940 partly because the Edmonton Arena, where their international series always took place, was taken over by the federal government for military training.
The modern era of basketball in Canada, as is true of many sports, is said to have begun after the war when air travel became more common and universities began to take the game more seriously.
At the University of Alberta, for example, Dr. Maury Van Vliet arrived in 1946 as both Director of Physical Education and Head Coach of the Golden Bears Basketball Team. Under his leadership, the basketball program underwent many changes. The team began to travel by air and regularly played teams based in the United States both at home and on the road. By the time Van Vliet retired as coach in 1956, the Bears had won the Rigby Trophy (WCIAU championship) seven years in a row and the provincial title three times.
The building of bigger and better facilities in the post-war era also helped the development of basketball. In 1958, the Bears and Pandas were able to move games from the small gym in Athabasca Hall to the more spacious Main Gym in the West Wing, built as part of a special Jubilee year expansion.
1960 - 1979
University and college basketball in the province continued to develop in this era. Men's and women's basketball at the University of Calgary had a stellar year in 1966 with both winning the WCIAU championships. In 1971, the WCIAU split into the Canada West Universities Athletic Association, with Alberta, UBC, Calgary, Lethbridge, Saskatchewan, and Victoria as charter members, and the Great Plains Athletic Association, consisting primarily of schools in Manitoba. The University of Alberta Golden Bears captured the Canada West basketball title in 1973, 1974, and 1977, while the University of Calgary Dinos men's team won in 1976, and the women's team in 1979. The University of Alberta Pandas made their first national Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championship appearance in 1977.
At the college level, the Western Inter-College Conference (WICC) began its first competitive season in 1964 in the officially sanctioned sport of men's basketball. Teams from Mount Royal College, Camrose Lutheran College, Lethbridge Community College, NAIT and SAIT participated. In 1968, the WICC changed its name to Alberta College Athletic Conference (now with 10 members) and in 1970 entered into an affiliation with college athletic conferences in the other western provinces to form the 4-West Conference. The next year, the first 4-West Conference Championships were staged in men's and women's basketball. The Canadian Colleges Athletic Association was founded in 1974 with national championships inaugurated at the same time.
In 1963, wheelchair basketball teams from Edmonton and Winnipeg met in Saskatoon, perhaps the first inter-provincial wheelchair basketball competition. From 1969 until 1978, basketball was part of the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association but in 1978 it was organized as a separate sport. The Alberta Northern Lights Wheelchair Basketball Society was formed in 1976 to provide recreational and competitive opportunities in central and northern Alberta. In Calgary, the Raiders (later the Calgary Grizzlies) were formed in 1977 as part of the Calgary Disable Sports Club.
1980 - 1999
The arrival of Don Horwood as head coach of the University of Alberta men's basketball team in 1983 marked the beginning of a highly successful program. The team won the Canada West title in 1985, its first ever CIS championship in 1994, and again in 1995. Horwood was named CIAU coach both years. In 1999, under Coach Trix Baker, the University of Alberta Pandas also won the CIS title. The University of Calgary Dinos women's basketball team won the Canada West championship five times in this period and in 1989 they were the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) champions. The Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League was formed in 1985, and the following year the Calgary Grizzlies won the first national championship, which was held in Calgary
2000 - Present
At the university level, the Canada West conference absorbed teams from the Great Plains Athletic Conference with basketball merging in 2001-02. Canada West is one of four conferences in CIS, and today there are 14 schools participating in Canada West varsity sports. By the time Coach Don Horwood at the University of Alberta retired in 2009, he had been named CIS Coach of the Year three times; his team had won Canada West seven times, made appearances at 11 CIS championships, and captured the national title three times. The GO Centre (the "G" stands for the Edmonton Grads) opened in Edmonton in 2011 as a recreational and competitive facility for primarily basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics. As part of the Saville Community Sports Centre, it is located on the University of Alberta South Campus. There are nine basketball courts as well as a competition gym with seating for 2,800 spectators. It is also the new home of Edmonton Energy, a team in the professional International Basketball League.
Hall, M. Ann. The Grads Are Playing Tonight!: The Story of the Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2011.
Melnick, Ralph. Senda Berenson, The Unlikely Founder of Women’s Basketball. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
Mitchelson, E. Barry. The Evolution of Men’s Basketball in Canada, 1892-1936. MA thesis. University of Alberta, 1968.
Naismith, James. Basketball Its Origin and Development. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 (originally published in 1941).
Nemeth, Mary. “A Patch of Hoops Heaven,” Maclean’s, 20 March 1995, pp. 48-49.
Rains, Rob. James Naismith: the Man Who Invented Basketball. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009
“School Basketball Started with Formation of Province,” Edmonton Journal, 1 June 1934, p.16.