When she was growing up in the proud and powerful athletic community known as St. Paul’s (Greenville) Parish in Jersey City, the then-Alice Schmidt never thought of herself as anything special. She just wanted to play basketball like the boys in the neighborhood – and that she most certainly did, every single chance she had.
And when the time came for the incredible woman known later in life as Alice DeFazio came to realize that her time on earth was coming to an end, she didn’t want any fuss, bother or worry that usually comes with a dying woman or man.
Alice didn’t want anyone to know about her illness and subsequent death sentence. She wanted to go quietly and peacefully with only close family present at her relatively new home in Florida. She certainly didn’t want the fanfare that she wholeheartedly deserved.
Even after I learned of Alice’s illness and rapid demise, I promised that I wouldn’t write a single word until she passed. I swore to secrecy, telling no one. I obliged to Alice’s wishes, because that’s what she wanted.
So basically Alice Schmidt DeFazio didn’t want special treatment in the early stages of her athletic life. And she didn’t want anything special in her waning days.
However, it’s everything in between that is utterly amazing and puts Alice truly in a class by herself in Hudson County girls’ and women’s basketball history.
Alice Schmidt DeFazio died last week, just a few days after she celebrated her 63 rd birthday. Pancreatic cancer was the winner of this battle, much like it was the victor over her beloved husband Bill DeFazio a decade ago. It’s almost unfathomable and inconceivable that both Alice and Bill died of the same kind of cancer at the same exact age just 10 years apart.
It was 10 years ago that Alice bravely and eloquently delivered the eulogy for her husband and now she’s gone as well, gone too soon, gone before she had a chance to enjoy her retirement and the golden years that were certain to follow.
Alice’s life was certainly one well lived. She was a basketball junkie who played the game flawlessly as a point guard at St. Anthony High School and later at Montclair State College, where she helped to lead Montclair State to the 1978 NCAA Final Four at Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA.
It was a Montclair State team that featured All-American Carol Blazejowski, who now graces the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. “The Blaze” averaged an incredible 38 points per game that year, scoring 1,235 points in that year alone.
That team had a gigantic Hudson County influence, because the head coach was the legendary Maureen Wendelken of Hoboken and people like Pat Quilty of Jersey City, Pat Colasurdo of Bayonne and one of Alice’s best friends and teammates from high school, Cathy Meyers O’Callahan, also from the St. Paul’s (Greenville) neighborhood.
I personally know about the friendship and camaraderie shared between Alice and Cathy, because there were plenty of times I would play two-on-two basketball against the pairing of Alice and Cathy with my best friend John Rochford, who later played at St. Anthony. They wanted to play against us because we were fiercely competitive boys who wouldn’t back down to a challenge. We wanted to play against them because they had the same competitive drive and spirit that we had, only we were four years younger than they were. We were teenagers while they were already established as stars at Montclair State.
Those two-on-two tussles in St. Paul’s Courtyard were of epic proportions and went on for hours on end. People in the neighborhood loved watching the local “Battle of the Sexes,” long before Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King played tennis in the Houston Astrodome.
Roch and I didn’t want to be the ones who lost to girls, but in reality, these weren’t your average run-of-the-mill girls just having fun. Nope. Alice and Cathy were just as serious as we were, so it led to highly competitive regular showdowns. I think we helped them to become better players and I know facing Alice and Cathy made both Roch and I better hoopsters.
That’s how my friendship with Alice and Cathy began and remained strong through the years.
Alice enjoyed a great career at Montclair State, receiving recognition as one of the best college basketball point guards in the nation. She graduated holding the school’s all-time record for assists and steals. Her record of 630 assists still stands and she currently ranks second all-time in steals with 345.
Alice finished second in the Wade Trophy balloting to All-American Nancy Lieberman of Old Dominion as the top point guard in the country and she was drafted by the New York Stars of the old Women’s Basketball League, which just never caught on the way the WNBA became successful two decades later.
Still, Alice Schmidt was the first women’s basketball star from Jersey City who gained notoriety on a national level. She was a forerunner, a trailblazer to what has now become the explosion of women’s basketball in this country.
