- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Wanda Oates, the first woman to coach men’s varsity basketball in the Washington area, started her career at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast, home of the Knights, a school known for its excellent math and science programs.

“I coached from 1988 until 1994, and during that time we won the East Division Championship — Ballou hadn’t won a championship in basketball in 20 years,” said Ms. Oates, who lives in Northwest. “My assistant coach, Kali Speakes, and I were the only females to coach men’s varsity basketball in the country,” she said.

Ms. Oates cheered, comforted and counseled her students and players at Ballou Senior High for 33 years and three months. She retired from coaching the same day Michael Jordan officially announced his retirement from the NBA on Jan. 13, 1999.

But, times have changed and so has Ballou.

“The school has undergone a metamorphosis since the first time that I walked through the doors [in 1965]. It was an outstanding math and science school at one time, and we had over 3,000 students enrolled, and a large percentage of the student body was enrolled in the math and science program,” she said.

Many Ballou High School graduates went on to attend Ivy League schools on scholarships. Many of Ms. Oates’ players went on to become star athletes. Lynda Tolbert competed in the Olympics in 1992 and 1996 in track and field. Noel Cyrus, the football coach at Ballou, played soccer at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and the team won a championship in 1979. Mr. Cyrus turned a moribund program into one that is considered excellent across the city, Ms. Oates said. Sanya Tyler graduated from Ballou and became the women’s basketball coach at Howard University, where she has won numerous MEAC championships.

In light of the recent shooting at Ballou in which a student, James Richardson, was killed, Ms. Oates said she believes young people’s perspectives have changed.

“I think the mindset of our young people have changed because of the kinds of exposure they are getting through TV and the movies. And, there’s a lack of positive, strong role models,” she said.

The coach said she noticed a change at Ballou in 1997-98.

“I could notice a change in terms of their [students] language and their attitudes. James was an outstanding ball player and had a very promising career in front of him for his life to be snuffed out for whatever reason,” Ms. Oates said.

“If I had been there during this time — first of all, security would have been on high alert every single day. [Guards] would not be stationary, they would be patrolling the hallways. Every student and visitor would have to go through the metal detector. And any signs of disruptive students would be dealt with severely. I’ve worked with every principal at Ballou including Doctor Art Bridges,” Ms. Oates said.

The school, located at 3401 Fourth St. SE in Ward 8, was rough when Ms. Oates was there and she doesn’t paint a rosy picture.

“We had shootings and students were killed, but they did not bring it inside the school. This kind of violence [Monday’s fatal shooting] was not in the school. When students came into Ballou they felt safe. It had to do with the faculty and the respect the students had for their teachers. What’s happening now is completely foreign to me,” Ms. Oates said.

Ms. Oates said the Ballou she remembers was “one big family.” Teachers knew the students, and the students knew the teachers. Students were polite and respectful of their elders and they sought out guidance and advice. In fact, she said students viewed their teachers as their second parents.

“We would often take students on trips, especially the basketball team. Because they were across the bridge in Anacostia, any number of times I would take my students to Ward 3 to show them that this too could be possible for them — the way people live in Ward 3,” Ms. Oates said.

Although she no longer is calling plays from the sidelines, Ms. Oates stays current on local high school sports.

“I read the sports page every day and stay on top of all of the teams and I always look to see what Ballou is doing, and I try to attend some of the games, especially the basketball and football games.

“Our elected officials need to practice what they preach and see to it that our young people in Southeast D.C. have the same benefits as young people in Northwest,” she said.

Ms. Oates was coaching at Ballou when Greg Fuller was a high school student. Today Mr. Fuller, 44, is the head coach at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast where he has worked for the past five years.

“I was there from 1975 until 1978 and it was a lot of fun. The school environment was pleasant and I felt safe,” Mr. Fuller said.

Like Ms. Oates, Mr. Fuller doesn’t try to create an idyllic scenario. There were fights but that was it — a fight — there was no retaliation, he said.

“There weren’t any gangs. Everybody knew everybody. There weren’t any problems like they are having now. There were no guns in schools, and at that time, we didn’t even have a metal detector, we had a police who was assigned to the school,” he said.

“Back then, Ballou was known for its math and technology. And students wanted to attend Ballou,” Mr. Fuller said.

He said the only rivalries that existed back in the day were between Ballou and Anacostia High School.

“On the field, on the court or on the baseball diamond,” Mr. Fuller said.

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