By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor
In the corner of the athletic office perched between the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s ice rink and basketball court, Dymetrius Ware comfortably leans onto the larger of the two metal desks. A pair of yellow Block Ms stand out on his baggy, navy track pants and fleece jacket used to counter Michigan’s usual chilly spring temperatures.
On the larger desk rests a laptop, office materials, a handful of books, and paperwork. To its right, the smaller desk features no drawers, files, or scattered papers. Its sole purpose is to hold a computer monitor that features the university’s gray log-in screen.
The maize door to the long, narrow office features a white nameplate. “Coaches Offices: Women’s Basketball/Hockey/Soccer,” the nameplate reads.
The door lists Ware’s sport in black lettering. But the office doesn’t belong to him. Neither does the key that opens the lock. Besides his laptop and personal belongings, nothing in the office is his.
A seasoned coach, Ware was enacting a lesson taught at Oakland Community College during his first coaching gig.
“Never take this personal. This belongs to the foundation of which its at, it doesn’t belong to you. You are a keeper,” Ware said, echoing the words of a building facilitator at the college.
With that advice resonating with him, Ware wasn’t sure what to expect when he received a phone call from Dr. Ann Lampkin-Williams, UM-Dearborn’s Interim Athletics Director, in early March. The interim women’s basketball head coach, like other potential candidates, had interviewed for the full-time gig at the university.
“The first thing that she said was, ‘Hey coach Ware, how you doing?’, Ware recalled. “‘I’m fine. Are you calling to collect your keys?’ She started laughing. She said, ‘No, I’m not calling to collect my keys. She said, ‘Keys?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Oh no Mr. Ware, I want you to keep them.’
“My keys are always ready for me to open doors, but they’re always ready for me to give them to the next person selected to continue opening those doors.”
The man who coached former NBA talents nearly 10 years ago was tasked with rebuilding the UM-Dearborn women’s basketball program after a series of unexpected events.
A silver state championship ring with a black gem and white stone shines on Ware’s right ring finger. During a stop at Detroit Rogers Academy, the journeyman coach won two championships after being brought in by then-head coach Steve Hall.
Ware established a relationship with Hall as the head coach of the Oakland Community College men’s basketball program. He earned the gig after rising from a fourth assistant coach in two seasons. When his contract wasn’t renewed in 2002, the relationship with Hall blossomed into another coaching gig.
Similar circumstances guided Ware to UM-Dearborn.
In 2011, he was a finalist for a coaching position at Ancilla College. He drove from southeastern Mich. to Plymouth, Ind. for an interview and meeting with department leaders. After the meeting, Ware was informed that he’d receive a phone call in three days.
In three days, his phone rang. He didn’t receive the job.
But in his nearly 20 years of coaching experience, Ware built several relationships similar to the one with Hall. The connection that helped soothe the pain of not landing the gig at Ancilla College was one with his former pupil.
Fresh out of college at Michigan State University, John Mackson briefly joined Ware’s staff at OCC before landing a teaching and girl’s varsity head coaching job at Taylor Kennedy High School. Both coaches were in contact when Ware discovered Mackson had accepted the men’s basketball head coach position at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Although the gig at Ancilla College hadn’t worked out, a new journey as Director of Basketball Operations for the UM-Dearborn men’s basketball team was blossoming for Ware.
“I was really heartbroken and felt bad about it (not landing the Ancilla College position),” Ware recalled. “And in my own little personal way, I was searching for some direction and it was just like John popped up in the direction right towards the University of Michigan-Dearborn.”
Ware held the position with the men’s program for two seasons and was primed for a third. But Lampkin-Williams had other ideas. After Kerem Hardy was dismissed as the women’s basketball head coach four months into his tenure, the interim athletics director asked Ware if he’d become the interim coach. Nearly two weeks before the team’s first game, Ware’s new position was official.
“That was probably one of the weirdest phases of my life that I’ve been through in a while,” he said. “It was very hectic because there was so many things. It’s funny because you people and soldiers talk about, ‘I did this because of my training. I did this because of my training.’
“That’s the first thing I went back to, my training. My academic training and my coach’s training.”
Taking over a program with only eight players entering their fourth coaching change in four seasons, Ware had to act fast to put his stamp on the Lady Wolverines.
Evaluating the team’s talent was his first task. Ware said it was too late in preseason camp to implement Mackson’s philosophies from the men’s team. So he worked with what he had. Through evaluating during practices, he realized his team would play zone.
Ware retained first-year assistant coach Katrina Vanover, who he hired as the girl’s basketball head coach at Cherry Hill Academy years ago. Mackson suggested Wyandotte Roosevelt’s Dave Crampton, who Ware brought in to run the 1-3-1 zone defense.
The team’s mechanisms had already been tweaked. But Ware still needed to change the culture. Thus, the Lady Wolverines’ motto for last season was born.
Overcome became much more than a word for the UM-Dearborn women’s basketball program. It was much more than basketball. Under Ware, overcome became a lifestyle, a glimmer of hope for a team that continued to be knocked on its rear when the end of the tunnel appeared within reach.
