Coach motivates her girls, both on and off the court
The coach leans forward, her hands pressed on a table in a band room off the gymnasium, where a basketball game is about to start. She is silent for a minute or two. Her players shift uncomfortably.
When Dorothy Gaters finally speaks, her message is familiar and firm and, as usual, about fundamentals: "Move your big feet." ''Box out." ''No fouls."
If they don't do that, she doesn't hesitate to take it up a notch on the court.
"You're embarrassing yourselves!" she tells them even when they're winning handily.
Gaters later explains: "Sloppy play is never enjoyable. Sometimes I'll be like, 'I hope this game is over soon. I can go home and watch some real basketball.'"
That candor might be hard for the members of the girls' basketball team at John Marshall Metropolitan High School to hear. But they listen. They know this is a woman who can take them places.
For 40 years, Gaters has brought respect and pride to a West Side Chicago neighborhood that has seen more than its share of hard times. They understand this and also how much Gaters cares about them and their futures, whether they end up playing basketball after high school or not.
"Just do something, so that you can be self-supportive, help your family, and set an example for those who are going to follow you," the coach tells her players, who call her Ms. Gaters or often just "G."
This current crop of players helped Gaters reach her 1,000th career win in November, placing her among an elite group of coaches at any level of basketball.
After the game, team members smiled and laughed as they watched her dance, with one arm raised, as she held her great-grandson and hugged and posed for photos with well-wishers, including about 30 former players who came to watch the historic win.
"I'm so glad it's over," Gaters said later, acknowledging that she had lost some sleep the night before the game because she didn't know as much as she'd like about the opponent.
Her Lady Commandos, as they are known, ended up winning 84-22.
That worry, her attention to detail, her competitiveness, has led her teams to eight Illinois state titles and 23 city titles.
A few of her players have gone on to play professionally, including Cappie Pondexter, a WNBA All Star and Olympic gold medalist.
"She's the first coach who really taught me the game of basketball," says Pondexter, whom Gaters first saw play in a YMCA recreational league and then helped hone her raw talent. "I credit it all to her, my humble beginnings."
Pondexter starred at Rutgers University, but she is far from the only one Gaters helped get to college, and that is among the coach's proudest accomplishments.
In fact, her players must regularly bring in academic progress reports or report cards for her to check.
"School before basketball," says Tineesha Coleman, a junior who hopes to play in college.
When asked what Gaters is like, former player Rhonda Greyer, now 33, ponders the question.
"She's a sweetie pie," Greyer says, quickly adding, "Off the court. OFF the court!"
She laughs, as does Pondexter when recalling the seemingly endless laps her team ran on the track above Marshall practice Gym 12, which has since been named for Gaters.
"I wasn't a troubled kid. My problem was focusing on basketball so much," Pondexter says, remembering how Gaters would call her mother if Pondexter skipped class. In her case, the punishment would be to lose gym time.
But though Gaters is tough, it is a tough love, her former players say. They recall a coach who occasionally took them to movies or out for burgers and fries.
They note how Gaters has quietly provided a coat, clothing or shoes for a player who needs them. She and her staff recently helped find housing for the family of a player who was living in an apartment with no heat.
"The relationship and the bond you have with her is forever," says Greyer, who now helps out with her own daughter's high school team. "It will carry you throughout the rest of your life."
Gaters started coaching in 1975, and understands how one can learn and succeed, in big ways. The Mississippi native who grew up in Chicago says she took on the Marshall girls' team as a young teacher, fresh out of DePaul University, because "no one else wanted to do it."
Gaters liked basketball, even played a bit herself. But she didn't know much about coaching, so she watched the boys' coaches carefully and took in any games she could find.
She won her first state championship in 1982.
Now, tucked amid the memorabilia in her office is a photo of Gaters shaking the hand of then President Bill Clinton at the White House, where she was honored for her work with young people in 1998. Another photo shows her being inducted into Women's Basketball Hall of Fame with Pat Summitt, the longtime women's basketball coach at Tennessee, at her side. In 2009, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame recognized Gaters with one of its lifetime achievement awards for high school coaches.
The 68-year-old coach says she thinks about retiring, some day, and handing off her team to the former players who are her assistants. But some are doubtful she'll leave anytime soon.
Assistant coach Gwen Howard, who played on some of Gaters' first teams, smiles and rolls her eyes playfully at the thought of the beloved coach retiring. "Please! I think this lady would do this forever if she could."
Critical thinking challenge: If basketball is so important to Ms. Gaters, why did one of her players say School before basketball?