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McNeill teaches hoop lessons

Former head coach of national women's basketball team was the special guest at last weekend's coaching clinic and player development sessions in St. Albert and Spruce Grove

By: Jeff Hansen

  |  Posted: Saturday, Sep 21, 2013 06:00 am

BASKETBALL TEACHER - Allison McNeill, former head coach of the Canadian women's basketball team who guided the Canucks to the quarter-finals at the 2012 London Olympics, was at the SkyDome on Sunday instructing elite-level Grade 8 to 12 athletes during last weekend's coaching clinic and player sessions in St. Albert and Spruce Grove. It was presentation of Panthawk Basketball (Panther Athletic Club and Skyhawks Basketball).
BASKETBALL TEACHER - Allison McNeill, former head coach of the Canadian women's basketball team who guided the Canucks to the quarter-finals at the 2012 London Olympics, was at the SkyDome on Sunday instructing elite-level Grade 8 to 12 athletes during last weekend's coaching clinic and player sessions in St. Albert and Spruce Grove. It was presentation of Panthawk Basketball (Panther Athletic Club and Skyhawks Basketball).
CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette

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Allison McNeill used the Canadian women’s basketball team playbook as an instructional tool at last weekend’s coaching clinic and player development sessions in St. Albert and Spruce Grove.

The former national head coach for 12 years provided concepts, drills and ideas for implementation while working with several coaches and around 40 elite level athletes in grades 8 to 12.

“We’re doing some of the same stuff as the national team,” McNeill told the Gazette on Sunday at the SkyDome during her first visit to St. Albert. “The goal is to give the players individual skill, things they can take and work on their own because that's how you get better, it’s not on the coach's time, and also sort of introduce them to a fewer higher-level concepts.”

The two-day event was a presentation of Panthawk Basketball (Panther Athletic Club and Skyhawks Basketball).

“When John (Dedrick of the St. Albert Skyhawks) and Dave (Oldham of the Spruce Grove Panthers) asked me to come here, we talked about stuff they were doing with this academy group and how I could kind of help progress them. We wanted to give them some skills they could go work on their own. It’s great to do a lot of team stuff but then if their team doesn't play that way it doesn’t help, so this way it helps them to grow in their conceptual understanding of the game,” McNeill explained.

“We wanted to do some fundamental skills, so shooting, ball handling, one-on-one play, pivoting; things they could use. They also asked me to teach sort of higher-level concepts that they might need to see if they decide to play college or university or if anyone is ever good enough to play on the national team or junior national team or represent Canada in some way.”

Decision-making drills were another component of McNeill’s instructions.

“We’re trying to get them to think ahead because the game is all about decision-making, like ‘OK, why would I pass there and how do I get it to there.’ We’ve done a lot of that,” she said. “The intensity is obviously a little lower but it’s good for their age level. It’s not the national team's intensity or speed.”

Teaching coaches how to coach is a labour of love for Canada’s longest-serving women’s head coach and is second only to Jack Donohue’s 17 seasons as the men’s bench boss.

“I really consider myself very lucky because I love the developmental stuff,” McNeill said of her involvement with grassroots programs across the country. “It’s fun at this point in my career to also be coaching coaches so I do a lot of mentoring coaches and teaching coaches.”

McNeill is a popular figure on the speaking circuit when she isn’t involved with coaches or player clinics with clubs, private academies or schools, as well as the Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia centre of performance programs.

“I’m going back and forth from all levels, but I’m mostly with coaches with the youth kids, so grades 2 to 7. I work with those coaches so they give the kids a good start,” she said. “It’s like my dream job.”

Lifelong passion

McNeill grew up playing basketball in Salmon Arm as a point guard and was a provincial champion on the same high school team as the legendary Bev Smith, a member of the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

After high school McNeill won two Bronze Baby national university championships in her first two seasons with the Laurentian Lady Vees before rejoining Smith at the University of Oregon Ducks.

After graduation McNeill served as an assistant coach at Oregon and Portland State before turning pro.

“I enjoyed the coaching but I don't think I was mentally ready to commit to coaching so I went overseas and played in Germany. I wasn't making a lot of money because I was playing second division. It was fun but I thought I don't want to leave the game so I’m going to have to be a coach,” she said.

“I taught for four years and coached in high school and that's what I thought I would do and then an opportunity at Simon Fraser University came up. Bev Bland, who played on our ’76 team, was coaching and she was expecting her second baby. She said, ‘I’m leaving and you should apply,’ so I went there for 13 years.”

McNeill eventually took over the national team reins from Smith in October of 2001. Under her guidance Canada made back-to-back world championship appearances in 2006 and 2010, as the country returned to the global tournament after a 12-year absence.

“It was an honour to coach the national team for so many years,” she said.

McNeill stepped down after Canada’s stirring run to the quarter-finals at the 2012 London Olympics, which marked the first appearance in 12 years for the women’s team at the Games.

“We didn't qualify for Beijing (in 2008) so it was pretty devastating but we really believed we could get to 2012. We qualified for the 2006 worlds and we were 10th and the 2012 worlds we were 12th, so it looked like we were going down but we changed some things, like our offence, and we set our sights on 2012. We got the last berth on the last day (71-63 over Japan in Ankara, Turkey), which was Canada Day, so it was storybook-like to get to the Olympics,” McNeill said.

Canada was mentally and physically prepared for the Olympics after a 40-day training camp.

“Forty days is unheard of and it will never happen again but we said we have to do this,” McNeill said. “When we got there, because we had trained so hard – we talked about trying to have an Olympic performance every day, like win the day – so every training session the athletes were so intense and I just knew we would play well there and they did too because we prepped. A lot of the athletes, some of them are still here with the national team training for this upcoming qualifier (at the FIBA Americas Championship for a berth at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro), just gave so much of themselves.”

Canada’s 2-4 record at the Olympics included late leads against Russia and France before losing those games but did score major victories over Britain and Brazil to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in team history.

“It was exciting. We beat Britain (73-65), the hosts, and even though they’re not supposed to be that good they had some English Americans and they put a ton of money into it for three years. We also pulled off the win over Brazil (79-73), who is the perennial power in the Americas, and we hadn't beat them in the qualifier for a long time,” McNeill said.

In the quarter-finals Canada bowed out 91-48 to the United States, the Olympic gold medallists.

“In the crossover with the Americans it was a little bit depressing because they were the best in the world. We did our best but they were clearly better.”

McNeill stressed the highlight of the Olympics was the journey itself.

“It rings true with people that have spent a lot of time trying to get somewhere,” McNeill said. “Probably the greatest thrill for me was seeing 12 women reach their goal because as a coach it’s why you coach.”

McNeill considers herself fortunate to do what she does.

“I say to kids I’m very lucky to have made my passion my profession. Not everybody gets to do that so it’s absolutely fantastic to make a living in this country doing it. I certainly didn't get rich but I have lots of great experiences,” she said. “But if I was a pro coach and a men’s coach, I would be wealthy.”


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