HILLSDALE, N.J. (WCBS 880) — Jeff Jasper made history as a buzzer went off last week, becoming the first New Jersey girls’ high school basketball coach to notch 1,000 victories.
Jasper said he is “living the dream” surrounded by “extraordinary people,” but people in Jasper’s community say he is the extraordinary one. Yet, Jasper remains humble.
“I’ve just been in the right place at the right time,” said Jasper, whose Pascack Valley High School Indians scored the historic victory on Thursday. “I never thought anything that I’ve done has been all that remarkable.”
Schools Supt. Erik Gundersen disagrees.
“Jeff Jasper is a pillar in the Pascack Valley community,” he said.
But Gundersen is also not surprised that his legendary coach is modest.
“Jeff has this great mixture of intensity and sincerity, and it all is wrapped up in goodness,” Gunderson said. “Basketball ends up being the vehicle that he uses to promote confidence, integrity and work ethic with his students – both in the classroom and on the basketball court.”
Jasper himself is as satisfied as can be.
“I love what I do. Teaching and coaching is remarkable. This is a great place to be, this is like, I tell people, they’ll say, ‘Jasper, how you doing?’” Jasper told WCBS 880’s Sean Adams. “I go, ‘I’m living in paradise. How bad can this be?”
So how did Jasper get here?
Many years ago, Jasper’s road to success began far from paradise in a hellish place. He was smoking a cigarette while up to his waist in water in the middle of a bloody firefight in the Vietnam War.
“Tracer rounds going off, artillery shells going all around, and as I took a drag out of that Marlboro, I said, ‘When I get out of here, I want to make sure that I do something with my life that makes a difference,’” he said.
It was an adjustment returning to civilian life. Jasper said in the early 1970s, his hair was down to his shoulders, and bell-bottom pants and platform shoes were his choice for fashion. He was not sure if he would be ready, but he took a job teaching at Pascack Valley High School.
The athletic director at the school offered Jasper the coaching position for the junior varsity boys’ basketball team. But first, with Title IX just having come into effect, he would have to coach the new girls’ basketball team for one year.
That was 45 years ago, and there was no looking back. Jasper has been coaching the girls’ team ever since.
“I’ve always been about empowering these young women to be strong women,” he said, “and that’s why I’ve never really babied this thing. It hasn’t been milk and cookies. It’s not looking to enable their pride – hold you accountable for what we coached. That’s how we’re going to play.”
Senior forward Kyra Gynegrowski spoke highly of her coach and his mentorship skills.
“When he tells us, like, be the best you could be, he always tells us, like, go look at the girl in the glass, and like, look at who you want to be for that day,” she said.
Jasper has had fewer than 200 losses with his teams, and dozens of young women have gone on to play basketball in college. He said he has coached about 30 Division I players over the time.
Jasper’s students in the classroom also sing his praises. In Jasper’s government class, Josh Ulin said the teacher makes a connection.
“The way he extends himself like a friend and a mentor rather than just a teacher – he really cares about everyone,” Ulin said.
On his desk, Jasper keeps a picture of a smiley face with the message, “Keep Calm and Smile On.”
On his wall, there is a caricature of him riding his motorcycle across the basketball court.
At 72, Jasper has no plans to retire – whether in his history class or on the hardwood. He still has lessons to teach.
“It’s always about communication and interpersonal relationships,” Jasper said. “If there’s anything that matters – certainly not the scores of games, or how points you scored, or how many wins we had – it would be the people who you’ve affected.”
Hear Adams and Jasper’s extended interview at the top of this post and find more Stories From Main Street by clicking here.