Over the last three decades, the super-competitive girls' high school scene in The Chi has been dominated by the programs at John Marshall and Whitney Young.
by August 13, 2014

The legacy and current state of high school basketball in Chicago is nationally renowned on the boys’ side, with legends like Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre in the past, and All-Americans like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor in more recent years. That said, arguably the two most dominant basketball programs in Illinois—save Simeon Career Academy, home to Rose, Parker, Nick Anderson and the late Ben Wilson—are the girls teams at John Marshall HS and Whitney Young HS.

It’s a man’s world, sure, but on the courts in Chicago, women have had no problem holding their own for more than 30 years. Located in the heart of the West Side of Chicago, Marshall and Young have each established homes away from home two hours south in Peoria, IL, where the state tournament is held every year. Marshall has made it “downstate” 25 times since 1978 under legendary head coach Dorothy Gaters, while Young has made the trip nine of the last 10 years behind head coach Corry Irvin.

Irvin says the expectation for her team now is to win the state championship every year. “Every team that steps on the court on the first day of practice can’t legitimately say, We’re trying to win a state championship. I feel like every year when we start practice, we have a legitimate shot to win the state championship. There’s only a handful of teams that can say that and mean it.

“I don’t want to say we get spoiled by going every year,” she continues, “but it’s unfortunate we could have a season like [2013] where we finished [27-5] and third place in the state, and because our expectations are to win, that team didn’t really enjoy that success. I think what happens is when you win a lot, sometimes how you measure success is different.”

To be sure, Young was no pushover before Irvin’s arrival. They made it downstate once in 1995, and boast standout alums like Natasha Pointer and EC Hill, who once dropped 73 in a single game. Since 2001, however, Irvin’s inaugural season, the Dolphins are 359-53 with four All-Americans and three state championships–most recently in 2014–while finishing second twice, third three times and fourth place once. A litany of student-athletes have gone on to the next level, including Janee Thompson and Linnae Harper currently at Kentucky, Chanise Jenkins at DePaul and 2014 grad Khaalia Hillsman, who will suit up for Texas A&M next year.

“Anyone that comes here, they know they have a target on their back,” says Irvin, a 1,000-plus point scorer in her own right at Larkin HS, roughly 90 minutes outside the city. “I tell the girls all the time, I’d rather have the target on my back than be the one shooting the arrow.”

Not too long ago, though, they weren’t the hunted, but the hunters. Just as Michael Jordan had to overcome the Pistons and Isiah Thomas during MJ’s ascent to greatness, Young had to conquer a stubborn West Side thorn of its own: Marshall, the city’s premier girls basketball program since the ’70s.

“My first couple years, it was hard for us to beat them because they played so hard and tough,” Irvin reflects in admiration of Gaters and the Lady Commandos. “The type of mental toughness they had we have now, but when I first started, we didn’t have it. When we would play them, they would beat up on us. It got to a point where every year I’d measure my team’s success by how we played against them.

“Even to this day, whenever we play each other, you would think it’s the state championship with the type of intensity there is. Part of it is that we’re only a couple miles apart; another part is the history of their program and the fact that our program would like to have that same history at some point.”

Gaters’ achievements and prowess transcend the women’s game. She’s the all-time winningest coach in all of Illinois high school basketball—boys or girls—with 999 career wins and counting. All at Marshall. “Coach Gaters is in the Naismith Hall of Fame for a reason,” says DePaul women’s coach Doug Bruno, who has recruited and coached several players from both schools, each a few train stops away from campus. “She’s one of the best coaches ever in the game of basketball. She started high school women’s basketball here in the Chicago area.”

Far removed is 1974, the year she took the job and the last time she was under .500, when Marshall girls basketball was merely a club sport that finished 1-3. “When I started coaching, no one else in the physical education department wanted to do it,” Gaters reminisces. “I was fresh out of school, and after they exhausted everyone else, they asked me if I would coach so I gave it a try.”

Nearly four decades and eight state championships later (most recently in 2008), there are over a dozen All-Americans and countless Division I athletes whom were once one of Gaters’ Lady Commandos. In some years, she says, 80 percent of her team would go on to play of DI basketball, including legends like Marie Christian, Janet Harris and Kim Williams.

“To give Chicago basketball its due, I think it’s important to note that great basketball is created not only by a great coach like Dorothy and great players, but also by great rivalries,” says Bruno, a Chicago native and Illinois basketball historian. “There had to be competition for her to be number one. In the beginning, you had the Whitney Young rivalry with coach Arthur Penny [in the ’80s]; you also had programs that were beginning like Phillips High School under coach Bob Hansen, and you had Washington High School under Willie Byrd. Those were the four primary schools in Chicago and Dorothy took it to the highest level year-in and year-out.”

The city’s hotbed of talent was not gender-specific, nor were the playgrounds the players crafted their games at. While Gaters played a large part in cultivating the neighborhood talent, she points out that the area surrounding Marshall was a natural breeding ground, home to pros like Aguirre, Thomas and Eddie Johnson.

“The girls kind of emulated the boys,” she says. “[Men’s basketball] was a big influence because it was the only thing I had to model my team after. Mark Aguirre played on the playground with my players, they’re from the same community. Coach John McClendon—he’s in the Hall of Fame and a very successful coach who has won over 800 games—he mentored our program in the early ’80s. I met him at the Boys Club where Isiah Thomas used to play.”

New York Liberty point guard Cappie Pondexter—voted one of the top 15 WNBA players of all-time in 2011—was one of many to come through the Marshall doors and leave as a better person on and off the court. Like Gaters, her game was influenced heavily by the boys.

“I grew up with Will Bynum, Sean Dockery, Dee Brown and those guys,” says Pondexter, who won a state championship at Marshall in 1999. “They made sure I was relentless and tough. The culture [at Marshall] was that you wanted to win and be the best. That was our attitude and her mentality. Coach Gaters was just a winner and she held all of us accountable for everything we did wrong. She never let up, was always relentless and that carried through to us. When we were on the floor, we gave our hearts, gave our best and played like winners all the time.”

Before Chicago was “Chi-raq,” the malevolent nickname currently lurking over the city, it was already known for its blue-collar, tough-minded ballplayers. “That’s what we’re known for,” Pondexter says, “being tough, aggressive, penetrating and getting to the hole.”
Gaters adds: “As a coach, I like an aggressive, attacking offense and defense. It has seemed to fit the personality of our kids.”

Pondexter, current Rocket Patrick Beverley (who also went to Marshall) and others were products of the environment. Likewise, playing hard is what has come to define the cultures at Whitney Young and Marshall.

“When you coach a Marshall player, and I’ve gotten to coach a number of them—Veronica Ross, Kim Williams, Rita Hale—or a Whitney Young player, there’s nothing you can throw at them that they haven’t had already,” says Bruno. “There’s a toughness that was honed at the downstairs gym at Marshall with Dorothy’s girls playing against the guys, and honed at Whitney Young with Corry’s girls playing against the guys. There’s a toughness that transcends everything else.”

“In the city of Chicago, people use basketball as a way to get out, or a way to go to college, or as a sanctuary,” says Irvin. “The basketball played here is a lot harder and tougher than in some other places. That’s how Chicago basketball is. Our kids are always gonna play defense and they’re always gonna play hard. You can’t teach that type of stuff. In our practices, if you don’t play that way, you can’t even get on the court.”

Neither Marshall nor Young have shown any signs of slowing down, either. Gaters is still going strong, and Young will return all but three players from their state championship team. The next time you praise Chicago prep basketball, make sure you include the girls.

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