One of New York City’s most respected leaders has called Brooklyn’s oldest public high school home since 1994. As one would imagine, the humble beginnings were met with resistance, as is common with change.
Men simply weren’t ready for her arrival.
“I was coming into a male dominant profession … Most people thought I would fail and rooted against me,” says Ruth Lovelace.
She’s seated inside the Boys and Girls High School basketball gym, named after the late former principal Dr. Frank N. Mickens, who hired her to coach the boys varsity team 25 years ago.
Even back then, the famed boys basketball program had already encompassed a tradition of success, and their head coaching vacancy was one of the most sought after positions in New York City.
Coach Love—as she’s referred to—subsequently became the first woman in PSAL history to coach an ‘A’ level boys team, which has since become the ‘AA’ division after the PSAL expanded prior to the 2006-07 season.
Some thought the initial decision to hire her was merely a way to gain the school publicity. Coach Love thought it was a joke because she was never technically a candidate for the job.
“I remember teaching a physical education class in this very gym and [Dr. Mickens] came over the [public address] system—he stopped the whole school—and asked for their undivided attention,” she recalls of that day in October 1994. “He said that he was announcing a new basketball coach and he said my name. Not once, ever, did I interview for the job or put in a resume.”
Lovelace adds that the two never discussed her becoming the coach—only the X’s and O’s of basketball—even though she had been a two-time All-City honoree for Boys and Girls and played at Seton Hall University before returning to The High in 1993. They had even discussed other candidates for the job, with Dr. Mickens seeking out Lovelace’s knowledge, at one point providing her with applications to review for who she thought was most qualified.
When her class ended, Lovelace sought out Dr. Mickens to receive clarity or confirmation that this was a playful hoax.
“Why did you do that?” the confused, newly hired head coach remembers asking Dr. Mickens. “Why did you come over the P.A. system and say it was me?
“I know I play sometimes,” replied Dr. Mickens, Lovelace recollects. “But I’m not playing. You’re the coach. I know you’re going to do a good job. Don’t worry because it’s going to shake the whole city. Just know I’ve got your back.”
Since then, Lovelace has become one of the most accomplished individuals in PSAL basketball history.
She became the first female coach of a boys basketball team to win a PSAL city championship, and spearheaded the program’s first ever three-peat, securing the ‘AA’ titles in 2010, 2011 and in 2012—all held at Madison Square Garden. The dynastic run includes a New York State championship from 2012 and 25 consecutive playoff appearances (and counting) for the Kangaroos.
“You’d hear comments like, How’d she win that game? or How do her kids play so hard? or She made the playoffs?” says coach Love, regarding past criticisms.
“And before the third [city title], people were saying, You can’t let her win three,” she adds, with a smirk. “It was like, This female is not supposed to be doing this.”
Needless to say, she’s the first woman in PSAL boys basketball history to break barriers of this magnitude, which comprise her now legendary résumé.
“I had a cousin who used to go to the school, so I would come and watch their practices,” says current senior point guard Alec Jones, who comes to the Brooklyn-based school by way of Long Island to play for Lovelace. “I saw how she was. She was hard on the guys. She didn’t take it easy and they all respected her.”
As you venture through the halls of the establishment located on 1700 Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy, you see Boys and Girls basketball uniforms encased on the walls, framed for visitors to absorb the lineage. The Dr. Frank N. Mickens Memorial Gymnasium follows suit, where The High holds court.
A 12-year-old middle schooler at the time that he would watch practices, Jones was overtaken by all that coach Love has helped to build, along with her influence.
“[The players] didn’t give her backtalk. They didn’t look at her differently. They gave her the energy that she gave them,” says Jones.
“That made me want to play for her. I was inspired by it. Around that time, they were winning. Seeing her become the first female coach to win a city championship, that made me excited to come here and play with the program.”
Since coach Love took the role in 1994, only Coney Island’s Abraham Lincoln High School has won more than her three city championships at this level. Dwyane ‘Tiny’ Morton, who led Lincoln’s Railsplitters to nine PSAL titles, has since defected to Nazareth High School, leaving Lovelace with the most league championships among all active boys coaches.
As the Kangaroos prep for the PSAL playoffs later this month, coach Love’s motivation to return to championship status remains; and she will forever be grateful for the gutsy made decision by Dr. Mickens, who saw what she couldn’t.
“Now I could tell the story that sometimes people have a vision for you that you don’t even see in yourself,” she says. “It’s amazing how he could see this [pointing at center court] when I couldn’t even see it back then.
“For all of those things, you’re very grateful and appreciative, but you still work every day to get back to that level.”
Bryan Fonseca is a contributor to SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BryanFonsecaNY.
Photos via Getty.