The old gymnasium at Booker T. Washington High School in Shreveport has seen its share of historic occasions through the years — big-time games, marquee players and memories that for some will last a lifetime.
The faces of players and coaches may have changed, but the close-knit confines, the echoes of the walls, the 10-foot height of a sometimes unforgiving rim have remained the same.
If the walls could talk, they’d likely tell the world what they think about the latest face to inhabit their confines. Donnita Rogers, a winner as a Division I women’s basketball coach, has assumed the head coaching job for the boys’ basketball team — something unheard of just a few years ago and still an anomaly at the high school level.
Standing on the well-seasoned gym floor one recent Tuesday evening, Rogers coaxed, cajoled, corrected and complimented the intrasquad actions of the 13 young men under her tutelage. On one trip down the court, Marvonte Alexander fed Ledarion Woodard for a fast break dunk, sending the teenagers into broad smiles and high-fives. The coach couldn’t enjoy the offensive play as much as her athletes, however, since it meant a breakdown on defense.
Rogers did offer a quick smile, however, something she’s done a lot since becoming what many believe is the first female to coach boys’ high school basketball in the area. The former head women’s coach at Grambling State University and Langston University never intended on bursting a gender barrier or making a statement for Title IX. She just wanted to coach again and accepted the open position at BTW from former principal Patrick Greer last summer.
“I’m thankful God thought enough of me to give me this experience at BTW,” Rogers said. “For women, sometimes the ceiling is short. This is a lot of fun. Not a lot of women get the opportunity to coach guys. And this group of guys is really special. I’m enjoying each moment. I don’t want to have any regrets at the end of the season.
“I don’t know how long I’ll do this, but I love it. Only God knows what the future holds for me.”
With a supporting cast that includes Karim El-Amin, one of the top players in the area, the Rogers experiment has produced a mixed bag heading into the team’s District 1-3A opener Jan. 17 against Bossier. The Lions are 6-5 after Tuesday’s loss at Plain Dealing, but they started the season 4-0 and advanced to the finals of their own tournament before falling in that finale to 14-2 Huntington. BTW lost to Huntington again in mid-December and fell to Northwood in the opening round of the Bossier Tournament. A couple players recently left the team.
“We’re still learning each other and trying to get ready for district play,” Rogers said.
Rogers was brought to Grambling State in 2008 to revive the women’s basketball program that was 2-26 overall and 1-17 in the SWAC prior to her arrival. Her first team went 6-12 in the league, but then went 10-8 in each succeeding season. Rogers was 51-67 overall at GSU despite playing a number of money games each season. Her final recruiting class was rated No. 42 in the country, according to ESPNHoopGurlz.com, while her team recorded the highest academic progress rate in the SWAC and one of the highest in Louisiana, according to published reports.
“We played at LSU, Kansas State, Texas, Arkansas — some great venues that stick out in my mind,” she said. “Those were some great experiences.”
When her four-year contract expired June 30, 2012, the university chose not to renew it, opting to bring back former GSU coach Patricia Bibbs.
“I was never told I was fired due to this, this or this. I felt like I was safe,” Rogers said.
Armed with a teaching certificate, along with 35 hours in chemistry and biology, she went job hunting, considering jobs at four Shreveport schools before accepting Greer’s offer after a meeting and serious prayer.
“(Greer) is one of the best leaders at any level I’ve been at,” Rogers said. “He can sell ice cream to Eskimos.”
In switching to coaching boys, Rogers knew some things would be different; but she wasn’t prepared for one of the most significant changes in her routine.
“A lot of things are the same, but some things are weird, and I’m having to adjust,” she said. “When I get ready to enter the locker room, I knock and say, ‘I’m coming in now.’ My office is located right in the middle of the locker room. So far, we haven’t surprised each other, but that was a big change.”
Another difference is that her guys pick things up faster. “They seem to have a strong basketball IQ,” Rogers said.
The biggest difference between the college and high school games is the lack of preparation time for opponents. She said she depends on assistant coaches Eric Clark and Larry Smith to fill her in on upcoming opponents.
“I have to go into a lot of games blind because I’ve never seen these teams before. I’m not able to watch film and see the tendencies of coaches as I could at Grambling,” Rogers said. “Both of my assistant coaches were assistant football coaches. I was glad to have them in the gym.”
Player speaks out
Most of the basketball team was unfazed by the news they were getting a woman as their head coach, said senior captain Josh Hollingsworth, who has been in the program for four campaigns.
“Some people think we can’t be successful with a lady coaching us. I’ve heard that from some other coaches,” Hollingsworth said. “If they’re on our schedule, I just say, ‘We’ll play you, and then we’ll see.'”
Hollingsworth said Rogers is more patient than male coaches he’s had in the past. “Some male coaches want to get on you pretty hard without explaining themselves well. We get what she asks for. Sometimes men will let you run a drill without explaining what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Former BTW assistant principal Gregory O’Quinn, now principal at Barret Paideia Academy, said Rogers had the resume and the love of the game necessary to make her an easy choice as the Lions’ coach. “Her own character and the desire to produce athletes who are ready for their next step in life is what makes her so special.
“She takes the time to not only develop the athlete, but also develop the person,” O’Quinn said. “The things she has implemented this year have created a culture within the team that encourages her athletes to take advantage of their current situation, while preparing for opportunities that await them after they graduate.”
When the Lions advanced to the finals of their own tournament on Thanksgiving eve, the game was played in BTW’s new gym, a sparkling edifice on the backside of the school near the football stadium. Its history is meager compared to its vintage predecessor atop the hill, but it does offer a trump card — it provides a fitting venue for a coach looking for some redemption and the opportunity to make her mark. Rogers was dressed smartly and kept her cool even as Huntington pulled away late for a 71-63 win in front of a packed house.
“I have tried to keep a lot of my college style here. I feel I should be dressed appropriately on the sidelines. The kids need to see that because they deserve the best from me,” Rogers said. “I want to represent BTW in the best way possible, and I want my guys to do the same.
“I don’t have the finances to do all the things I envision for this program, but we are working on it.”