The First Lady

by December 23, 2008

By Franklyn Calle

In 1994, when then Boys & Girls Principal, Frank Mickens, appointed Ruth Lovelace as the new head coach of the storied basketball program, many thought he was making a big mistake. Many thought she wouldn’t get the job done. That maybe it was all a publicity stunt. To put a woman in a man’s dominated sport? To put her in charge of the boy’s basketball program in one of New York City’s Public School? To put her to coach in a league where she would have to coach in a hostile environment almost every time she would go on the road…What was he thinking? Maybe he was just going with his instincts. Maybe he was just trying to experiment and change things up a bit. Or just maybe he saw what nobody could see at the time. Maybe he saw a female that was ready to change the perspective the common folk had on female coaches in regards to coaching boys. Maybe he knew she would step up and help the young fellas when they were in need of some love and support. Maybe she was the right to one to help send the boys to college on scholarships. Maybe she would be the one to be there to help point guard Tyrell Cruz after he went home to find that his mother had hang herself. Or maybe she would be the one to help feed the boy whose mother was a drug addict. Maybe she would be the one to buy him milk, cereal, bread and other groceries and give to him to take home in a duffle bag on Fridays so he can bring it back the next week to her office so she could refill it for another week’s worth of groceries. Maybe she would be the one to convince her players who come from some of the roughest neighborhood in New York City that college was the right place to go instead of being involved in all of the wrong doings that they witness back in their block. Maybe she would be the one to open her doors to Amadou Fall when his mother moved to Cincinnati during his senior year. Maybe she was just what the school needed after failing to make the playoffs the year before she got hire. Maybe she was the one that could restore the storied program that seemed to be falling apart. Maybe she would be the one to be featured on ESPN in a documentary. Maybe she would become a trendsetter. Just maybe.

After returning to her alma matter as a physical education teacher in 1993. Lovelace, would be hired the year after, at age 24, as head coach of the boy’s varsity basketball team. Now in her fifteen season as head coach, she is considered a legend in the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant. I had a chance to catch up and speak with her this past weekend only hours before her documentary would be aired in ESPN2 on Sunday night.

Slam: So how did you end up getting the coaching job at Boys & Girls High School?

Lovelace: The job was actually open on like my second year teaching at the school. Boys & Girls was a traditionally rich basketball school, so a lot of people had applied for the job. Our former Principal, Dr. Frank Mickens, had stacks of resumes in his office on his desk. I would come in everyday and he would ask me to go through some of the resumes and pick out the people I thought were good candidates for the job. We would talk basketball, you know, Xs and Os, and strategies. All along, which I didn’t know, he was actually interviewing me for the position. So when it came time to announce the new coach, he came over the PA system, stopped the classes and made the kids be quite. He then announced my name as the new coach. First I thought it was a joke. So when I got my first available prep class, I went over to his office and I was like ‘What do you mean? I never applied for this! We never spoke about this!’ He then said I was the best person for it. He said he knew I would do a good job and to just go out there and do the best possible job that I could. Fifteen years later here I am.

Slam: Describe that first day of practice? How did it go?

Lovelace: I think most of the players that returned from the previous team were used to playing for a coach where basketball wasn’t really serious. I don’t know if they really loved basketball at that point. I don’t want to say that they took it for a joke but they didn’t really take it very serious. And I think they ran for the rest of that practice. They came to realize that it was a business. They didn’t know what it took on the daily basis to be successful. From that day on, they knew it was all business.

Slam: What was your record for the first season?

Lovelace: I can’t really remember the exact record but what I can tell you is that I think we finished second in the division to Robenson and went on to loose on to Lincoln and Marbury in the quarter-finals. It was Marbury’s senior year.

Slam: Did you ever feel like there was a time when you just felt like you couldn’t deal with all of it anymore? Was there a time when you felt like walking out?

Lovelace: To be honest, I always looked at it as a challenge. I felt like I had to prove my critics wrong. I had to prove myself for those who felt that a woman couldn’t get young men to play hard. For those who said how could she get young boys to work together and play hard? That was challenging and motivation at the same time. So to be honest I never really looked at it that way.

Slam: Do you feel like you have accomplished all of your goals?

Lovelace: Of course. I feel I have accomplished everything at this level except win a city championship. We have been able to get kids to graduate and move on and play college basketball. Just get the opportunity to get out of this community and play at the next level. That’s my reward.

Slam: How far do you think you have exceeded expectations?

Lovelace: If you look at my overall coaching career, I think I’ve exceeded expectations. I don’t think people thought I would be successful as I have been. Looking back, I couldn’t imagine that a documentary would be written about me and my program. That’s just one of many accomplishments. I kind of look at it as knocking down barriers. Fourteen years, fourteen playoffs appearances. Quarter-finals, semi-finals, you name it.

