Not often do players receive a hero’s welcome back at their alma mater, but that’s exactly what John McGregor Secondary School in Chatham, Ontario is preparing on Friday night when the school hosts one of its most distinguished alumnae on Bridget Carleton Night.
Carleton — member of the JMSS Class of 2015 — will receive a banner in her honour that celebrates the incredible accomplishments she has achieved throughout her illustrious basketball career, as part of a pregame ceremony ahead of an exhibition game between JMSS and Lambton Kent Composite School. In addition to the banner, the first 100 families in attendance will receive a commemorative poster.
The Chatham, Ontario native will be recognized by an entire community that means the world to Carleton and her family.
“Everyone knows everyone. They’re proud of the ‘Chathamites,’ as we call ourselves, that go on to do big things. And that’s in sports, in the arts, the doctors that come out of Chatham, everything that comes out [of Chatham]. People are really celebrated here,” said Carleton, whose parents were both born and raised in town, met there, raised their family there, and now both serve their Chatham community as well-respected teachers. “It’s cool to be recognized in Chatham because I am proud to be from Chatham and I always love coming back here. So to have that community still supporting me is really cool.”
Canadian schools rarely track statistics or formally retire jerseys, so an event like this is something that isn’t lost on Carleton.
“It was pretty surreal. ... It’s one of the best things and it’s super exciting,” she said, wearing a smile as wide as Canada, describing the moment she heard about the honour. “My mom is still teaching at that high school, my alma mater, and just to be a part of the community, still, it’s meant a lot to me. It was a such a big four years of my life in terms of my basketball career.”
Now, those four years will be forever immortalized in the gym where it all started.
“It’s really cool that I’ll have a banner up there with my face and name on it for the rest of the time of McGregor.”
The Canada Senior Women’s National Team member joked she wished there would be a photo of her mother, Carrie, in the corner because of the magnitude she’s had on her daughter’s basketball career.
“My mom went to McGregor. ... She won a provincial championship, so she was a baller in her own right,” a beaming Carleton said, eager to praise her mother. “She made a name for the Carleton basketball family.”
That name, as well as Carleton’s passion for the game, only grew when her mother accepted the varsity head coaching job at McGregor.
“When I was growing up, she was the coach. I grew up going to their games and wanting to be on the senior high school basketball team one day. So, watching her coach in that gym, that’s why it’s so special, because so many great things have happened in that gym for our family,” Carleton explained. “I’m super, super proud.”
As an added bonus of Bridget Carleton Night, the Chatham Kent Wildcats 13U girls basketball team will hold an intrasquad scrimmage during halftime. The club’s president, Nicole Quigley, spoke wonders about her players’ local hero.
“The Chatham Kent Wildcats are extremely grateful to have Bridget Carleton as an idol to our young athletes. She has a tremendous work ethic all while being an amazing ambassador for our young athletes and the Chatham Kent community.”
The Minnesota Lynx wing, once a wide-eyed young player with big dreams herself, is grateful to be a role model for children who see their dreams in her, because she had that in her own life.
“It’s a lot of fun because I had someone to look up to in my mom growing up. I knew what I could do through basketball through my mom,” she said. “So, to be that for the young girls in Chatham, and young boys, even, I think is really cool, special, and something I take great pride in.”
Carleton says she spends around a month home in Chatham every year (broken into a few week-long stays as her schedule allows), but always she makes an effort to get to a Wildcats practice when she’s home.
“I just surprise them to see their reactions and I distract them for a whole hour while their coaches are trying to get them to do the drill,” Carleton explained, before laughs interrupted her answer.
And her customary response to the coaches? “‘Sorry, guys!’”
When Carleton is done playing and has more time to pour into her community, giving back to kids is certainly something she aims to do.
“I think no matter what I end up doing post-playing basketball, I think I’ll always be involved in the sport, some way or another. And if that involves the youth I think that’s like, what I’m most passionate about right now, and I think that will continue throughout my life,” she said confidently, again citing her mother’s influence. “I know how important it is, the next generation being inspired and being willing to learn and work.”
The former Iowa State superstar learned attributes that work ethic to her Chatham roots and, of course, playing for her mom for four years at McGregor prepared her to find success all over the world.
“The confidence for sure. I [had] great teammates, too, there. We all loved playing with each other. Getting that experience, getting that confidence, knowing that basketball was going to be my focus helped me take the next step at college.”
While still in high school, Carleton earned the opportunity to play and serve as a captain for the U16/U17 Canadian Cadette National Team before starting on the U18 Junior National Team and captain the U19 National Team. She averaged 12.3 points per game across 27 international contests during her time as a high school student.
