By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on January 10, 2024.
The first time Marla Gladstone ever smoked it was from a peace pipe with her high school basketball coach.
An athlete and basketball star from Pincher Creek, she was close with Piikani Elder, Allan Pard, her coach, mentor, and friend who welcomed her into Indigenous ceremony and his family. Basketball set the stage for the relationship in the late 1990s, but in many ways their relationship set the stage for who Gladstone is today: a professor, coach, and mentor to her own student athletes at Southwestern College in Kansas.
In October 2023, Gladstone defended her doctoral dissertation at the West Virginia University, now having completed the credentials for a Ph.D. in Coaching and Teaching studies. Her research focused on the ‘Career Progression & Experiences of Late Career Women Strength & Conditioning coaches.’ Getting to this point in life, she feels, has a lot to do with Pard and the resiliency he instilled in her as an athlete and a human being.
Being a female athlete can come with disadvantages socially and in terms of resources, women’s sports are not valued the same way men’s are.
Being a female athlete in a small town in southern Alberta in the late 1990s could have been the foundation for heartbreak. While attending St. Michael’s School, Gladstone was told there might not be senior women’s basketball team. There just wasn’t enough interest. Fearing the possibility of the star athlete missing a season, the men’s basketball coach promised her she could join his team- a move that could have caused a stir in the ’90s. Enter Allan Pard, a star athlete in his own right who was once known for running home after basketball practice during his days as a player, approximately 20 kilometres from Pincher Creek to Brocket.
Though Gladstone admits at the time she was disappointed she wouldn’t be taking on the guys.
“I thought it would make me a better basketball player. But the consolation prize is that I got the best coach I’ve ever had.” The connection she formed with Pard has shaped her life in a way that can be described as kismet.
“He was a very special human,” she says. “Him and I had some very good connections, and it was just continual. Even though basketball is what set the stage for us, it was very much moving forward something that continued.”
Gladstone didn’t stay in Pincher Creek beyond high school graduation, in fact, she spent part of her grade 12 year playing basketball in Hawaii after learning Pard had to step away from coaching for medical reasons.
Despite moving to Edmonton, Ontario, and eventually the United States, she says the Blackfoot teachings she learned both as a student at St. Michael’s and from Pard himself have had a lasting impacting. “We had drumming circles and people come in and do different dances and round pow-wow,” she says of her experiences in junior high and high school.
“When I started as an adult learning more about Treatiesâ€¦I felt like we had a really good education in southern Alberta,” she says, noting that her understanding of Indigeneity has helped informed her and impacted her interactions as a leader.
On the basketball court, Pard brought his ways of knowing to the team in subtle ways. “He just taught me so many things,” Gladstone explains.
“Even when we were holding practice, he’d have us all go in a circle because he wanted to get across the message that we’re all equal and in Indigenous culture circles don’t have an end or a beginning.”
Pard’s presence in Gladstone’s life illuminated realities that have only recently become subjects of mainstream discussion around race and representation.
“Half of our team when he was the coach was Indigenous and half of the team was white girls, when he left, or had that health problem, a couple years later the whole team was white again. That really taught me the visibility and the connection pieces into the community that people see a safe space when they see a person who is coaching who looks like them or is like them.”
After graduating high school, Gladstone continued her education at NAIT, moving to Edmonton and walking onto the Ooks basketball team and eventually playing for York.
It was there at NAIT where she began coaching in 2002.
“I actually have like six guys that I coached in my career who are now in the NBA,” she says.
“So that’s pretty cool.”
Gladstone has spent most of her coaching career leading men’s or boys’ teams. “I liked coaching girls, too, but I realized very quickly that my coaching style didn’t always fit the girls’ teams wellâ€¦. I felt like the guys got me really easily. It’s something about being a different person outside of what they were used to it felt like my message and my voice broke through in a different way.” In the summer of 2018, Gladstone became the first woman to coach the U-15 boys’ team for Ontario Basketball.
In the two decades since Gladstone began coaching there has been growth in how women are viewed in the sports world.
Though sexism is still alive there’s been a growing movement to include more women in training and coaching.
“We don’t hear about that part of women coaching men. The part where women can do different things because the guys hear them differently.” She explains that while coaching at Seneca College a player told confided in her that her words hit him on a deeper level, “right in the soul.”
She realized then that her impact could be stronger because of social factors and the way the players connected to the women in their lives. However, she explains in her dissertation that despite that impact, women in sports-especially leadership positions, carry a heavy burden of doubt wherein they must prove themselves in ways that are not required of men.
Though Gladstone is clearly a strong supporter of women in sports, she says when to comes to coaching, it’s not about gender but the position.
“There’s this big push for women to be coached by women, I don’t necessarily agree with that. I agree that women should have access to being able to be coaches, but there’s sometimes really great guy coaches who are way better at coaching girls than I ever would be.” Allan Pard obviously among them.
She says Pard was hard on her as a player.
“I remember one time I was crying on the court, and he wouldn’t sub me out,” Gladstone quips, explaining that because of his tough love, she learned that she played better angry. Though she recalls Pard telling her to ‘play with poise,’ a term he was fond of.
Beyond the court, her memories of Pard paint the image of a man entrusted with wisdom presented to very few who walk the earth.
“He and I would go on nature walks and deer would come up to use like it was friggen Disney land,” Gladstone laughs.
“He would tell me he didn’t know some of the Indigenous songs, but they would just come into his head, while he was singing.”
Before his death Pard honoured Gladstone by presenting her with a Blackfoot name, Good Star Woman (Sokapiwa Kakato’saakii).
“When he had the heart attack, I got really sick that same weekends, probably for about four or five days after. I didn’t often get sick, but I was in bed for a really long time. He said he felt my presence with himâ€¦ He told me I was the good star that brought him home.”
Allan Pard died in the spring of 2016, nearly 20 years after Marla Gladstone played on his team.
“He found me when I really needed him,” she says. The two remained in close contact until his death. “When he was sick he started to reach out more and I think that was his way of making sure I was okay,” she adds. “I feel his presence a lot.”