“She was a very good friend, a very loyal friend and a very supportive friend,” said Meyers O’Callahan, who had a fine coaching career at St. Anthony and later Dickinson. “We met in the third grade and she was always there for me. There were times we didn’t even have to say words, but we communicated, especially on the basketball court. We just connected in a lot of ways and we fed off each other. The bond we had was very strong.”
After her playing days were done, Alice moved on to become a coach on both the high school and collegiate levels.
Alice was the head coach at St. Dominic Academy and Marist, but had stint as the head coach at both her alma mater Montclair State and later at New Jersey City University, where she spent a total of 27 years, 14 of which were as the head women’s basketball coach and 11 as the first-ever female athletic director at the school. Alice remains the all-time leader in coaching victories at NJCU.
In that time period, Alice married Bill DeFazio, who remains the all-time leader in girls’ basketball coaching victories in Hudson County. In fact, when Bill was the head coach at St. Anthony and Alice was at SDA, the two would go head-to-head against each other at least twice a season, sometimes three times. Now that’s a happy marriage, especially since Bill won most of those showdowns, wearing his special blue underwear to coincide with SDA’s school colors. Yes, Billy, an extremely superstitious person, had all different color underwear to match the team’s color that he was playing that day.
Alice’s brother Tom Schmidt recalls the day that the family realized she was getting serious with DeFazio.
“I went to school with Billy,” Tom Schmidt said. “I knew that she was going to do well being with him. They’re both very competitive people. He was a major influence on her.”
Debbie DeFazio Campisano knew of Alice before Alice married Debbie’s brother.
“At first, I didn’t get along with Alice,” Campisano said. “My brother was just getting divorced and Alice was younger [10 years younger], so I didn’t know. I was like ‘Who is this girl?’ We got off to a rough start. But we developed a good relationship over the years.
When Alice was a coach at Montclair State, she was introduced to a hard-nosed player named Kim Barnes, who did her student teaching at the Academy of St. Aloysius when I was the head basketball coach.
Barnes wanted to become a coach, so she learned from Alice. She certainly didn’t learn anything from my ranting and throwing fits on the ASA bench.
Barnes moved on to become a college coach at NJIT, then Adelphi, then St. John’s and now has been at the University of Michigan for the last eight years, winning 20 or more games every single year. Twice, Barnes Arico has earned the Big East Coach of the Year and she added the Big 10 Coach of the Year to her resume in 2017.
“Alice was a powerful woman and role model,” said Barnes Arico, who is married to former Marist head football coach and athletic director Larry Arico. “The fact that we got to spend that one season together is something I will value for the rest of my life. She got to know my children well and this was the first loss of anyone they knew. She was really special to me. Without Alice, I’m not here.”
Another woman with coaching aspirations in the early 1990s was Sheila Wall Leonardo, who played point guard for Bill DeFazio at St. Anthony, then played at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. Wall was an assistant coach to Alice at both Montclair State and St. Dominic Academy.
“During that time, we became good friends,” said Wall Leonardo, who is married to former Marist head coach Mike Leonardo, the architect of the six straight HCIAA titles and seven in eight years. “We’ve just had this bond over the years. We became even closer after we started making our trips.”
The “trips” that Leonardo is referring to was the annual golf sojourn to a resort somewhere in the United States or someplace tropical, as long as the island resort had a golf course. Alice was a regular member at the new Skyway Golf Club on Route 440 South in Jersey City.
“We played golf as often as we could,” Wall Leonardo said. “We’d go all over the place to play. She was so competitive as a player. She worked so hard at the game. Alice was the magnet who brought us all together.”
“She organized these trips,” Campisano said. “She felt like she built up this camaraderie and she knew we would all get along terrifically. It didn’t matter how different we were. The one common thing we all had together was Alice. She’s the best gift my brother ever gave me.”
Needless to say, it was a life well lived and she’s someone who will be missed by a lot of people she touched in Hudson County and beyond, whether as a player, as a coach, as an administrator or as a friend. She was all of that to me.
Back in the 1970s, Alice helped to run the family business, Schmidt’s Corner on Old Bergen Road in my old neighborhood, an establishment that was truly the buy-all store in the neighborhood, from housing goods to the best luncheon sandwiches known to man. Every day, Schmidt’s offered the lunch sandwich “special,” for only 35 cents, which was the deli meat that they had the most of in the case. I prayed that it wouldn’t be liverwurst or olive loaf. Hell, I could get olive loaf in the St. Paul’s lunch program for free.