Though McGregor didn’t keep stats, it is widely expected that Carleton left McGregor as the school’s all-time leading scorer. She averaged 28.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.1 steals as a senior playing club basketball in Canada’s top elite girls basketball league, which helped her become the Class of 2015’s No. 1 recruit in all of Canada, according to Crown Scout Recruiting Service.
Carleton didn’t miss a beat at Iowa State, where she started 25 games as a freshman en route to becoming a unanimous All-Big 12 Freshman Team selection. Her sophomore year, she parlayed that success into another unanimous selection, but this time for the All-Big 12 First Team; her season-long 88% free throw percentage mark is still the school’s record today. Carleton earned honourable mention AP All-America her junior year, leading the team in points, rebounds, steals, blocks and 3-pointers made, setting her up for a historic senior year.
The first Canadian in program history also became the first to accomplish an impressively exhaustive list of feats. Carleton registered averages of 21.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.2 blocks per game — the best single season in Cyclones program history — all while maintaining her status as an Academic All-Big 12 First Team member for the third year in a row. She won the Cheryl Miller Award for best Small Forward in America; took home Big 12 Player of the Year; was named a Second Team All-American; was nominated for 2019 NCAA Woman of the Year; and etched her name in the top five in program history for: points (2,142 | 2nd), made field goals (713 | 3rd), steals (211 | 3rd), blocks (124 | 3rd) and 3s (255 | 5th). Carleton’s 760 points, 21.7 PPG, and 254 made field goals in her senior season are all still tops in program history.
After leaving her mark in Ames, the Connecticut Sun drafted Carleton 21st overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft and signed her to a three-year contract before waiving her mid-season. Lynx president of basketball operations and head coach Cheryl Reeve signed Carleton to a seven-day contract a month later, before signing the two-way force to a rest of the season deal upon the seven-day’s expiration. She’s been a trusted member of the Lynx rotation ever since.
Carleton at the conclusion of the 2019 WNBA season first became a fixture on Canada’s Senior National Team — a major turning point in her international career — at the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup in Puerto Rico, where she averaged 9.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists across six games. She continued her play with Canada’s top team later that offseason in the Olympic Pre-Qualifying Americas Tournament before a big moment in the 2020 Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Carleton scored 12 points and grabbed four rebounds in an 80-50 group phase win over Sweden, which clinched her home country a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. She proved herself as one of the foundational players for Canada Basketball, something she had dreamed of as a child.
She kept that confidence and momentum rolling into the pandemic Wubble season down in Florida, where she started 15 of 22 games for the Lynx. Carleton averaged career-highs across the board, stamping her status as an important complementary player alongside Napheesa Collier and Sylvia Fowles.
Carleton evolved from a high school sensation into a household name at Iowa State, then took it a step further as a mainstay among the 144 players that comprise top women’s professional basketball league on the planet. Throughout all that change, one constant remained, from her first Cadette team to the world’s biggest stage: Canada Basketball.
“Every summer playing with the national team, playing with the same group of women, the same, generally the same coaching staffs. I know some of them come and go, but the same leadership is always there. And they believed in me since day one,” she said. “They helped me grow and take the steps I needed to take at every single level and they’ve always been people I can reach out to and (that) help me grow. So I think that’s the biggest thing — they’re the consistent part of my life.”
That belief is a core part of why suiting up in the red and white means so much to her.
Before she left for the Olympics last year, reporters had the chance to speak with the Lynx’s Tokyo-bound players. I asked Carleton what her ultimate goals in basketball were, whether it be in the WNBA or international competition. She didn’t hesitate for even a second.
Carleton proudly stated she wanted to represent her country in the Olympic Games and FIBA Women’s World Cup. Now, 16 months later, she not only has accomplished both of those lifelong dreams, but done so as a star player for Canada Basketball.
“Yeah, it’s pretty surreal. It feels like it all happened so fast. But it has been a whole 25 years (long), whenever I started playing basketball. It’s been all that’s led up to that and the work I’ve put in, and the people I’ve met and have helped me along the way.”
She took that to a new level last month in Sydney, Australia at the World Cup. There, Carleton led Canada in scoring (12.8 PPG), minutes (30.9 MPG), steals (1.4 SPG) and blocks (1.1 BPG), and came in the top three in rebounds (5.3 RPG) and assists (2.0 APG).
Experts predicted Canada wouldn’t make it out of the group phase. Carleton had other plans. She helped lead her country to a 4-1 record in group play, a spot in the quarterfinals, and ultimately a fourth-place finish — Canada’s best finish in the event since 1986.
Her efforts earned her a spot on the All-Star Five, which honours the event’s five best players.
Just four years earlier, she rode the bench at the World Cup prior to her senior year at Iowa State.
