Forget Shaq. The most groundbreaking basketball star to come out of New Jersey is Cranford's own Carol Blazejowski.
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A trip to the New Jersey state high school basketball championship. A collegiate Final Four appearance. Three All-American honors. A college scoring total of 3,199 points, with a single-season average of nearly 40 points per game. A spot on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the Moscow games. The record for most points ever scored in a college game at Madison Square Garden (52, before three-pointers), and a photo on the arena’s wall of fame alongside images of Pope John Paul II and Muhammad Ali. A revered spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And today, a position as general manager and team president of a professional basketball team. All from a Cranford kid who went to Montclair State College and now resides in Nutley.
Ring a bell?
Carol “Blaze” Blazejowski isn’t surprised. She tells a story about speaking to young basketball players at a local camp. “The parents didn’t even know who I was at first,” she says. “Once they found out, they made sure the kids started paying attention.”
It is difficult not to pay attention once you know Blazejowski’s résumé—a stat sheet that would undoubtedly make her a household name if she were a man. “It is what it is,” she says of the relative lack of attention that women’s basketball receives compared to the men’s game. “I can only do my part to help grow it, and you always want to make it better for the next generation.”
Her efforts are appreciated at Cranford High School, where Blazejowski spearheaded a drive to start a varsity girls’ basketball team, in part by threatening to join the boys’ team. “Her impact is still felt today,” says Cranford High teacher Kitty White, who played field hockey and softball at Montclair State while Blazejowski was a basketball star there. White coached girls’ basketball, softball, and field hockey teams in Blazejowski’s wake. “She kind of put women’s basketball on the map. The games are televised and there are die-hard fans out there. I don’t know if women today truly appreciate her struggles and battles against sexism. It brings me satisfaction to see where we’ve come, though.”
Thanks to her coaching achievements, White has a spot in Cranford High School’s Hall of Fame a few plaques away from Blazejowski, whose number-42 jersey hangs in the school’s gym. It was during Blazejowski’s senior year that the school first outfitted a girls’ varsity basketball team. That debut squad went 13-0 in the regular season and won six playoff games to make it to the state championship in 1974. In those twenty games, the 5-foot-10-inch forward with a killer jump shot scored 638 points—an average of 32 per game. Because the team was so dominant, former coach Sally Morel says, Blazejowski would sit out significant minutes to avoid running up the score too much. “If we had said, ‘Stay in and score as much as you want,’ there’s no doubt she would have scored 1,000 points alone,” Morel says.
Despite her dominance on the court—including two collegiate Women’s Player of the Year honors in 1976 and 1977—Blazejowski remembers her days at Montclair State as a far cry from today’s scene at schools such as the University of Connecticut and University of Tennessee, where women get the recognition and school support they need to thrive. “The school, for one thing, was barely on the map,” she says. “For us, playing against teams with scholarships was a different league. We had nothing. We held bake sales.”
Starting out as a relative unknown on an under-the-radar team, Blaze, as she became known, led the nation in scoring during her junior and senior years and helped lift Montclair to the level of UCLA and Maryland in the 1978 Final Four of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. (Montclair lost to UCLA despite Blazejowski’s 40 points, but did win the third-place game over Wayland Baptist.) “To take an unranked team from obscurity to the Final Four was something special,” she says.
That same season, Blazejowski scored 52 points against Queens College, propelling her into the Madison Square Garden record books. “I didn’t even realize I was hitting the record,” she says, adding that she was in foul trouble for the entire second half, so she was limited to taking jump shots. “I was just in the zone.”
After years of developing marketing initiatives for women’s sports programs at Adidas and working in the NBA league office, Blazejowski, 52, returned to the scene of her record-setting game as president and general manager of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
She has been at the helm as general manager since the team launched twelve years ago (a position she took on after initially being named the WNBA’s director of basketball development), and was named team president last year. Under Blazejowski’s watch, the Liberty (nyliberty.com) has maintained a strong record, including four appearances in the WNBA Finals, and players such as Rebecca Lobo have become worldwide stars. Last summer, Blazejowski helped coordinate the first regular-season outdoor game in professional basketball history at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens. “It’s such a pure sport on and off the court,” she says of women’s basketball. “They play for the passion and love for the game. Awareness is growing and these players are giving their heart and soul out there. I don’t think there is any turning back.”
Blazejowski had a taste of professional play as a member of the New Jersey Gems in the Women’s Basketball League in 1980—when she led the league in scoring and was named Most Valuable Player—but the WBL shuttered one year later. Before that, she had represented the United States in international basketball competition as a member of the first U.S. women’s basketball team to win a gold medal at the World University Games in Mexico City in 1979 and as part of the silver-medal-winning U.S. team at that year’s Pan American Games. She was selected for the Olympic team in 1980—the year the United States boycotted the games.
Blazejowski does not dwell on the missed Olympic opportunity (“I’ll still always be an Olympian,” she says), but unfortunate timing is a recurring theme in her biography. Thinking back on that first year of girls’ basketball at Cranford, Morel, who was a first-year coach at the time and now teaches elementary students in Liverpool, New York, can’t help but feel that, despite all of Blazejowski’s achievements, she deserved the chance for more. “It’s a shame that she didn’t have opportunities much earlier on in her high school years,” she says.
But those limitations had to be overcome by someone. “I’ve often thought over the years how tremendous it is that Carol’s had the opportunity to provide for other women an opportunity she couldn’t have herself,” Morel says. “Many of the turns in her life where she was prepared to excel, she was kind of thwarted, and yet she never gave up.” Morel, who still coaches middle-school basketball, uses a book with a photo of Blazejowski as the model for jump-shot form to teach her players about shooting—and tell the story of Blaze.
White says that Blazejowski’s ability to meet the challenges presented to her “kicked open the door” for players such as Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Candace Parker. “Now the torch needs to be passed, and the Candace Parkers of today need to keep opening those doors,” she says.
One such obstacle came when Blazejowski was a high school sensation, and a male reporter challenged her to a game of one-on-one. Morel advised against it. “I said, ‘She’s not a sideshow. This is a very talented young lady, and she’s not out there playing to prove she can beat the boys,’” says Morel. “She was playing to be the best that she could be.”
Blazejowski still took on the challenge—and won.
She says she has always taken pride in her home state of New Jersey, a state that some would say faces an uphill image battle similar to that of women’s basketball. “I was born, raised, educated, and now reside here,” she says. “Can’t get any more loyal than that, right?”
Blazejowski commutes to the Garden from her home in Nutley, where she lives with her partner, Joyce, and her two children. Lainey, 13, and Luke, 11, both play basketball and share her passion for the game, and she expects that basketball will be a part of her livelihood and lifestyle for a long time to come.
But the trials she had to overcome continue to shape her view of the game, as do the lessons of her upbringing with two working parents. “We were a well-grounded family,” she says. “Back then, they’d just say, ‘Keep your head about you, but follow your dreams.’”
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