Jessica Gelman Is All Fired Up
Crimson co-captain bounce-passes wit and wisdom to teammates
By Buffy Clifford
Assistant Sports Information Director
"I believe there comes a time, when everything just falls in line/We live and learn from our mistakes, the deepest cuts are healed by faith/All fired up. . . ."
For senior co-captain Jessica Gelman, the words from the Pat Benatar song "All Fired Up" seemed fitting.
"I listened to that song the night before we were playing Dartmouth," remembers the Crimson's floor general and emotional leader. "We had played inconsistently earlier in the season. Our team needed something to get it going for the Ivy season."
The defending Ivy League champion Harvard women's basketball team experienced some growing pains early in the year. With the Dartmouth game signifying the beginning of conference play, Gelman felt the need to bolster her team, which had just begun to gel. With about five minutes remaining on the bus ride to the Green's gym, she asked the bus driver if she could use the cassette player. Gelman popped in the tape with the song "All Fired Up" on it. With a powerful beat and an infectious tune, the players sang the words and tapped out the rhythm in their seats. A few joined Gelman for a dance in the aisle. And when the Harvard team pulled into Dartmouth's athletic complex, the adrenaline was already flowing.
"The words were so appropriate," said Gelman. "We lived and we learned during the first half of our season. It was time to go out on the court, believe in ourselves, and win. That's what we did and have been doing ever since."
That night, Harvard defeated Dartmouth, 81-68.
"It's a strange feeling to be so close to our huge team goal," says Gelman of the team's participation in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Confidence in her teammates has allowed Gelman to develop into arguably the best point guard in the Ivy League. While most floor leaders have a favorite target, Gelman enjoys distributing equally to her personnel.
"I try to set people up where their strengths are," explains Harvard's new all-time career assist leader. "The coaches say, 'Send a message with your pass.' I'm a firm believer in that. I rifle passes to people, and when I do, it's like saying, 'I'm giving you the ball because I think you're going to score.' I want them to get the ball and think that they're going to make that shot.
"If I didn't have such trust in all my teammates," Gelman asks with a grin, "Do you think I would have thrown that behind the back pass to Suzie Miller?" She pauses to relive the moment and then adds, "Thank God she made that three-pointer."
Another aspect of her game that has opponents in fits is her own ability to score.
"I made a conscious decision before the beginning of the Ivy League season last year to be an offensive threat. To be the best point guard I could be, I knew that's what I needed to do. If I can score, then I'm drawing more people to me and opening up the floor for my teammates. I'm content not to score at all when we're winning, but if a team's defense isn't respecting me, I'll shoot."
Because of her defensive skills, Gelman is usually assigned the opponent's top player to guard.
"I tend to get the best assignments," she says. "I love the challenge of defending really good players. It gets me revved up. I like to be able to dictate their play by pestering them or not letting them get open looks. I'm not necessarily the best defender on our team but I'm a smart defender. That's my strength."
Gelman's development into one of the best players in the league began with a freshman year that showed her what she didn't want the next three years of her career to be like.
"We were 7-19 my first year mostly due to unforeseen injuries. Basketball wasn't fun and I dreaded practice. After that year, my teammates and I decided that we never wanted basketball to be a chore again. It had to be fun and we had to begin to build a tradition of success at Harvard in women's basketball similar to what the Princeton men have.
"Then my sophomore year, we turned it around and were 19-7 but we lost our final game to Dartmouth and with it the Ivy League title and a bid to the NCAA Tournament. It was the worst feeling. I remember being in the locker room after that game and everyone was so upset. I went up to Tammy [Butler '95] and told her that I was sorry that she was leaving here with nothing (meaning a championship ring) and she said, 'Jess, if you think I'm leaving here with nothing, you're crazy. I have made some of the best friends in the world and those friendships I'll have for the rest of my life.'
"At that moment, I realized that there was more to basketball than just winning. Over the course of the next few months, when the pain of losing that game was less severe, I came to know that losing it wasn't the end of the world. Having fun became the most important aspect of playing for me."
It is apparent to those around her that Gelman is all about having fun. It may be her bubbly personality or infectious laugh that clues one in, or it might be the video camera that she is holding while persuading her teammates to "ham it up" for the yearly video she puts together to share with the team.
Gelman is not alone in her lighthearted style of leadership. Along with best friend and co-captain Kelly Black, the two rival the comedic duos of Penn and Teller or Abbott and Costello. But don't let their methods fool you for they are very serious about basketball.
"We didn't want to come to Harvard and just play for a good team -- we wanted to be on a great team. We wanted to begin a tradition, something we could take pride in.
"Our decision to come to Harvard in no way sold our basketball careers short," explains the psychology concentrator. "We were both recruited by scholarship schools but, especially for me, the Ivy League was where I wanted to play. For me it came down to Harvard and Princeton. My decision was made after my recruiting trip to Cambridge where I felt the most comfortable thanks to the coaches and the members of the team. My dad, who went to Princeton, was very supportive of my decision to come here, even though it would've been cool to graduate 30 years after him from the same school. But I know I made the right decision by coming here."
With the NCAA Tournament beginning this week and with Gelman's leadership, strategic as well as emotional, we know the Crimson is "All Fired Up."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College