“I think the coolest thing for me is just been to see, from 2018 to 2022, the development I’ve had with the National Team. I go from being the 12th man to one of the go-to players on the team and being in the All-Star five, which was pretty surreal,” she said before chuckling and acknowledging her dreams never got that far. “I guess I keep surprising myself. But again, I think it’s just a credit to my hard work and it’s always an honor to represent Canada. I never take that lightly in every chance I get.”
The homegrown hero now has a well-earned role as a leader on the National Team and new goals to achieve.
“It’s special (to be a leader). ... Now my goals are, ‘Let’s get on the podium; let’s win a semifinal; let’s win a quarterfinal and then let’s win that semifinal!’ I think as my career’s evolved, those goals have become more realistic for our team and for me, and I want to be able to do whatever I can to help make that happen,” she added. “With the coaching staff and my teammates, they all believe in me and they trust me to have that faith in them. It really means a lot and I take that with an immense amount of pride.”
While she was a leader at McGregor and at Iowa State, Carleton knows the leadership structure at those levels is baked in with age and seniority. The National Team has players at all ages, from 21 or 22 up into the mid-30s, and the best players are looked to as leaders — regardless of age. New to shouldering the weight of that National Team leadership responsibility, Carleton is grateful to be able to rely on a familiar face: her Lynx teammate Natalie Achonwa.
Achonwa captained the National Team at the Olympics, and again at the World Cup, for good reason. She holds her teammates accountable, is always honest, pushes players like Carleton to be the best version of themselves, and carries the tradition from the program’s greats.
“Building a relationship with her the last two years in Minnesota has been really helpful for me and taking the next step with Team Canada. Just knowing that she’s seen me every day at practice and what I can do. She believes in me just as much as I believe in myself,” Carleton said, eager to compliment her vet. “Having her next to me helping me learn from her in the leadership aspect, but also her faith in me and what I can do on the court has really been helpful in me having the confidence to do what I can do for the team.”
Now, Carleton knows it’s on her, Achonwa and teammate Kia Nurse as Canada’s leadership triumvirate to reset the bar that young Canadians strive for. She’s excited about new leadership in the organization that is willing to gather players — at all National Team age levels — together more frequently for training. Carleton’s hope is that it instills the same sense of pride that she, Achonwa and Nurse all have in younger players.
“Any chance you get to represent Canada, you need to take advantage of it and be your best version of yourselves so that we can be in quarterfinals and win those quarterfinal games and be in the semifinals consistently at World Cups and at Olympic Games,” Carleton said of her hopes for the future of Canada Basketball in a confident, proud tone. “That starts with building relationships with younger kids. Some of them come to our training camps, so starting that relationship at that age I think is really important and something I will definitely try to do going forward.”
Since graduating from John McGregor Secondary School in 2015, Carleton has lived a basketball journey that spans 11 countries across five continents. She will return home on Friday night a symbol of what can happen when dreams meet hard work.
“I didn’t think I was gonna go D-I want at the time and then that happens. And then all of a sudden I make a senior team, and then I get drafted, and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ And then I make a roster. I keep surprising myself along the way,” Carleton said thinking back on her road to this point. “But I know I’ve worked hard and I deserve it. It’s just when it actually happens, it’s pretty surreal.”
While some local legends forget where they come from, Carleton understands just how many people helped create the path she traveled down. When the moment comes to unveil the banner to commemorate Carleton achieving her lifelong dreams, those people will be with her in the place where her dreams were born.
“It’ll be emotional knowing that everyone in there for the large part like you said, is there to celebrate me and probably had a small piece in how I got to where I am, whether it be a teacher or a coach in my age group levels. I’ll look out at the gym and see so many people (I see) around Chatham,” Carleton said after pausing to collect her thoughts. “It’s super cool what they’re doing and I’m super thankful that a couple people, specifically, have put the effort in to do this.”
Carleton continues to do what she does to make those close to her proud. And when that curtain drops, it’s hard to imagine anyone could be more proud than her mother.
“That’ll be really, really special for me and my mom, again. It’s a special place for her, too. I hope she gets the credit she deserves on that night too,” Carleton added. “I’m going to try to give it to her even though she doesn’t want it.”
Given all she has accomplished, I closed by asking Carleton what would 11-year-old Bridget Carleton would say if 25-year-old Bridget Carleton told her everything she’d go on to do.
“She wouldn’t believe you, for sure. I’ve never truly believed what I was able to do through the sport of basketball. I always had dreams and goals and aspirations, specifically with the National Team, but never did I actually think it was going to happen,” Carleton said with a big smile. “But she’d be really, really excited and super proud of it.”