Out of all aspiring basketball players, few end up playing varsity ball for top Canadian schools. Fewer still become team captains or league all-stars. Even fewer go on to play professionally in Germany or win medals with the Canadian national team.
Dalhousie University Tigers alumni Kathy Spurr and Anna Stammberger did. Because of their accomplishments, they’ve been named to the U Sports top 100 women’s basketball players of the last century.
The list was unveiled in February to mark the 100th anniversary of the first Canadian women’s basketball contest between the Queen’s University Gaels and the McGill University Martlets on Feb. 6, 1920.
“I have to admit, it seems like a lifetime ago,” Spurr said with a laugh of her time at Dal. She said being named to the list was an honour. “There were easily another 100 athletes they could have picked.”
Stammberger agreed, mentioning how difficult it is to pick out players for the list out of so many successful athletes.
“I think it’s very difficult to choose,” she said, “I think it’s a nice honour and I don’t think too much meaning should be put on it.”
Neither player joined the Tigers as an all-star: each built their skill set and fought for a place on the team, and went on to craft legacies on Canada’s national team and abroad.
Joining the team
Stammberger came to Dalhousie in 1978. She says at that time Halifax was a “basketball hub.
“I sort of came into that, which is good timing,” she said, joining the team of famed Dalhousie coach Carolyn Savoy, who led the Tigers to 858 wins over her coaching career.
Dalhousie hosted the U Sports national championships for women’s basketball the next season, playing in the new Metro Centre (now the Scotiabank Centre); the basketball buzz was alive and well.
While she watched from the bench during her first year, Stammberger hit the gym every morning, levelling up her shooting average and technical skills.
And her hard work paid off.
By 1980 she was an Atlantic University Sport (AUS) first-team all-star, and after that AUS MVP, and then a U Sports first-team all Canadian.
Kathy Spurr also came to the Tigers basketball program as an unknown rookie, originally recruited to Dalhousie for swimming in 1985.
“It was a great fit for me,” said Spurr. She eventually gave up varsity swimming in order to focus on the court.
Through daily gym sessions and relentless work on her technical skills, she developed as a forward who won a host of AUS and U Sports awards and was named Dalhousie’s female Athlete of the Year in 1988.
National team call-ups
Anna Stammberger might not have played for Canada if not for her coach Carolyn Savoy.
Stammberger said she remembers Savoy pushing for more Atlantic representation on the team, questioning why no Atlantic Canadian basketball players were invited to tryouts.
Savoy recommended Stammberger to the national coach, and for a week, Stammberger attended three practices a day before making the cut.
Stammberger went on to compete for Team Canada at the 1984 Olympics, as well as numerous world championships and other international tournaments during her time on the team from 1980-1986.
“Each time it was thrilling,” Stammberger said.
The international play was an adjustment — it meant hard work on her technical game.
“You have to go up to that level if you want to survive,” said Stammberger. “You learn to play quicker, and shoot better. You have to bring your game up to where they are.”
Kathy Spurr came onto the national court on Stammberger’s heels, playing as a forward from 1986-92 for Canada.
Both players not only played for Canada, but they also took their game abroad, battling against Germany’s top basketball teams in the competitive Bundesliga Basketball league. Stammberger played in Germany between 1986 and 2003; Spurr played there in 1989.
“It was challenging,” said Spurr. “I had to manage being the only foreigner on the team.”
It was also a pivotal moment in Germany’s history: Spurr and Stammberger played as the Berlin Wall was destroyed. Spurr even has a brick from the wall.
The next generation
Both players stayed connected to basketball long after they stopped playing.
Stammberger just ended her 11th season as Dalhousie’s women’s coach. She was named the AUS coach of the year in the 2014-2015 season.
“As a coach you continue to learn,” said Stammberger. “You’re just learning all the time. Things are always changing and it’s always interesting.”
After her time playing, Spurr coached the girls team at the Halifax Grammar High School for 14 years.
Reflecting on their time playing, they both say the game changed them.
“I was a very shy and awkward person,” said Stammberger. “But if you’re playing the game, investing years in it, you can’t be shy. You have to be a leader.”
University basketball also presented new problems to solve. “There’s the challenge of balancing school and basketball,” said Spurr. She managed to find time to fit a rigorous training routine around a challenging academic schedule.
It’s a balance both Spurr and Stammberger struck well, as did the 98 other women who took university basketball to the next level.