COLUMBIA, Mo. — Twenty-five years ago, Dennis Gates was full of surprises on his recruiting visit to the Bay Area.
Gates, one of several Division I prospects from his powerhouse high school team in Chicago, was in Berkeley, California, visiting the Cal campus when on his second day there, coach Ben Braun asked over breakfast if Gates was ready to commit to the Golden Bears .
“Go read the paper,” he told Braun.
Braun was confused but went and found that day’s Oakland Tribune. There in the sports section was Cal beat writer Jeff Faraudo’s byline under the headline: “Dennis Gates commits to Cal”
Gates pulled a fast one on his future coach, future boss and future hype man.
“I said, Dennis, ‘I should get mad at you for not telling me, but I can’t. I’m happy. You’ve made a great decision,’” Braun recalled Monday in a phone interview. “’Now, don’t pull this crap on me anymore.'”
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If Braun isn’t president of the Dennis Gates Fan Club, he’s at least a high-ranking cabinet member. He doesn’t apologize for the affection he holds for his 42-year-old former player. He’s known Gates since his junior year of high school and knew early on during his college career that he’d make a fine coach one day.
Gates will get that chance at Missouri, pending approval from the UM System’s Board of Curators, which meets at 7 am Tuesday via Zoom for a closed executive session. Gates, Cleveland State’s head coach the last three seasons, flew from Cleveland to Columbia on Monday and could be formally introduced as Missouri’s new coach by Tuesday afternoon, pending the Board’s expected approval.
Who exactly is Missouri hiring in the 42-year-old Chicago native? Braun began to understand more about his future player during that recruiting visit when Gates made one thing clear.
“He didn’t ask a lot of questions,” said Braun, who won 219 games at Cal from 1996-2008. “He didn’t say, ‘Can I play right away? Can I start right away?’ He said, ‘Do I have a chance to be a captain? Can I be a leader?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, Dennis. We’re always looking for leaders.’ That was his biggest interest. He wanted to be a leader in our program.”
The Bears needed some of those. At the time, Cal’s program was without a home arena and about to absorb NCAA sanctions for violations that occurred under the previous coaching regime.
“We literally had no locker room, no practice facility and no home gym,” Braun said. “We took a bus over to the (Golden State) Warriors’ facility every day. The kids had a traveling locker room in their backpacks.”
On the court, Braun’s program needed stability and an unifying voice. Gates provided both instantly, guiding Cal to the NIT championship as a freshman, then NCAA Tournament appearances as a junior and senior.
He’s since coached in the NBA and at six college programs, but Gates goes back to his guiding ambition as a college recruit that defines his identity in basketball. He traces those roots back to his coach at Chicago’s Whitney Young High, George Stanton.
“He told me, ‘One day you’re going to be a great coach,’” Gates said in a 2020 interview on the podcast “Bleav in All Ball Chicago,” about famous Windy City basketball players. “I went to the place that was going to allow me to be a freshman captain.”
Long before Berkeley, Dennis Ray Gates II grew up on Chicago’s West Side, the son of Dennis and Shirley Gates, a truck driver and registered nurse, who both graduated from Malcolm X College in Chicago. Every day after school at Daniel Webster Elementary School, he’d walk with friends to Garfield Park and play the game he grew to love.
“At a very young age, my dad, my mom, uncles, they put a basketball in my hand and it just served as a compass to direct my life and get me to the places I am today,” he said in the 2020 interview . “And without it, I don’t know where I would be.”
As teenagers Gates and best friends Quentin Richardson and Cordell Henry promised each other they’d college attendees together at Marquette — they played for both the AAU Illinois Warriors and Whitney Young — but Marquette pulled its offer to Gates, he recalled on the podcast. Instead, only Henry played for Marquette while Richardson went to DePaul and Gates headed west.
At Cal, Gates started 34 games over four years, averaged a career-best 5.6 points per game as a senior shooting guard but excelled on the defensive end.
“He really was a lockdown defender,” Braun said. “He would always want to go out and guard the other team’s best player. He did that to a T his whole career until (Arizona State’s) Eddie House went for 61 on us (in 2000) to set the Pac-10 record.”
“But,” Braun said, laughing, “Dennis claims he only had 30 on Dennis.”
Braun’s favorite Gates story comes from another Arizona State game. Late in the second half, Cal was awarded free throws for a technical foul. Braun told Gates to shoot the pivotal foul shots.
“He says, ‘No, Coach. You got Ryan Forehan-Kelly sitting on the bench. He’s a way better free throw shooter. You need to put him in,” said Braun, who did just that and watched Forehan-Kelly clinch the win from the line. “Dennis was coaching the team back then — and at his own expense. How about that?”
After college, Gates had several NBA tryouts but torn ankle ligaments kept him out of the league. As he tried to plot his next steps, Gates was in Los Angeles one day rebounding for Richardson, now with the Clippers and two seasons into his 13-year NBA career. Clippers assistant Dennis Johnson took a liking to the 22-year-old Gates and created a position for him as a player development coach. The next summer, while working the Michael Jordan youth camp in Santa Barbara, California, Gates grew close to camp director George Raveling, who’d later connect Gates with Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. Gates would return to Cal for a couple seasons as Braun’s assistant coach, along with stops at Marquette, Northern Illinois, Nevada and then an eight-year run alongside Hamilton at FSU, where he developed a reputation as one of the nation’s top young assistants.
“I still don’t remember the day he hired me nor how much he paid me,” Gates said in the 2020 interview. He just said, ‘Pack your bags. Get on an airplane.’ And here I am at Florida State (eight) years, man. He blessed me. He showed me how to balance being a successful head coach with being a husband, being a great father and obviously pouring into the lives of these young people and putting your arms around them and building a bridge and making sure you coach them beyond just basketball but teach them about the nuances of life to help them navigate the hurdles.”
After building Cleveland State into a two-time Horizon League regular-season champion in just three years there, Gates now is in line to tackle a new challenge at Mizzouwhere, coincidentally, he replaces another coach who considers FSU’s Hamilton a mentor, Cuonzo Martin, fired earlier this month after the Tigers’ 12-21 season.
“I’m really happy for Dennis that he’s getting this opportunity,” Braun said. “But I’m also happy for Missouri. I wish Cuonzo had gotten a little more time and I don’t know that they gave him as much time as he should have gotten. You can quote me on that. I felt that Cuonzo could have gotten things going again like he did early. But by the same token, I understand this business and people are not as patient as they once were.”