But if you were lucky enough to have a surplus of Virginia ham that day, for 55 cents you had a ham sandwich on a hard roll with a 16-ounce bottle of Pepsi and you felt like a king. Alice was always behind the counter with a smile and the daily “special.”
So I got to see a side of Alice outside of basketball. Then, when we became of age, the Wagon Wheel across Old Bergen on the corner of Bartholdi was the site for a few brews and a few more laughs.
In 1990, I organized an All-Star game that helped to raise money for the Jersey City Boarder Babies, the newborns who are brought into the world and basically abandoned. So we had the Hudson County Legends team facing off against the New York Giants, who had a charity basketball team back then.
Alice was part of the Legends team – and deservedly so. But former Giants linebacker and current NFL assistant Pepper Johnson didn’t think there was a place for Alice in the game and Johnson made a run at Alice, knocking her hard to the Yanitelli Center floor.
We all stopped for a second to see if Alice was going to get up after being trampled by a 6-foot-2, 250-pound linebacker. But true to her competitive spirit, Alice got up and continued playing. It was truly remarkable.
But that was Alice – right there in a nutshell. She wanted to play with the legends against the Giants, risking all kinds of health issues. But it was her competitive spirit and drive that kept her going.
Her closest friends all reminisced this week, even if there was no funeral service, no burial, no anything. It’s just the way Alice wanted it.
“She was an amazing woman,” Campisano said. “You knew she was in the room. She made us all feel so very special. It was like a once-in-a-lifetime relationship. It was my honor to call her my friend.”
“She had such a big heart,” Wall Leonardo said. “She constantly gave back to women’s causes. Kids were just generally drawn to her. This loss is so impactful. I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my family. And Alice and I were like family. We leaned on each other a lot.”
It seems as if heart is a prevailing theme here.
“She had a lot of heart,” her brother Tom said. “She cared about so many people. She had a great sense of humor and the ability to bust chops. She was the cement who kept our family together. She was very special to all of us. She was the center of our family, the one we all relied upon. She wanted to win at all costs, a lot like my Dad. Alice thought my Dad was the most competitive man and she got that from him.”
There’s another aspect of Alice that cannot be replicated. She had the most unique laugh. I once described Alice’s laugh as if Edith Bunker became an old cat and then Grandma in the rocking chair was under the cat’s tail. Can you hear that kind of noise in your head? Well that was Alice’s laugh.
“I’ll miss that laugh, that’s for sure,” Tom Schmidt said.
“Her smile and her laughter,” Meyers O’Callahan said. “It’s what I’ll miss.”
Others offered other memories.
“The joy she had,” Wall Leonardo said. “She lit up the room.”
“She would walk into a room and she changed the face of the room she just entered,” Barnes Arico said. “Alice always made sure you enjoyed that day.”
No stronger words than the ones that come from her closest friends.
“I idolized her,” Wall Leonardo said. “She was one of my mentors.”
“She truly wanted to be in control of her own destiny,” Meyers O’Callahan said. “As a player, as a coach, as an AD, she was a pioneer. She got her girls prepared for life. Whether it was in high school or college, she molded them into young women.”
We didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to our friend Alice Schmidt DeFazio when she passed away last week. We didn’t give her the tribute she deserved. We didn’t sit around, drinking a few and telling Alice stories and hearing that piercing shrill if she was there laughing along with us. But that’s the way she wanted it.
However, I would have served everyone who reads this column regularly a major injustice if I didn’t give my friend Alice her well deserved salute. Bravo, Alice, you were good. You set the tone for every girl athlete who followed you. You blazed the trail for aspiring coaches. You became the historic administrator that everyone admired. And you were part of the “First Family” of Hudson County girls’ basketball, knocking heads with your knucklehead husband.
There was only one Alice – and she went out the way she came in, with little or no fanfare. Funny, but those 30 years in between were too remarkable to omit or erase.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports podcast, with this week’s guest Dwayne Williams of Bayonne and the University of Iowa and the current head coach at Barringer High School in Newark. You can listen to all of the Hudson County Sports podcasts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.