Canada basketball
Carlan Gay

Sylvia Sweeney: Canada’s First Lady of Basketball

Alumni

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Feb 22, 2021

Canada's First Lady of Basketball has a nice ring to it and it couldn't be more applicable for Sylvia Sweeney.

Over the years, Canada has seen plenty of talent hit the hardwood but few have had the career or impact Sweeney has.

Born in Montreal, Quebec Sweeney found out that she had the skills to compete at a high level early in her life. Her passion for watching her sister play the game, turned into Sweeney finding herself on the court. Sweeney recognized her abilities at a young age and turned that into an opportunity.

In her early teenage years, Sweeney would bike around her Montreal neighbourhood, looking for unsuspecting boys to beat in a game of one-on-one. She would first start out watching and then ask if they would let her play. Most would say no, so Sweeney would offer a challenge — if she beat one of the boys, then they'd have to agree to let her play. But it didn't stop there, Sweeney upped the stakes making it a 25-cent bet, which she would eventually call her allowance.

“I would watch the boys play and see who was the worst,” Sweeney told Maclean's back in 2014. “Then I would challenge him to a game in front of all of his friends. He would say: ‘You can’t beat me, you’re a girl,’ and I would say: ‘I’ll bet you 25 cents I can beat you.’ I didn’t have a dime in my pocket but I knew I could beat him.”

Sweeney's wins at the local parks kick-started her basketball career. She would make the provincial team and eventually was a member of the Canadian National Team at the 1976 Summer Olympic Game in her home city of Montreal, where women's basketball made it's Olympic debut.

Playing alongside Carol Turney and Beverley Bland, Sweeney averaged 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, shooting an efficient 52.2 percent from the field in her first of two Olympic Games. Three years later, Sweeney was selected as the team's captain, an honour she held for five years.

The first of those years was 1979 and it was in that year's World Championships that Sweeney announced herself as one of the best players in the world. Sweeney led Canada to a bronze medal finish — making it the first medal the Canadian Women had earned in a World Championships — averaging a team-high 20.4 points per game, which was good for second in the entire tournament and was named tournament MVP.

Due to Canada's boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, Sweeney would have to wait eight years to compete at the highest level again. When she got the opportunity, however, Sweeney didn't disappoint, helping lead one of Canada's most talented teams to a fourth-place finish in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It remains Canada's best finish ever at a Summer Games. However, the '84 Games marked the last time Sweeney would represent the country at a major event.

Sweeney would be inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994 and then into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1996.

Sweeney gets recognized for the load she carried as a basketball pioneer but the doors she opened for many Black Canadians on and off the court will never be forgotten.  

Not only was Sweeney one of the first Black players on the Women's National Team, but she later became one of the first Black women on CBC television and later CTV's W-Five. She's produced award-winning documentaries and founded her own production company. She founded the Art Games which serves as a celebration of the world's finest artists in five different art forms: Media Arts, Literature, Visual Arts, Dance and Music.

Her basketball resume and long list of accolades away from the game serve as an inspiration for many Black Canadians across the country.

"There are all sorts of references to, you know, standing on the shoulders of those who went before and if you don't learn from your past you're doomed to repeat your failures," Sweeney recently told Savanna Hamilton of Raptors.com. "And walking all these decades, through the various stages of racial issues that have not really changed a lot and what I try to say is that you have to build bridges to understanding.

"Most people are not intrinsically racist, they are ignorant of the other. So that's where education comes in."

Whether it's her setting the bar high on the court for other Canadian athletes to follow, or blazing a new trail off the floor through her various media endeavours, Sweeney continues to break through barriers.

Canada’s First Lady of Basketball or media pioneer, Sylvia Sweeney's name is synonymous with excellence.

Images courtesy of the Canadian Olympic Committee.