There’s no doubt that women’s sports don’t get the same recognition and respect as the men’s, and unfortunately this disparity has woven its way through AYF sports: the elimination of the women’s two-mile at AYF Olympics, the scheduling of the girls’ games on hoops that don’t quite meet regulation standards at NATs, the crowds that show up rather strategically for the men’s playoffs and leave just at the start of the women’s. But if you somehow found yourself at Queen College’s Fitzgerald Gym in New York this past Sunday, that world was suspended, and even if it was just for a moment, it was a magical one.
Let me tell you about Theresa Jelalian.
As the daughter of camp legend and St. Illuminators basketball royalty Peter Jelalian and former PE teacher turned professional workout instructor Christine Jelalian, Theresa was destined for athletic greatness. She’s played soccer and basketball and track and golf and can pretty much do anything that requires even a semblance of coordination, speed, strength, you name it. She’s an athlete and a good one at that.
For years, Theresa and I played together on the Sts. Vartanantz Church basketball team, and it was some of the greatest memories I have: leaving Sunday school early to change into our jerseys, shuffling around the Hackensack girl’s gym, lounging in the stands while our boys played, stopping at Dunkin Donuts on the way home. We were little then, and truth be told, we lost every single game–that is, until we didn’t. Each year, we’d win a little bit more than the year before, and that was because of Theresa. She’d grown in height, she learned a little bit more about the game, her range expanded, her ball handling excelled, she became a better player, and we all proudly bore witness.
She took that growth and brought it to NATs as a young AYF senior, securing wins and MVP awards. She even mercied a team during the final, something normally unheard of in basketball; she was just too good, and the committee decided to cut the game short. For years, she played, and people were eager to watch–that’s how it went.
This year, however, marks Theresa’s last year in the AYF, and this past weekend was her last time competing in NATs. While her team didn’t win it all, something tells me everyone will remember her shining anyway. In the last few seconds of the game, with New Jersey down and Philly up, Theresa fouled out. She walked off the court to hug her teammates, and in a moment straight out of Coach Carter, the entire gym erupted in applause. For years, AYFers have been watching her play ball. They’ve been cheering for her and anticipating her games. They’ve looked up to her as an athlete, as a teammate and as a friend, and they’ve been proud to be witness to her legacy. They’ve watched as she transformed the way our community looked at women’s sports.
When the game finally wrapped up and the cheering subsided, when the athletes and spectators packed up their belongings and found their way back to the hotel for the dance, Theresa and I had a final conversation with two alumni—guys our parents’ age who wanted to reminisce and tell us about the “good old days” when they would play church basketball. It was timely and heartwarming to know that perhaps even in the years to come, we’ll hold onto those memories. That while her time in AYF is coming to an end, hers is a name that will be cemented in its athletics for years to come. That while she may not have realized while it was happening, she’s become a legend in her own right. And that I speak for generations of AYFers when I say watching her play was part of the magic that made our time in the AYF so special. It’s been an honor sharing a court with you, TJ.
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