Slam: Do you feel women are given a fair chance at coaching a male team?

Lovelace: Without a doubt, they are not given a fair chance. When I started, it was nobody. I would have to say about 5 or 6 have men jobs now. I would say most of that is because of my success. I’m glad It has open doors for some females because when you look at it, basketball is still basketball. The game doesn’t change. Why can’t women coach a boys team. You see it in reverse. You see a male coaching a female team all the time. It is still the same game. A jump shot is still a jump shot. A bounce pass is still a bounce pass. The fundamental principles are still the same. Why can’t a woman be the one doing the coaching?

Slam: Who has inspired you to be a coach?

Lovelace: I want to say that everyone that coached me has inspired me, mainly my college coaches. I think I owe a lot to them. I grew up a Georgetown fan. So I will also have to also say John Thompson. I remember just growing up as a kid, they would talk about his academic horizons, standards, and just how important they are. I think I do a lot of that here. That’s what is important to me. I’m not here to compare myself to other programs but if you look at the statistics, we are up there if not doing better than other programs when it comes to sending kids to play ball at the next level. Kids do well here academically and they go on to play college basketball. You have to be a student-athlete, so academics come first.

Slam: So tell me, how were your high school days at Boys & Girls?

Lovelace: We were always division champions. My four years here we would go to the quarter finals, never the semis. But I think three out of my four years here we went to the quarters-finals. We never got to the championship or anything like that but individually I had a great high school career. I think my senior year I averaged about 35 points per game. My junior year I averaged about 30 points per game. I was two times Daily-News, all-city, so I had a great high school basketball career.

Slam: How did the documentary come about? How did they approach you?

Lovelace: Before last season, I got a call from ESPN and they asked me if I would be interested in doing a documentary. My initial reaction was that it might be too much for the team, too much of a distraction. I felt we had a pretty good team and good chance to make a run at the championship, so I didn’t want for the season to be focused solely on me. I didn’t want for it to hurt the team’s concentration. But at the same time, this wasn’t about me. I knew it would be great for the school, the community, for Bed-Stuy and for the program itself. Also for other people could see what we are doing here. For they could see what a female coach can do. So I sat down with my principal and athletic director and they told me that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I had to take advantage of it.

Slam: Do you think you coaching career would have been different in another state? Maybe you would have won a bunch of championships?

Lovelace: You know, coaching in New York City, the Mecca of basketball, I’ve always like to say that the best ballers come out of Brooklyn. I don’t care; you can stack us up against anybody. I think it’s been a blessing and a pleasure to coach in New York City. I think if it’s meant for me to win a championship then I will get one. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that if I was somewhere else, I would have one already. But to do as well as we have been as a program and to win as much as we have in New York City, that means a lot.

Slam: The last two years you have been able to get to the championship at Madison Square Garden but you haven’t been able to win one yet. Speak a little bit about the experience of coaching at The Garden.

Lovelace: Of course, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth because when you get to The Garden you want to win. You never know if you might ever get another chance to get there again. But at the same time, I also know and have to realize that there are people that have never gotten there. Some of them have been coaching for way longer than I have, so I am definitely appreciative of that.

Slam: Do you see a woman coaching a men’s college basketball 15 years from now?
Lovelace: I do. It’s about time for somebody to break the barrier. Would it be me? I don’t know. They should be given a chance because they can do the things in order to make a program successful. Why not give them a chance?

Slam: Have you been offered a job at the next level? Will you leave for one?

Lovelace: I have been offered coaching jobs but I have just turned them down. I don’t know, I guess that’s kind of the question of the day. Are you going to leave? I’m just leaving that up to God. I am here and there is still a lot that can be done at this level. So this is where I am for now.

Slam: Do you expect for people to be calling with offers after the documentary airs?

Lovelace: You know what, that’s a good question. I don’t know. All I know is that millions will be watching and after seeing the premier, I think people are going to be calling or just inquire. It might not be a coaching job, it might be administrative work or athletic director levels. There are so many avenues you can take after seeing that documentary. We’ll see.

Slam: If there was something you could tell young females that look up to you and may want to follow in your footsteps, what would it be?

Lovelace: Anything they want to do, if they believe in it and they work hard, trust me, then it can happen. Don’t settle for anyone who is telling them that you can’t do something because of your gender.

Slam: We would like to thank you for your time coach as well as congratulate you. Good luck this season as well as in your career. We hope you continue to break barriers.

Lovelace: Thank you, I appreciate it.