EAST GARFIELD PARK — Shortly after Dorothy Gaters retired, she went back to work.
Gaters, the winningest high school basketball coach in Illinois history, technically retired from that post last week. But she’s still at Marshall High School, 3250 W. Adams St., as an athletic director — and mentor to its West Side students.
“It’s quiet over here. I like it,” Gaters said Wednesday, opening the door to her office in the corner of Marshall High School’s hallowed “Gym 12,” a cramped basement court where the sidelines stretch just as far as the walls. “This is home for me.”
Gaters’ office walls brim with mementos that can only be collected in over 45 years of coaching: basketballs dedicated to her 10 state championships, newspaper clippings documenting her record-setting 1,153 wins, photos of prom dates she proudly arranged for her players.
On Wednesday, Marshall senior Darryl Smith made his way through Gym 12 and handed Gaters his pre-season physical. The point guard had only the faintest idea that Gaters retired Monday.
“I didn’t want to make any deal about it,” Gaters said. “I’ve been celebrated. When we win those trophies, that’s the celebration.”
No one in Illinois has won more than Gaters, who, at 24 years old, took the job at Marshall when it was created — after Title IX provided equal opportunity for girls to play varsity sports in 1972.
Gaters built a powerhouse program on the West Side when few women, and fewer Black women, were coaching in the public school leagues. Lauren Foster, a long-time friend and girls coach, said Gaters is a pioneer for women’s basketball in Chicago.
“There was nobody else who dominated high school basketball as a Black woman at that time,” Foster said. “Children just flocked to her program. She had discipline there. She had structure. A love for the game. They graduated and went to college. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?”
Out of all the wins, Gaters said her sweetest victory will always be Marshall’s first state championship in 1982. The 1985 NCAA Final Four was also special, when three of Gaters’ former players — Marie Christian, Janet Harris and Annette Jones — started for three of the top teams.
“That was a proud coach’s moment, but also a proud mama moment,” said Gaters, pointing to small shrines to her former players on her office walls. “All the posters you see — they’re not other people’s kids. They’re my kids.”
Gaters coached five former WNBA players, including Cappie Pondexter, a two-time WNBA champion and Olympic gold medalist.
It was within these walls that Gaters convinced a young Pondexter to skip summer in Chicago and accept an invitation to play in her first Junior Olympics.
“If it wasn’t for her advice, I wouldn’t have gone on to be an Olympian. I believe that to this day,” Pondexter said. “She impacted my life at an early age. And we did a lot of winning together.”
Adrienne GodBold won a state championship under Gaters in 2008. Within five minutes of the school bell ringing, players had to be dressed and ready in Gym 12. It was routine: Gaters opened every practice with mile runs on the small track above the humble practice court.
“It was one of the greatest things she had going because it kept us from getting in trouble after school. When you came in for practice, you just saw that clock by her office door,” GodBold said. “I died a lot on that track. I slept a lot in that locker room. And coach Gaters, we had great conversations in that office.”
The championship ball from 2008 rests behind Gaters’ desk; on it, former starting point guard Terranika Reynolds scribbled her signature: “Ne-Ne #23.” It was almost 15 years ago that a young Reynolds first stepped foot in Gaters’ office, looking for a new school and an opportunity to escape her environment after losing her grandmother.
Marshall offered Reynolds the chance to be part of a legacy bigger than herself. What Reynolds didn’t know was Gaters had already noticed her basketball skills at a gym months prior.
“She remembers my clothes that I had on to this day. She said, ‘So, you the one that had the yellow and blue striped shirt on?’” Reynolds said. “She’s just a person that believes in her players. She gets the best out of you from just a little.”
Gaters told Reynolds, the floor general of the 2008 team, the girl would one day make a great coach.
Gaters’ coaching tree spans high school and college ranks across Chicago and beyond — and Reynolds is now the head girls coach at Crane High School.
“Dorothy is the common denominator. For the young and the older,” Reynolds said. “I get to help young ladies become young adults, just like my coach did for me.”
Gaters said she learned the most about coaching from her mentor, John McLendon, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the first Black head coach in any professional sport. McLendon gave Gaters a sense of calm.
“He said to me one day, ‘You know Dorothy, some coaches spend so much time arguing at the officials that they don’t see the things that their kids are doing.’ And I took that as the gospel,” Gaters said. “The more I knew about coaching, the less I had to say.”
Corry Irvin, the former head coach at rival Whitney Young High School, knows Gaters from the other side of the scorer’s table: the fiery competitor, the type of coach who would “beat you by 100 if she could.”
Playing at Marshall was never easy.
“It always was an intimidating place to play. It’s a small gym. There’s no windows. It’s like a dungeon. And when you walk in, every wall is covered with banners,” Irvin said. “She made it a tough place to play.”
Gaters expects she’ll stop by the school less often. Gym 12 is no longer used — except when Gaters brings her two great-grandsons, Tristian and Darius, for hoops.
“The first thing they do when they get in here, they just start running,” Gaters said, beaming. She said she retired to spend more time with them.
Even 46 years later, basketball never felt like a job.
“I have a sign on the door that says, ‘It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you just really love what you’re doing,’” Gaters said. “To be a great coach, you got to love the game.”
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