Mary Campbell’s 1930 tour of Europe was a highlight of her long life. She and her friends traveled by train and ocean liner to exotic world capitals, they shopped to their heart’s delight and she ate so well she gained 10 pounds.
Their tour also featured a special basketball game, the International Women’s Games in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Seventy-five years ago today, Miss Campbell and her eight pals, an unheralded team from the University of British Columbia that hadn’t been able to win the Canadian title, represented the Dominion in a world championship.
“We didn’t dare come home without winning the championship,” the Vancouver
UBC’s Blue-and-Gold squad had made it to the world stage despite having lost the Canadian title to the famed Edmonton Grads. When the Grads couldn’t make the trip to Europe, the runner-up UBC team was tapped to go instead.
It was a costly trip and with the 1929 stock-market crash still reverberating, money was scarce. But parents kicked in $300.00, The Daily Province newspaper promoted the team’s cause, and through canvassing and bridge parties on campus, a total of $5,500 was raised.
Miss Campbell, an arts student, was a 5-foot-6, 120-pound forward. She learned her basketball as a child in a basement gym at St. Giles United Church in Mount Pleasant. She and a friend, Lois Tourtellotte, learned to jive an shimmy around the posts holding up the ceiling, quick-stepping skills that helped them as adult players.
When the Canadians got to Prague for that Sept. 8 game, they were shocked to find they would be taking part not in a tournament, but a single-game show down against the French team, the European victors.
The UBC women got an even greater shock when they saw the court: Instead of a polished gym parquet, it was an outdoor court made of cinders.
“The ball was smaller than ours, and the basket a bit higher,” Miss Campbell adds. “We had to make the best under the circumstances.”
Worst of all, the larger French players tried to intimidate the Canadians with roughhousing tactics before the crown of 10,000.
“They were great big bruisers. It wasn’t a basketball game as we knew it. It was just a rugby football game,” Miss Campbell says.
The French played rough, causing several minor injuries. The Canadian complaints to the Italian referee fell on uncomprehending ears, and they were puzzled by the international rules he enforced.
Still, the UBC team pulled it off, relying on their superior speed to win the game, 10-14. Their trophy was an etched crystal vase.
Back home, the Province rushed a photo of the women in school blazers onto the front page, with the headline: THEY’RE CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD.
UBC fans met the team at the downtown Canadian Pacific station of Sept. 26. A few evenings later, city council gave a dinner for them at the swank Hotel Vancouver.
Then, they were all but forgotten for six decades.
But historian Fred Hume helped revive interest in the team with a 1991 article in a university publication. In recent years, the team has also be inducted into the UBC Sports Hall of Fame, the Basketball B.C. Hall of Fame, and the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Of the nine players, only two are still living: Miss Campbell and her girlhood chum, now Lois fisher.
Miss Campbell went on to teach physical education and English in Vancouver, retiring after a 40 year career. And her interest in basketball remains keen. She attends several thunderbirds basketball games a year and has started a scholarship fund in her name to assist players in their studies.
For many years, the championship crystal vase went missing, a forgotten as the triumph of the team that won it. It was eventually found on a desk, holding flowers. Now it is displayed in a glass cabinet at UBC’s War Memorial Gym.