“When you only have eight players and you got 30 games in front of you, you have a lot of up and downs coming. You have a lot of issues coming,” Ware said. “That’s not even including the practices, just the issues of dealing with the season. And if you don’t have some type of direction, some principles to guide you through that season, it can be very frustrating and very, very discouraging. That’s the thing, I used that more so because I didn’t want them to lose the love of the game and I didn’t want them to lose the love of playing for the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
“And so I used that as a start switch again. From this point, whatever happens, we’re just going to overcome it. We’re just going to move forward, just keep moving.”
From a power outage that cancelled team activities until game day to a lost bus driver and a traffic jam, Ware’s method helped formed the Lady Wolverines’ deal-with-it mindset.
“Overcoming was just a way of not being able to feel sorry for ourselves anymore and turning that into a positive,” Ware said.
Next season, the Lady Wolverines motto will change because they did just that; overcome.
“We’re moving to the next one, as in, we overcome,” Ware said, detailing the reasoning behind the “We Overcome” motto. “We went from one to the next.”
Ware’s experience on the Great Lakes Storm’s coaching staff became useful in his efforts to turn around the Lady Wolverines. Until becoming defunct five years ago, the Continental Basketball Association was a professional men’s basketball minor league system. The Storm ceased to exist in 2005. But Ware’s brief time coaching NBA-level players helped him become a better coach.
“Not ever playing or coaching in the NBA, you have to really earn their respect and have to learn how to approach them in different ways,” he said. “But it’s probably the most experience I got learning on how to coach people, not just from the knowledge point of view, on how to approach them, how to deal with them, and how to get them to listen to what you say even though they’ve probably played more basketball (than you). When you’re playing in the NBA, there’s no better than that. We had three or four guys on that team who had been in the NBA.”
Ware’s coaching methods with the Storm were built on encouragement. That foundation carried over to UM-Dearborn.
“I think that’s where the vibe is with coaches, that you have to learn how to approach kids and players from a positive point of view from a point where they see the positivity of them doing what you want them to do,” Ware said.
The Lady Wolverines started the 2013-2014 season losing their first seven games. The team didn’t win its second game until New Year’s Eve after an overtime thriller.
Ware said the Lady Wolverines reached a point in the season where it was time to released the baggage. Let go of having four coaching changes in the same number of years. Let go of only having eight players.
“As the season went, we went from overcoming and just keeping our head above water and floating and being competitive,” Ware said. “We got to the point where, ‘All right, now, enough. We’re not playing the little sisters of the poor anymore to these teams.'”
On January 15, the Lady Wolverines faced Concordia at the Fieldhouse. UM-Dearborn dominated the first half before lack of depth gave way in a 75-71 loss.
Although the Lady Wolverines walked off the court defeated, it became a turning point in the team’s outlook.
“We went back into the team meeting room,” Ware said. “I told the girls, ‘You girls, you played hard. We competed, but I’m going to take this loss and say, because of this loss, we will win the next game that’s important to us to win. I will take this loss because I think you girls are right at that cusp where we can make some noise.'”
The next game Ware spoke about literally unraveled to be the Lady Wolverines’ next game. Facing 15-3 Aquinas on the road in Grand Rapids as a huge underdog, UM-Dearborn “overcame” for the 64-53 win.
Ware, who discovered his team was winning after glancing at the scoreboard, was shocked by the 11-point upset victory.
“Honestly, I would be lying to you if I thought we were going to do it,” he said.
Ware’s goal was to get the Lady Wolverines to see they were better than what they’d thought, a notion he said eventually was bought into. Although they finished the season 4-24, Ware’s first Lady Wolverines’ team will hold a special place in his career at UM-Dearborn.
Why? Because they “overcame.”
“If I coach here for 20 years, this team will be my favorite team,” he said. “I don’t care if I win a national championship. This team right here will be my favorite team.”
A pixelated photo of Ware, his wife, and son walking across Michigan Stadium’s field during the 2010 season’s senior day rests on the cork board in his office. Ware’s son, Dominique, was a member of the Michigan football team from 2008-2010.
“Just being part of that program and being part of that Michigan family was an experience I’ll never forget,” Ware said
Ware joined the Michigan family for himself after coming to UM-Dearborn in 2011. But when the big opportunity came last fall in the form of the women’s basketball head coaching gig, it was all but guaranteed.
Ware carried an interim title, yet he was recruiting top local girls to join the program. The steps of a rebuilding phase were being carried out without the assurance he’d be there to see it through. At any minute, the heartbreak from striking out on the Ancilla College gig could’ve returned — this time, miles from his hometown.
But Ware didn’t waiver. He didn’t walk away from the program in search of job security. And he wasn’t phased by the lack thereof.
“I could’ve walked, like you said,” Ware said. “They could’ve gave me a phone call and said, ‘Mr. Ware, we’ve seen someone else in the interview process and we think this person can be more atoned to what we want to do.’ And they could’ve done that. But even if they would’ve done that, I wouldn’t have went back to the boys.”
Even with all the uncertainty facing Ware, he stayed driven to his roots and overcame the obstacles of an interim tag. He was living the same lessons he was teaching to the Lady Wolverines in hopes of rebuilding a program and motivating young women on and off the court.
“I did it because that’s how you do things,” Ware said, when asked why he gave his best effort with the uncertainty of an interim tag. “That’s how you show your professionalism. By just showing my professionalism, that is part of me. That’s part of my makeup, and that’s what I try to teach the girls. Do the things the right way in which everyone respects you.
“Good or bad, you know you did it the right way.”