When Jasmina (Jazz) Perazić enters the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this June, she will do so on the merits of her career as a Maryland Terrapin (’79-‘83). During her time in College Park, the six-foot guard led the program to three ACC Championships and the 1982 Final Four. Her 1,396 points ranks her 18th all-time in scoring for the Terps and she is one of only three women to have their jerseys retired by the University.
Quite the accomplishment for someone whose earliest basketball memories include coaches yelling, “What are you doing?”
Born in the former Yugoslavia in 1960, team sports – run by clubs and often funded by the state – were an accepted profession. A gifted athlete, soccer was Perazić’s career of choice soccer until she was about 11. “Guys would go by and see me working on my soccer moves and they’d say ‘There’s no soccer for women.’ So I ended up thinking, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll just switch to basketball.’ Soccer, that was always number one,” she recalled, “and then basketball. Players would live off of basketball. They really didn’t even get jobs – and a lot of them, unfortunately, did not go to school — but professional basketball was there, something you could strive for.” The sport quickly became an obsession.
“My poor parents,” she laughed. “They were the best parents ever. My mom had me dressed up in little skirts and dresses with a bunch of big bows in my hair and just did not understand why her only daughter was constantly outside playing with the boys. I was late for my piano lessons. I was late for choir practices. But, I would play basketball before school started, during lunch and, of course, after school.” Perazić started playing for Vojvodina, a well-known local club in her hometown of Novi Sad. Her athletic ability earned the 12-year old a place on the team with the professionals – but she rarely saw playing time. Perazić is characteristically direct as to the reason: “Sure, I was this really amazing talent who could jump stop and do all these crazy stuff. If I just played one-on-one against someone, I could beat most guys.” But, she admitted, “I could not play the regular game five-on-five. I don’t even blame people for not playing me. I was just horrible in five-on-five.” Granted, her coaches only spoke Hungarian (the dominant ethnic group in her area), but, “there was no teaching going on. All I heard from my coaches (albeit in Hungarian) was, ‘what are you doing?’”
At 15, more basketball – and language — challenges arose when her father’s job in banking took him to Germany. With an eye towards Perazić’s possible future in international business (her mother was an accountant), and the benefits of being multi-lingual, “He decided, why don’t I go to Germany with him and learn German? Then he had this brilliant idea to put me in American high school because he wanted me to learn English.” It was her ability to play basketball that opened the door to a Frankfurt school for U.S. military dependents. Perazić recalled her first day clearly. “I spoke no English. I mean, I knew how to count from one to 10, how to say yes and no, but that’s it. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go. Then, I saw these girls and they just looked like basketball players to me.” Fortunately, word had spread that a “7-foot Russian who could dunk” was due to arrive and, geographical accuracy aside, they took her under their wing. She played for her high school and Eintracht, a local club, and quickly mastered English.
At 16, Perazić spent the summer with the Junior Yugoslavian national team, a position that earned her a hefty paycheck. “I went to pick up my stipend and I remember I could have just gone to buy a car. Most people could not afford to buy a car — and I had enough cash to buy a car. It was kind of shocking to me.” With offers coming in to play for European clubs, her professional basketball future seemed clear. Then her high school coach suggested playing college basketball in the United States. “Of course I wanted to go, maybe see Hollywood or Disney World, but I never thought about going to school,” said Perazić. “I didn’t even know about the school system or that basketball was played.” Tapes were sent to names like UCLA, Maryland, Hawaii and Michigan. Maryland offered a scholarship even though, as she learned latter, the videotape coaches watched never showed her scoring. “It shows me moving around taking shots but the camera never showed if the ball went in. They said, ‘Let’s just give it a try.’“
“So I go to the University of Maryland thinking that I was God’s gift to basketball, and very quickly, within 15 minutes realizing that I’m not even close to being the best player on Maryland,” said Perazić somewhat bemusedly. Someone who’d “gotten away” with not practicing wasn’t allowed to get away with anything. “I was just motivated by that. I thought, ‘I have to stay here until I prove that I am the best.’” Her coach, Chris Weller, was indispensable in that pursuit. “She was a great teacher of the game. She was able to help you see why things are happening; that you are doing things on purpose and with a purpose. She knew how to make people accountable and responsible for each other and for what they do. She created this great atmosphere on the team. You felt no pressure to do anything but just play with each other and for each other. I just couldn’t believe that there was so much more to basketball. Yeah, maybe I was playing basketball, but I really wasn’t. I was just really, really impressed with that and I fell in love with the game even more.”
Her happiness was fortunate because the decision to attend Maryland had not been without consequences. Her club teams, who saw players as assets, were upset at the loss of her talent with no possibility of compensation. The Senior National Team coach’s response was particularly draconian. “He said ‘You will never play for the Yugoslavia National Team again,’” remembered Perazić. “That made me even more motivated. That’s really the bigger reason why I left. When someone threatens you, just go. “
Ironically enough, it was someone who was prevented from participating in the 1980 Olympics because of the U.S. boycott who was key to giving Perazić a chance for the Moscow games. In April of her freshman year, she received a call to attend tryouts for the National Team (there was a new head coach). “I got the invitation because Tara Heiss, who is also in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and also played at Maryland, was the point guard for the U.S. National Team. She went to the qualification tournament in Europe and they beat Yugoslavia. She actually went over to the coach and said to him, ‘Do you know that your best player is at the University of Maryland?’ So basically I can tell you that I went to the Olympics (and won Bronze) thanks to Tara Heiss and Chris Weller. Chris for what she taught me in that one year — I improved so much — and Tara for letting them know about me.”
Perazić’s post-Maryland years included 12 years on the National Team and a career in Europe and a brief stint with the WNBA’s New York Liberty in 1997. She stepped away from the game to marry and raise a daughter then, entering her 40’s, she found herself back, this time stalking the sidelines. “I never thought I would coach. I didn’t think I had the patience,” she admitted. “I was horrible when I first started, but I just kept learning and learning.” After four years at Elizabeth Seton High School (MD), and another four as an assistant at Division I Monmouth University (N.J.), she’ll start her ninth year as the head coach of Division II Georgian Court University (N.J.). Perazić’s constant challenge is to be the kind of coach Chris Weller was to her.
“You’re in it for the athletes, to make them the best possible athletes they can, to teach them life skills through this game. I know this sounds cliché, but it is so true. There is so much more to basketball than basketball. It’s being open-minded and trying to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to learning. If you just focus on winning you will miss so many things in between. But if you focused on teaching, if you focus on looking at who you have and implementing certain things that are best suited for that player or that team, trying to bring up the best in each player, all those right things will happen.”
As her WBHOF induction nears, Perazić recognizes it is a marker on an ongoing journey. “I always wanted to represent women basketball in the best light. It is just so important to me that we continue to grow. I just want to figure out best way possible to impact that. That’s the goal that I have in my life now.”
This was part of a series of articles written on the 2014 WHBOF inductees.