After an iconic 39 seasons, Marshall High School's Dorothy Gaters is one win away from her one-thousandth victory as a CPS basketball coach.
A native of Beulah, Mississippi, Coach Gaters came to Chicago with her family at the age of 7. She attended CPS schools in her youth and was a 1964 graduate of Marshall, the school she still calls home. She joined the staff as a PE teacher in 1969, and in 1975 began her coaching career with the Commandos.
"I actually started coaching earlier, but '75 was the first year that interscholastic competition was open to girls," said Coach Gaters. "Before that we just had a Girls Basketball Club."
It's hard to believe given her stellar statistics, but Coach Gaters had little to know experience with basketball prior to her coaching career. Fortunately, she was in a place rich with basketball skills and history. The boys' teams from Marshall were dominant in those days, and Gaters became their most avid observer, studying the techniques of Luther Bedford, Al Williams, and other esteemed Marshall coaches.
"These were my mentors," she said. "I watched their practices and emulated their strategies with my girls. What they did, we did."
And from the very beginning, the girls were successful, going deep into the city tournament in their first year as a team.
"It's because they were strong athletes," said Coach Gaters. "Even though their games hadn't been official, these girls had been playing on the playground for years. Basketball was king in this area, and our teams benefited from that."
Since that first season, Coach Gaters has led the Commandos to eight State titles and 20 State finishes. Her 2014 team went 23-8, reaching the semi-final game in the city championships and ranking among the top 16 teams in the state. This team, which included just 7 girls, took Coach Gaters to within one win of the coveted one-thousand victory milestone.
"It was a signature season for the program," said Coach Gaters. "These girls really enjoy playing together, and they're really good students. Five are on the Honor Roll and two are class officers."
Gaters' motto is "books before ball", so one of the most rewarding aspects of her career has been seeing her athletes go to college, several on basketball scholarships.
"Many of my girls come from families with little money," she said, "and basketball has given them the opportunity to get an education at little to no cost, which has led to a happier life."
The basketball program at Marshall has produced 18 high school All-Americans and 5 WNBA players, including Olympic gold medalist Cappie Pondexter. In 1985, three of the top four women's basketball teams in the NCAA tournament boasted starters who had played for Gaters, and her current coaching staff is made up entirely of basketball alumni.
"She's the hardest working coach anywhere," said Gwen Howard, an assistant basketball coach at Marshall. "She's always pushing her athletes to achieve the highest possible results and to never give up on what they want."
Howard, who played for Gaters from 1976-1980, describes her coach-turned-colleague as a perfectionist.
"She wanted all of her players on point at all times," said Howard, "and she instilled in us a will to win. Now that I'm coaching with her, I can see that her pushing us so hard was Coach Gaters trying to motivate us and keep us on the right path."
According to Gaters, who maintains close relationships with many of her former players, this is a common post-graduation attitude.
"Once they're gone, they appreciate what I was able to do for them," she said. "It's not that way with current players. They see me as something just short of the devil, because I'm always on them to do more and work harder."
Now the Athletic Director at Marshall, Gaters is a member of five Hall of Fames, including the Women's Basketball Coaches Association in Nashville, Tennessee, and was honored for her work with youth by President Bill Clinton. With 999 career victories, she has the most wins of any coach in the state of Illinois, and with no plans to retire, it is likely she'll achieve her one-thousandth win early in the 2014-2015 season – her 40th year as a coach at Marshall.
"We are so lucky to still have the legendary Coach Gaters as part of the Marshall community after all these years," said Marshall principal Angel Johnson. "Her impact, not only on the school and our students but also the community and alumni, goes far beyond words. We appreciate all of the positive contributions Coach Gaters has brought to the culture and climate of the building and the community. She is an incredible woman."