When John Marshall High School’s girls basketball coach, Dorothy Gaters, thinks about her childhood, she says she remembers a few things.
Her mother and father were “extremely hard workers,” who instilled the same work ethic in their children, she reminisces. Another memory comes to mind when reflecting over her childhood. She says her mother could never say that a young Gaters was simply “graduating from school,” but she would always stress the school’s name so others would know from where.
What stands out the most, however, she says is one quote.
Unlike any slogan or poem popularized during that time, she says a quote that was posted above her elementary school’s staircase has followed her throughout the years.
There was an elephant on the sign. Below the image were the words, If a task is once begun, never leave it until it’s done. Be the task great or small, do it well, or not at all.
Through nine state championships, well over one thousand games, a gold medal in the U.S. Olympic Festival, and being named the “winningest basketball coach, male or female” in the IHSA, she says the quote still resonates today.
Fresh off of her ninth state championship, and determined to work hard for more, Gaters discusses her legacy, pushing players to their full potential, and the greatest lesson she’s learned in her 30 plus years.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When you first moved to Chicago from Mississippi, did you have intentions of becoming one of the greatest basketball coaches in history? If not, what did you originally want to be?
A: In high school, I thought my physical education teachers were just fun people to be around, so I gravitated toward that field. I decided shortly before graduation that I wanted to be a physical education teacher.
Q: You attended high school at John Marshall HS before eventually working there in 1974. What was the school like during your time as a CPS student?
A: It was exciting and fun. You didn’t have to worry about the type of violence that our kids face today. We were all just normal high school kids having a good time.
Q: Your legacy at Marshall HS begins in 1982 with your first state championship, but can you discuss what life was like as a young African-American woman forming a girls’ basketball team in the 1970s?
A: First of all, I started as a student teacher at Marshall. During those years, they wouldn’t typically allow you to student teach at a school that you had attended, but I didn’t have a car, so I was sent to Marshall.
Student teaching was a fun experience. I had a great mentor. Enrollment was pretty high at that time as well. Before graduation, Marshall offered me the job because they needed a teacher right away. I presented [the idea to work], to my counselors, and they agreed to allow me to start teaching before I received my degree. I started teaching a month before my graduation. I believe we had ten P.E. teachers at that time.
[The girl’s basketball team] started as a club. Our athletic director just started calling everyone to see who wanted to lead the basketball club. No one wanted to take it.
I said, ‘Well, I’ll try it.’
I had worked at the park district and basketball had always been popular on the South and West side. I would go over and watch the games. That’s how it all started.
Q: When did you know you and your team had what it took to win your first state championship in 1982?
A: We probably had about 61 players, maybe more, on that team. We had fantastic talent. So basically, I knew if I didn’t mess it up, we’d have a chance to win it.
The team from 1981 was the better team. I was just a novice coach, and of course, made a ton of mistakes. My best player at the time was the one who put us on the national map—Janet Harris.
Janet became the top recruit in the nation when she graduated. I couldn’t win with her. It just broke my heart.
(Janet Harris is former player for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Georgia Bulldogs women’s basketball team.)
She went on to become the University of Georgia’s All-American. That’s how good she was. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining [former professional football player] Herschel Walker and [retired professional basketball player] Dominique Wilkins, both who attended the University of Georgia. That’s the kind of company she could keep.
She was amazing. We just had great talent and they made me look good. You’re not supposed to lose with kids like that. And they actually taught me the game.
Q: How do you feel when you see former players succeeding in the field they have chosen to pursue?
A: I feel proud. Even though they’re adults, I still call them my kids. I always do that. I feel proud of them, like a parent, and how my parents were proud of me.
I can remember, as my graduations approached, my mother would always say the entire word. She wouldn’t say that I was, ‘getting ready to graduate from college,’ but she’d say, ‘She’s getting ready to graduate from Depaul University.’
I feel proud like that.
Q: This year marks your ninth championship, and you have played well over 1,000 games. Can you remember a moment during your career as a coach that has stuck with you throughout the years?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s any one particular thing. I’ve always loved basketball as a spectator. Once I became a coach, I wanted to do well because it was my product. It was evidence of my labor. I love kids, I love working with kids, and I like to see them be successful. We sent a lot of kids to college, and we continue to do that. We have close to 100 percent of our athletes going to college. I’m really proud of that.
Q: What pushes you to be the best?
A: For me, it was just a labor of love. I enjoyed what I was doing, and I tried to learn as much as I could about the sport and coaching. Gradually, it has come to fruition.
It’s also about work ethic. I came from a family of working people. My mother and father, they both were hard workers. I guess they instilled that in us as children. We had chores we were expected to do, and if we didn’t do them, well we had to do them over.
Q: What is your motto?
A: We have a sign in our office. We actually have several signs because I’m a person who loves quotes. But my favorite sign says, ‘Hard work will beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’
I want the kids to really see and understand this is why we work so hard.
Q: After coaching for over 30 years, what is the greatest lesson you have learned in your lifetime?
A: Don’t give up on kids. You never know who they may become once they leave your program. I had a call recently from one of my former players. She’s in graduate school, and she asked me if she could do an internship with me. I was like, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t even know that she was in grad school. I had another former player I talked to a couple of weeks ago who’s now getting her Ph.D.
Q: What do you hope your players learn from their time with you as their coach?
A: That I was fair, and that I worked them hard for their benefit. It’s not just about basketball. Once you learn certain principles, you can take them with you wherever you go and whatever you do. You can also benefit other people like your siblings or other people’s children. You can impact so many lives if you’re a positive person.
Q: What do you hope the coming years will bring to you and your team?
A: I hope our program continues to be successful so, once I leave it, whoever replaces me will have the same opportunity and desire that I have.