Nora June McDermott
Born: June 25, 1927 (Vancouver)
Died: May 16, 2013 (North Vancouver, B.C.)
Nora McDermott powered a basketball dynasty with dead-eye shooting from anywhere on the court.
Ms. McDermott, who has died at 85, was one of Canada’s finest athletes in the post-Second World War years, leading the Vancouver Eilers to nine consecutive national titles in the 1950s. She represented Canada at three Pan American Games as a player and once as team manager.
A versatile athlete, she also won two national championships as a volleyball player.
Quiet and unassuming, she inspired generations of students as a high-school teacher and coach in Vancouver.
Nora June McDermott was born in Vancouver on June 25, 1927, to Frances Margaret (née Harrison), a domestic, and Hugh Joachim McDermott, a lather and plasterer. When construction jobs disappeared during the Depression, her father walked from the family’s east side home to downtown to collect relief. His youngest daughter relied on shoes provided by charity; her long, slender feet made a perfect fit unlikely, so more often she wore shoes that pinched at the heel and toe.
Nora did not take up basketball until Grade 11. She twisted both ankles in one game, so her friends placed her atop a bicycle before rolling her to a bus stop. She wound up crawling the last few blocks home.
She graduated from John Oliver High, where she would later join the teaching staff.
At the University of British Columbia, she qualified for the Thunderettes varsity basketball team in her first year, guiding the team to several tournament championships as well as two city titles over four years. Her skill in the gym was matched by her prowess on the grass pitch, as she also played field hockey.
Ms. McDermott graduated at the top of her class in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education. She earned six varsity letters, known at the university as Big Blocks, making her the university’s most decorated woman athlete. Seven years later, she added an education degree to her resumé.
Her university coach, Ruth Wilson, took up the reins of a women’s team sponsored by local jeweller Walter Eilers, a recent arrival in Vancouver from Saskatchewan who financed several sports teams to get his name before the public.
Led by Ms. McDermott’s terrific shooting, the Eilers claimed their first Dominion championship in 1950 by defeating the Montgomery Maids in games at Parkdale Collegiate in Toronto.
Reporters marvelled at her fierce determination on the court. In a game to determine the provincial champion in 1953, Miss McDermott, “still limping badly with a knee injury, was a power with some dead-eye shooting,” the Vancouver Sun reported. She led her squad with 19 points in a game against Victoria.
The Eilers dominated women’s basketball for a decade, knocking off such challengers as the Saskatoon Aces, the Hamilton Zion Ramblers, the Calgary Wittichens and the Kitchener-Waterloo Elliotts. More often than not, Ms. McDermott, a quicksilver forward, led the Eilers in scoring.
“She didn’t look like she could do anything,” said Barbara (Bim) Schrodt, a sports historian who has been inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame for her contributions to field hockey. “Slim build. About 5-foot-10. Not husky. What could she do? Well, score baskets.”
The Eilers, which included on the roster Nora’s elder sister Louise, played a sophisticated style of basketball, which often left their Eastern rivals confused.
“We did perfectly legal screens and they were blocked out,” Ms. McDermott once told Ms. Schrodt. “They had never seen those things before.”
After the Eilers’ streak ended, Ms. McDermott won a tenth national championship in 1962 with the Richmond Merchants, a team comprised mostly of former Eilers players.
She played for Canada at the Pan American Games in 1955, 1959 and 1963, although her teams failed to finish higher than fourth. She did manage the team that claimed a bronze medal at the 1967 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.
In the 1960s, she took up volleyball, winning national championships with the Vancouver Alums team in 1964 and 1966.
Ms. McDermott taught at John Oliver for 15 years before becoming an original staff member at Eric Hamber Secondary when the school opened in 1962. She was the first woman to head a physical education department at a Vancouver school, a position she kept for a quarter-century, until retiring in 1987. For most of those years, she coached at least three school teams.
Her final managerial stint came in handling a team of players aged over 65 known as the Retreads, who were featured in a documentary titled The Oldest Basketball Team in the World.
She skied until a few years ago, joining Alums teammate Mary Macdonald on black-diamond runs at Whistler.
Ms. McDermott has been inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame (1991), the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame (1996), and the University of British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame (1998).
She died at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver on May 16. She leaves two nieces and two nephews. She was predeceased by two sisters.
Originally published in The Globe and Mail on May 27, 2013.