Coach Dorothy Gaters has been right an awful lot. She’s won 23 Chicago Public League titles (the city has over sixty teams that compete), 8 Illinois state championships, and on November 17, 2014, she won her thousandth basketball game.
So it’s surprising to hear her say, “I don’t think winning a thousand games has much relevance outside of Marshall High School.”
How could Dorothy Gaters be so wrong? And this just before her afternoon game against Thornwood got under way on November 18, 2014.
The gym was decorated with banners – in addition to the ones that commemorate her city and state championships. These new ones were handmade and congratulated her personally on her 1,000th win, even before the game started.
Over fifty of her former players were in attendance, as well as Chicago luminaries like filmmaker and author Alex Kotlowitz, and CPS athletic director Thomas Trotter (toting two-dozen roses and a ton of respect). Even boys assistant coach Shawn Harrington came out, although he had not been inside the school since he was paralyzed in a mistaken identity drive-by shooting last winter.
And three major TV stations were in attendance.
The music blasted, the cheerleaders shimmied, and Marshall’s gym – not exactly a crackerbox, but close – rocked hard. Yet, there were whispers about the opponent, Thornwood, having a chance to upset the Lady Commandoes.
Not a chance. By the time Thornwood could call their first timeout, Marshall was up, 18-0.
At times in the second half, the differential approached 60 points.
The real show was the discipline and hotwired intensity of the Marshall girls, who are part of what should really be thought of as The Marshall Program.
See, back in 1974 when she took the job, Dorothy Gaters and former boys coach Luther Bedford did something that was totally unique at the time – and remains as rare as a warm day in December in Chicago.
Ideas, philosophies, tactics, drills, presses, and plays. They’d even scrimmage. (One of the rights-of-passage for the young frosh-soph boys team is to get hammered in practice games against the varsity girls.)
Luther Bedford – perhaps best known as one of the stars of the iconic film, Hoop Dreams – was a regular at the girls’ practices from the time Gaters began her career. If he wasn’t coaching his boys, he’d sit with Dorothy during the games, right on her bench. And he’d even go scout for the girls if his schedule permitted. So would longtime MHS assistant Al Williams. Former boys team star Courtney Hargrays was Gaters’ assistant for years before he was named the head coach of the boys after Bedford retired. (Hargrays finished third in the state in his rookie season.)
That bridge between boys and girls was an accepted part of The Marshall Program.
Over the years, Gaters returned the favors – and respect. Consider that when this open line of generosity began at Marshall in 1974, just one in thirty girls played sports at all in this country. Today? It’s closer to one in three.
Bedford died in 2006, but the boys and girls still feature many of the same plays and presses. And those presses were on full display for Gaters 1000th win.
Despite the fact that the Marshall girls rarely lose, what may be most impressive about the team is this: when things don’t work – turnover, missed shot, defensive mistake – they never hang their head, pout, or scowl at the referee. The real lesson at Marshall games might be, “Here’s how we react in life when things go wrong.” (Nearly every Marshall girl over the years has gone on to college, and most get a scholarship offer of some kind.)
This seems an invaluable life lesson, and Gaters herself is a model and Commando in Chief – she appears unflappable at every turn.
This year’s squad is loaded with outstanding sophomores – meaning Gaters should be approaching 1,100 wins by the time they graduate.
After the game – and nearly an hour of photos, hugs, interviews, and general celebration, Dorothy Gaters talked about her career – or, more accurately, everyone else’s career but her own.
Gaters name should be mentioned in the same breath as Pat Head-Summit, Jody Conradt, and Geno Auriemma. But when she’s asked about her biggest influences, she’s hardly a namedropper. Everyone she mentions was either a Marshall coach or a dear friend. “Luther Bedford was a brilliant coach, but he was also so very generous. And his assistant Al Williams helped me so much, as did Courtney Hargrays. I guess I should mention John McLendon, who was so helpful to me when he was living in Chicago and working for Converse. [McLendon won three NAIA titles at Tennessee State University, and would likely have approached John Wooden’s success, but nearly all of his career unfolded during a time when Division I coaching was still segregated.]
Gaters is a study in modesty, dignity, and grace. Yet, she carries the air of royalty, even in her understated manner.
“Nobody has had more help than me,” Gaters insisted before she went outside into the coldest November 18th temperatures on record. “I’ve had five WNBA players, including Cappie Pondexter and Kimberly Williams. This neighborhood has always been a hotbed for talent, and I think the credit for my wins should go to my players.”
Chicago Public League product Rus Bradburd is the author of “Make It, Take It.”