To hear Allison McNeill tell it, she is simply helping out where she can at Semiahmoo Secondary, giving a pointer or two to a Grade 8 girls basketball team already loaded with young talent.
But talk about the legendary hoops figure – longtime bench boss of the Canadian women’s team and a member of both the Simon Fraser University and B.C. sports halls of fame – with her co-coach at Semiahmoo, Lori Pajic, and the truth comes out.
“She’s pretty humble, so if she’s playing it down, she definitely has more of an impact than she says she has,” Pajic told Peace Arch News last week, moments after an early-morning shoot-around ended and students scurried off to class.
“It’s a pretty nice addition… needless to say, we’re pretty lucky to have someone of her calibre working with our girls here at Semi, let alone our Grade 8 girls – the beginning development level.”
McNeill, a 57-year-old South Surrey resident, has a coaching resumé as impressive as any in the province. She began coaching high-school basketball – from Revelstoke to Langley’s W.J Mouat and Seaquam secondaries – before moving to the university ranks. She was the head coach of SFU’s women’s team for 13 years, while also coaching Team Canada to a number of world championship and Olympic appearances, the most recent being the 2012 Summer Games in London, after which she retired.
Throw in a stint as an assistant coach with the NCAA’s University of Oregon Ducks, and there’s few basketball courts she hasn’t seen since beginning her career in the early 1980s.
And now here she is, at a South Surrey high school at 8 a.m. on a Friday, teaching a handful of girls the fundamentals of the game.
“When I left Oregon (in 2005) and then left the national team, I did really want to get back into youth basketball,” McNeill explained.
“I just want to help, and I like coming here in the morning because it’s early and I’m going to the gym anyway.”
She’s also quick to admit that many of her young charges “have stolen my heart.”
Despite being retired, the longtime coach has never quite left the game. In the late-2000s, McNeill said she would periodically lend a hand with Elgin Park’s senior girls hoops team, which was then coached by Stu Graham, a friend of McNeill’s. She has coached in a part-time capacity with Basketball BC and a few Lower Mainland club teams, including the Vancouver Sports Club, where a number of current Grade 8 Totems also play.
“That was one of the draws to coming out – I’ve known some of these kids a long time. I just thought it would be fun to get involved, and now I’ve gotten to know the other kids, too, and I love them. It’s been great.”
McNeill has stayed involved in the game in other ways, too, and in recent years has travelled across the globe – from Spain to Lithuania – to speak at coaching seminars. She left last Saturday for Japan, where she was slated to speak at another basketball workshop.
“I’ve never completely left it. That’s gotta happen at some point, I guess, but not yet,” she laughed.
Though she has chosen to slow the pace of her career down in recent years, McNeill said she looks back fondly at her time with both Team Canada and her university squads.
“Coaching the national team was an all-encompassing job. You become obsessed with it – you have to be. And I miss it – I miss the excitement of it. But I was ready to do something else,” she said.
“I was with the national-team program for 16 years… it was time for someone else to have the opportunity.”
Since 2012, McNeill said she has had to tailor her coaching style to better suit younger players, but relatively speaking, says sees the same amount of passion for the game in youth players as she did with players at much higher levels.
“I loved coaching the national team – those women are so driven, so hard-working – but I love this too because these girls are also really driven, they’re just younger,” she said.
“I was probably more of a yeller when I was younger, but I’ve grown to where I’m more of a teacher now. My dad made a comment to me one time that young kids haven’t built up their armour yet, so you don’t want to be too harsh with them.
“As they get older and stronger, then you can be a little tougher on them. But I think both Lori and I have a good balance of being able to push them but also encourage them.”
That strategy certainly seems to have worked with the Totems this year. With playoffs expecting to begin this week, the Grade 8 squad remains undefeated, and the margins of victory have routinely been of the double-digit variety.
And true to form, McNeill lays most of the credit at the feet of Pajic, the players and their parents.
“I’m the beneficiary of their hard work,” she said.
Pajic, however, knows how much McNeill has meant to her players’ development this season.
“Allison’s really good at teaching the fine, technical features of the game – the little things that, a lot of the time, people don’t notice,” she said.
“Those are the things that really translate into the success they’ve had as a team… I hope our girls realize how lucky they are to have someone like Allison coaching them.”