Just a year removed from helping to lead coach Peter Ennis and their Laurentian Lady Vees basketball team to a national championship in March of 1990, Shirlene McLean was back at his side, doing it all over again as an assistant coach.
The fact that she would spurn offers to extend her playing days or join the coaching staff of a team south of the border speaks volumes about the high regard in which she held the man who was her primary basketball mentor.
Having now coached at a whole variety of different levels for some 25 years or so, McLean has been clearly impacted by a sport that she holds dear, and by a small handful of people who most defined the way that she would play and live.
It’s been an interesting journey for the woman who was born in Nottingham (England), but who had relocated to Sudbury before the age of two, growing up in the Donovan with no less than eight siblings.
“All of us played sports, but I was the one that stuck with it maybe a little more,” said McLean. “Despite all of the different sports I would play in a calendar year, I always came back to basketball. Basketball was my love.”
Coming back to basketball was something of a matter of convenience for McLean, a constant frequenter of the St David Catholic School court in her youth. “It was just up the lane from where I lived,” reminisced the 54 year old long-time employee of Vale. “That school really had a melting pot of different ethnicities, different ages of people that would hang out at the school.”
“It was kind of the outlet for kids to go and do something after school or on the weekends.”
At a time when organized sport really wasn’t all that prevalent before students reached high-school, schoolyard pick-up games were the ideal ground for “playing up”, finding competition at the next level. In the case of McLean, that meant not only trading shots with opponents outside of her age group, but also frequently with the neighbourhood boys.
“Oftentimes, it was the older kids that allowed me to play with them - that’s where I kind of found my niche in the sport,” she said. “Seeing the older guys and girls playing really got me hooked.”
McLean was an ideal fit for a Sudbury Secondary School North Stars powerhouse that was just beginning to take flight. And in much the same manner as her university setting five years later, coaches would play a critical role in her development, both on and off the court.
“Mitch (Lalonde) and Mary (Collinson) allowed so many of us to fall in love with the sport,” noted McLean. “They gave us the opportunity to come to the gym at 6:00 a.m. - they lived right across the street. That was the first opportunity where I was finding myself as a person, first and foremost.”
Finding herself as the complete point guard followed a parallel path. “I think I am most proud of the fact that I was a two-way player, with the ability to be that point guard who could play tough defense,” she said. “I had a competitiveness, mixed with my athleticism. I had good court vision, which helped me analyze the game more quickly.”
Sudbury Secondary would claim the OFSAA Girls Basketball crown three times in the four year span that covered from 1980 to 1983. The likes of Carol Hamilton, Mary Ann Kowal, Chantal St Martin and Shirlene McLean became household names for anyone who followed local sports at the time in Sudbury.
Though still a few years away from the start of her post-secondary career, McLean had already begun to forge a relationship with the man who so shaped the woman and coach that she is today. “Peter (Ennis) did an amazing job at recruiting me, in the sense that he really showed an interest in me at an early age (15),” she said.
“With Peter, it was always about the team. He created a culture, a culture that was competitive, but caring. He cared so much more about who you were as a person than who you were as a player. He was just the kind of coach that you would give your blood, sweat and tears for.”
In order to translate that commitment into the ultimate level of success, McLean had to draw upon all of the knowledge that she had garnered to that point. “I learned at an early age that you take what the defense gives you,” she said. “Basketball has many different ways that you can score.”
“You look at basketball today and it’s all about the three ball, but I believe that the three ball sets up your mid-range game, sets up your penetration and facilitation game.” McLean was becoming the coach on the court for Ennis.
In her sophomore year (1986-1987), McLean and the Lady Vees would advance to the national final, beaten at the buzzer by the Victoria Vikettes. Three years later, it was time for the locals to hoist the Bronze Baby trophy, besting the Calgary Dinosaurs 74-65 in the gold medal affair.
“Just to be able to give him (Ennis) the gratification of winning his first championship, that was probably my most memorable moment,” stated McLean. “Not for myself, but because we were able to do it for him.” Ennis was in his 13th year at L.U. when he broke through with his first CIAU banner.
In 1990-1991, with a coaching staff that now included McLean, Ennis would lead Laurentian to back to back titles, outlasting the Regina Cougars in overtime, 79-72. In January of 1997, just over six months after coaching the Canadian women’s team that would compete at the Olympics in Atlanta, Ennis would lose his battle with cancer.
He was just 50 years old, at the time.
“I would never have become the person that I am today without that man,” said McLean. “He gave me the confidence, as a point guard, to take on more leadership, to become more of a vocal leader. He groomed me for that position.”
In essence, Peter Ennis greatly contributed to the ability of Shirlene McLean to make a relatively seamless transition from player to coach, far more comfortable to address the group. “A point guard always has that connectivity with the coaching staff,” she suggested. “Putting on that different hat, having to think as a coach has to think, that was appealing to me.”
To this day, McLean will find Ennis in her style. “Peter had such a good handle on who we were as a player,” she said. “If you pay attention to that important detail, you understand how to deal with that player as an athlete.”
After spending seven years at the bench at L.U. with Ennis, McLean would return a few years ago, joining the staff with Jason Hurley for another four years. In between, coaching stints would include high-school and club teams, as well as JDP programs and the like.
“Basketball is part of who I am,” she said. “Not 100%, because I do enjoy doing things outside of basketball - but I always come back to it.”