by JARRETT VAN METER
for Montclair Local
It started on a hot playground and ended in a cold gym.
Four decades ago, for three seasons, the Garden State had its own women’s professional basketball team. After struggling in year one and middling in year two, the New Jersey Gems caught momentum in the final season for both the franchise and the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League.
Kathy Mosolino, now an Englewood resident, took over as Gems head coach ahead of year three in 1980, the 29-year-old moving across the river from her post as the coach at Fordham University. Mosolino was joined by fellow Montclair State College (now Montclair State University) grad and league newcomer Carol Blazejowski, who had stayed out of the league to that point in order to maintain Olympic eligibility.
“Blaze” was a known quantity in the area, having led Montclair State to a 1978 NCAA semifinals appearance, averaging 31 points over her four-year collegiate career and 38 during her senior season.
“People were ready to turn the corner with the franchise,” Blazejowski remembered. “It had relative instability. You know, was it going to make it? What venue are they playing in? A new coach every year, hadn’t made the playoffs, and now they were looking for an anchor, and I think my history within the state of New Jersey was drawing that anticipation and excitement.”
The turning of the guard came as Ann Meyers departed the Gems following two seasons leading the team. Meyers was named co-MVP of the league the previous season after being the league’s first drafted player in 1978. Blaze was the bridge, and the Gems also added former Montclair State Red Hawk Jill Jeffrey as a player-coach to a roster that already included Blazejowski’s former collegiate teammate, Wanda Szeremeta.
“Hands down, Carol was the best player at that time, and I would put her under the category of ‘The GOAT’ in women’s basketball,” Szeremeta said of Blazejowski’s joining the Gems. “Having such a prolific scorer immediately puts you in the win column.”
Aside from their alma mater connection, the women were familiar with one another from years of playing summertime pickup ball together, including back at Montclair and on playgrounds across New York and New Jersey. They’d play “on tar that was 120 degrees in the summertime in all the summer leagues and it was amazing,” Mosolino said.
The team practiced on a floor constructed by Arthur Imperatore inside his APA Transport trucking facility, also the practice gym of the New Jersey Nets.
“Arthur let us practice before the Nets,” Mosolino said. “That was another big plus for the players.”
Mosolino was a players’ coach, but when it was time to work, everybody worked. Practices were high-energy and embraced aggressive defense, quick cutting and old-school wind sprints.
“The work ethic of people on that team was so good, so whatever Kathy put to us, we just embraced and did,” Szeremeta said. “I’ll tell you this, I don’t remember any easy practices.”
For home games, the team moved from the Thomas Dunn Center in Elizabeth to the South Mountain Arena in West Orange for the final season. The South Mountain Arena basketball court was just above the ice rink the facility also housed and, as attendance was often below 1,000, without the added body heat of fans, Blazejowski remembers it being chilly enough that the team had to warm up for its warm-ups.
After home games, fans and players alike would migrate across the street to The Ground Round for postgame food and beers. Szeremeta remembers that it was there, in the restaurant following a home game, that she learned of John Lennon’s passing.
“That was a huge part of the New Jersey Gems, the socialness, because we were all good friends,” she says.
The postgame merriment was not exclusive to home contests. During a road game against New Orleans Pride in the city’s famed Superdome, Mosolino earned her only ejection as coach of the Gems. The Pride was coached by another New Jersey legend, Butch van Breda Kolff.
“We all met at a bar in the French Quarter after the game to have a laugh about it over some beer and oysters,” Blazejowski said.
The Gems finished the 1980-1981 season with a 23-13 record. It was regarded with only passing excitement at the time. The team’s sights were trained higher.
“Our goal was to win a championship, so it would have been a failure to not make the playoffs,” Blazejowski said. “Making the playoffs was no big deal to us because we just knew that that was happening anyway, you know what I mean? That wasn’t a big signature goal for us, it was just kind of matter-of-fact. ‘Okay, so now we’re in the playoffs and we’ve got to work to get the ultimate goal.’”
But the Gems fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Dallas Diamonds and Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lieberman. After winning the first game of the best-of-three series at home, New Jersey faltered under the Diamonds’ full-court pressure and dropped the next two on the road. The season was the high note of Jersey’s three-year foray into women’s pro hoops.
“I think what we had was really special,” Szeremeta said. “I don’t know about other teams, but we all kind of grew up together from high school and knew each other. We spent so much time together off the court, and when you have that kind of chemistry, you’re going to have a good team.”