TORONTO — She’s a top female executive in a sport with very few.
And so Michele O’Keefe will leave Canada Basketball proud both of the path she’s paved for women, and the solid foundation she’s helped build in a sport that’s enjoying unparalleled success in this country.
The Welland, Ont., native announced Wednesday that she’s stepping down as Canada Basketball’s president and CEO on June 30 to accept a position as athletic director at Niagara College.
"Yes (I’m proud)," O’Keefe said. "Sometimes it’s difficult to see the success through the mire. And I think as Canadians we don’t necessarily take the time to enjoy or celebrate the wins that we do have. But hopefully over time I’ll be able to look at it more objectively.
"But overall I’d say yes, there are not a lot of female leaders of a national sport organization, so I’m proud of that. I’m thrilled with the progress that we’ve made on developing basketball in this country, not only from the high-performance side, which is what everybody looks at, the senior teams and the U19 teams both winning medals last summer."
O’Keefe went on to list the progress made on relationships with provincial partners, the work done in developing coaches and officials, the partnership with the City of Edmonton, where the national women’s team is based, and the support basketball now receives from Own The Podium.
"I think all of them are things that at some point in time I want to hang my hat on because I do believe we have made some great success," O’Keefe said, pausing to hold back tears.
O’Keefe has served as president and CEO since 2015 when she was promoted from her role as executive director. Under her watch, Canada’s women’s team advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, while the national men’s U19 squad won the world championships last year in Egypt.
O’Keefe is also among the few female policy-makers in the sport worldwide. She’s the FIBA Americas vice-president and lone woman on its executive board. She’s one of five women on FIBA’s 20-member Central Board. She hopes to stay on with both after her terms are up in 2019.
"It’s a bittersweet day for all of us at Canada Basketball. The tremendous work Michele has done and the leadership she has provided over these past seven-and-a-half years has so much to do with Canada’s rapid development on basketball’s world stage," John Mills, co-chair of the board of directors at Canada Basketball, said in a statement.
O’Keefe helped bring the FIBA Americas women’s championship to Edmonton in 2015 and led the charge to land next month’s FIBA U18 Americas Championship in St. Catharines, Ont.
O’Keefe has worked on and off for Canada Basketball since the summer of 1994 when Toronto hosted the world championships.
"So much of my identity is tied up in Canada Basketball," she said. "Other than the accounting job, I’ve done just about every job in this place. I’ve been the communications manager, I’ve been the office manager, I’ve been the program co-ordinator, I’ve done them all."
O’Keefe said the chance to work in her hometown and be closer to her parents were big draws.
She’ll leave with a laundry list of great memories.
"I don’t think there’s just one. I was in Cairo last summer when the (U19) boys won gold, and I was sitting on a patio somewhere on my iPad watching the (U19) girls win the bronze last summer. Those two things were incredible," she said. "The women winning gold in Edmonton (which qualified them for the Rio Olympics). The U18s in two weeks could go down as being my favourite, because it was like Christmas for me announcing that tournament was going to be in Niagara.
"And there’s the non-sexy stuff like the development and the alignment and the relationships and the referees and the coaches … that’s what makes the whole foundation stable and sustainable. And so I’m really proud of strengthening the foundation. So many people say to me ‘Oh, this is the golden moment.’ No, it’s not. The story is just starting."