Norah Cleary organized the first game of basketball in an Ontario (and probably Canada) high school.
Cleary was born in Amherstburg on July 14, 1876. She passed away on November 10, 1962.
In 1899, Cleary graduated from the University of Toronto and then returned to teach at her alma mater, Windsor Collegiate Institute (later Patterson) until 1929. She was the second female teacher on staff at the school. In 1929, she transferred to Kennedy Collegiate, where she taught for the remainder of her career until she retired in ’37.
At the beginning of her career, starting in 1899, Cleary taught the game of basketball to her girls’ physical education classes at Windsor Collegiate. “I helped some of the girls put on the first basketball games ever played in Windsor,” she recalled in a 1939 interview. “None of us had seen the game, but we followed the rules from a book. Soon the boys took up the game as well.”
Cleary had noticed an advertisement in a book sent out by the Spalding Company, which included a picture of a primitive basketball. After reading that basketball was a girls’ game, she met with the school’s principal, F. P. Gavin, to see if she could bring the game to Windsor Collegiate. Gavin agreed, and the two sent to Spalding for a rulebook and ball. In a later interview, Cleary could not recall how the school got the money to do so, as there were no school board grants at that time.
Next, the two needed something approximating a court. Gavin went to the local mill to acquire two wooden posts, and Cleary went to the neighbourhood blacksmith to have a pair of hoops made. The school’s janitors helped them erect the posts and fasten the “blacksmith’s rings” on what was at that time the school’s tennis courts.
When the time came for the first gathering, a dozen girls showed up. Cleary introduced them to the rules of the game by reading from the rulebook, and they played. Cleary stood on the sidelines, reading the rules with one eye and coaching and refereeing with the other. Later, she explained that what she did could hardly be called coaching, because she knew little more than the girls did about the game.
The Windsor Collegiate girls had to go to Detroit to find any competition. There, they played YMCA and church teams, which had playing the game for a longer period of time and had already developed an efficient playing style. As the Windsor team was new to the game, they nearly always lost.
A few years later, Essex High School put together a basketball team, meaning the Windsor Collegiate girls no longer had to cross the border to find competition. Suddenly, the Windsor girls were the experienced veterans. The two schools played regularly with Cleary refereeing. She had the only rulebook in the city, so nobody could say she was wrong.
A 1905 photo tells us that the Windsor Collegiate girls’ basketball team had no uniforms. Instead, the girls sported blue serge pleated skirts worn six inches above the ankle, navy blue blouses with puffed sleeves to the elbow, black cotton stockings, and brown running shoes.
By 1921, the girls were ready and able to enter WOSSA competitions. Basketball was a different game then. To start, the playing surface was divided into two, three, or more discrete areas or “courts” depending on the size of the total surface and the age of the girls. Each girl was required to play exclusively within her assigned court. Games were divided into four ten-minute periods. The game’s primitive rules were designed to discourage personal contact and “tussling”; it was a foul to hold, block, or snatch the ball from the hands of another player. No girl was allowed to practice or play during the first three days of her menstrual period.
“Little did we realize,” Miss Cleary remarked, “when we started this new game of basketball that it would become the widely popular game it is today.”