Celebrating Black History Month: Dorothy Gaters
“None of the women wanted to take the program… I was the low person on the totem pole so they asked me… I said ‘ok, I’ll try’ and we were 1-and-3 that year so that was my introduction,” said Dorothy Gaters, 2009 Morgan Wootten lifetime achievement award-winning basketball coach at Marshall High School on the West Side of Chicago.
The first few days of practice in the mid-70s were the beginnings of a great dynasty and Gaters was not aware of the success that lay ahead. Walking into the dark gymnasium, it is a sight of dilapidated floor boards and rims with no nets. The only “light” surrounding her is a group of young girls with the same passion for the game that lives inside of her. Their old world of inter-scholastic basketball was on the brink of change with the recent passing of Title IX. The days of four game seasons and the unreachable dream of playing collegiate basketball were coming to an end.
“We have so many kids who’ve taken advantage of that because we send almost 100 percent of our kids to school… and they go with some sort of scholastic money to participate in basketball, so a very, very large number of students have gone on to play basketball due to Title IX. Or should I say to receive a college education due to Title IX,” said Gaters.
These are humble beginnings for a coach who has produced 18 high school All-Americans and five WNBA players including former Rutgers Big East Player of the Year Cappie Pondexter, who in the summer of 2008 was a member of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team that won the Gold Medal in Beijing, China.
“[Coach Gaters]… makes everybody on the team a better player,” Pondexter said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a big game or not, it’s easy to play hard for Coach Gaters.”
Although the latter coaching years were filled with admiration and triumph, Gaters, who was born in Mississippi, recalls a period when race and gender played a loftier role in the game than her gifted players ever could.
“I was born in Mississippi but I was raised here. I’ve been in Chicago since I was seven years old, but I know the stories, and my family lived those things, so I’m not far removed from it at all. And then as a female coach and as a black coach, we’ve faced some real, real tough challenges. I can recall we played a game, we had 59 fouls called on us, and our opponents like 18, even if it was that... pretty tough times” Gaters said.
Gaters was a young woman, an African-American woman in a time when the game was dominated by what many would consider quintessential/stereotypical older, Caucasian men. It could have been a hindrance for an up-and-coming woman trying to make a name for herself, however, Gaters saw this as a challenge and refused to use it as a crutch. She looked toward her inspirations for motivation when she felt herself succumbing to the pressures around her to succeed in an environment where failure was perceived as the norm.
“[Coach John McLendon] coached back when segregation was really, really tough. And even though he had a lot of talent, they were barred from the opportunities to participate in certain venues and they would go play a team, couldn’t stay in those towns, so he had a very difficult job and he was very, very successful,” Gaters said.
In 1982, Gaters led Marshall to the first of eight state championships but this first milestone remains her fondest memory.
“Box out. Put pressure on the ball. Move your feet on defense,” are commands her girls know all too well as they battled for that first taste of championship victory.
Even though Dorothy’s Lady Commandos dominated girls high school basketball in the 1980s and early 90s, Gaters was all too often passed over as college head and assistant coach positions became available.
“It doesn’t really bother me, but I can’t understand the reason why,” said Gaters.
By the mid-1990s, college programs began to take an interest in Gaters but by then she was hesitant to leave Marshall in part because of her dedication to her daughter, Bridgette and her grandson, Darrius. Gaters was also the primary caregiver for her mother, Ethel. With all these commitments in mind and her continued success at Marshall, she realized her heart would forever be in Chicago. This would be her legacy.
As time went on, the accolades continued to sway in her favor.
In 1998, the extent of her success was noticed by President Bill Clinton. Upon her invitation to The White House, Gaters was honored in a ceremony for her work with the youth in grand style. When speaking about the experience, she frequently becomes emotional which is quite unusual for the stern, tough exterior she often projects.
"I was downplaying it, but I thought it was a pretty good thing," she said, holding back tears.
As she reminisced on her family struggles -- her mother having only an elementary school education and her late father merely completing third grade -- this trip to The White House put a lot of things in perspective.
“It was good for what my family tried to teach,” she said. “Hard work pays off.”
Getting back to her roots as an African-American woman, Gaters founded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Classic National Basketball Shoot-Out. It began with only ten teams in 2001. She created this event to honor the legacy of Dr. King every year on his birthday through the play of positive competition, a mere shadowing of the dangers the athletes faced in their own communities. Today, the number of teams has increased to over 65 with a waiting list of others hungry to be involved in such a remarkable experience.
“It’s hosted at Whitney Young, because we have so many teams… we use [Young] to host this event so that we can play two games every hour & 45 minutes of game time. We play two games all day… we work about 14-15 hours each day, but many of the people who work this event and volunteer have been with me since we first started. We started with eight girls’ teams and now we’re up to like 66 teams, and I have a waiting list. And I have a waiting list, so nobody pays any entrance fees, we just come and enjoy the wholesome competition, and we have a drumline because Dr. King was a drum major, so we have drumlines from Indiana, Wisconsin, & as well as Chicago, so it’s a good time,” Gaters said, smiling with pride.
Gaters is the winningest basketball head coach--for girls and boys--in Illinois state history. With her amazing success to date, it seems that victory number 1,000 is well within her grasp.
“I think it’s like 970-something. I’ll have to ask my assistant coach, ‘cause I don’t want that to be the reason for me staying,” Gaters said.
She is often compared as the female version of the coach who stands at number two on the list of winning Illinois coaches: Gene Pingatore, legendary boys head coach at St. Joseph High School in Westchester.
“Coach Ping is funny, so I guess we’re dinosaurs, and I think we respect the things that our programs have accomplished. Our program is in the Windy City, his is in Westchester, pristine school (smiles), but we enjoy working with kids, and that’s the bottom line I think is that we think we’re making an impact on these kids. These kids are fulfilling a portion of our lives too. We enjoy that…it brings us a lot of pleasure to, not only to win, but to have great young people in our programs,” Gaters said.
“She’s a great lady. She’s done a lot of good things. I don’t know if I could ever catch up to her record…her record’s unbelievable,” recalled Coach Pingatore.
The two renowned coaches share a history together as they both were chosen to coach in the 2011 McDonald’s High School All-American game.
“We both coached the All-American team and we both got our butts kicked (laughs) a couple of years ago,” Pingatore said.
“I was pleased that [McDonald’s All-American games founder] Bob Geoghan thought enough about our program that he would ask. It’s a good thing for our program.” Gaters said. “It is exciting.”
As she considers a time when her reign will finally come to an end, she is not distraught about the thought. Instead she hopes the players she has coached will return to keep her message alive.
“No I don’t…I know that there will be a last game. All of my staff played for me, so I hope that some of my players will come back and carry on the program. If that happens, that would be great; if it doesn’t happen, life goes on. This program will go on without me.”
Although girls basketball at Marshall High School will continue even after the retirement of such a phenomenal coach, one must wonder if the legacy will continue without the leadership of one of the first pioneers of African-American women in high school sports.
“We just do this because we love it, but my enjoyment, my fulfillment, you know, has been because I’ve been a part of what has happened at this school,” said Gaters.