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What would No. 19
Nevada be missing this year had 6'11" senior forward Nick Fazekas departed
for the NBA last summer as many people had expected--and opposing coaches had
fervently hoped? There are his 20.8 points per game and second-in-the-nation
12.3 rebounds (as of Sunday), of course, as well as those soft hands that make
"even my worst passes look great," according to junior point guard
Ramon Sessions. Fazekas also owns a PlayStation 3, an invaluable asset
according to his video-game-obsessed teammates.
Hanson does not, in fact, have the worst team, even within the Nevada Shooters, an NBA fantasy league that Fazekas organized among his teammates and appointed himself commissioner of this year. But Hanson had made an ill-advised trade, and Fazekas felt that moment of Kumbaya earnestness was the perfect time to point it out. His teammates, grateful for the injection of levity, cracked up. "Nick has a way of lightening the mood just when things are getting a little too intense," says Fox.
Although Fazekas isn't having a great fantasy season either--he's in sixth place in the 14-team Shooters league--he has a very good chance to finish on top with his team in his other league, the Western Athletic Conference. Last Saturday he scored 19 points and had 11 rebounds in just 20 minutes in an 81--55 trouncing of Idaho that pushed Nevada to 13--1, its best start in 55 years. Among the season's other highlights Fazekas reached both the 2,000-point and 1,000-rebound marks in December, and he is on pace to become just the sixth player in Division I history to hit those milestones while shooting at least 50% from the field and 80% from the line. (He was also hitting 43% of his shots from beyond the arc.) "He's a maker," says Idaho coach George Pfeifer. "He just makes baskets--from different angles, with no [clear] tendencies. To guard him you have to keep him away from the ball." Adds Pacific coach Bob Thomason, "He is in a class by himself with his skill set."
For that, Fazekas gives a lot of credit to his dad, Joe, from whom he inherited his height, his hands, his toughness and his NBA ambitions. Joe was an overweight, 6'9" junior at Pomona High in Arvada, Colo., when he was spotted one day in the fall of 1973 by Pomona coach Tom Asbury, who would later go on to coach at Pepperdine and Kansas State. "You are going to play basketball," Asbury told him. Joe, who had never tried the sport, replied, "I am?"
Joe's parents were immigrants from Hungary who had never found time for sports. His father, Albert, had been drafted into the Hungarian army as a teenager, captured by the Soviets during World War II and imprisoned for 3 1/2 years in three POW camps. He later became a rebel leader in the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956. When the Soviets crushed the revolt, he fled with his infant son, Steve, and his wife, Elizabeth--who was pregnant with Joe--walking eight hours through a snowy night to cross the border into Austria. Once the family was granted asylum in the U.S., Albert found work in Colorado as a machinist. Albert, who is now 81 and still lives in Arvada, knew all about hard work, grit and determination, but he knew nothing about posting up and blocking out.
These were among the things Asbury drilled into Joe as he molded him into a Division I--ready, back-to-the-basket center. Joe played two years each at Wyoming and Idaho State and longed to play in the NBA, but the best he could do was a year of pro ball in Argentina. He returned to Colorado and took a job as a bus driver, but he continued to wonder what might have been had he taken up the game earlier.
His first son would know no such regret. Soon after Nick was born, the boy had his own kiddie basket and ball. At age four he began playing organized hoops at the Y. "I told him as long as he had a basketball in his hands, he wouldn't have to do anything around the house," says Joe, who split up with Nick's mom, Kim, three years ago. "In some ways I regret that because if this basketball thing doesn't work out, I don't know that he could work a job. He never even mowed our lawn."
But Nick's childhood wasn't without responsibility. Joe held him to a high standard on the basketball court, making him shoot with proper form--elbow in!--for hours a day. After games Joe would criticize every missed shot and blown block-out. "My dad has never been satisfied, and I'm thankful for that," says Fazekas, who talks to Joe every day. "His criticism made me tougher."
Averaging 26.4 points as a senior at Ralston Valley High in Arvada, Nick led the Mustangs to the Class 4A championship and was named Colorado's Mr. Basketball. Yet few college recruiters showed interest. They saw his skinny, 190-pound frame and thought he was too weak; they saw his odd, pigeon-toed gait and decided he couldn't run the floor. One college scout bluntly told him he wasn't strong enough to play in the Big 12. Utah and Marquette showed some interest, but Fazekas didn't feel that the Utes were a good fit, and he knew he'd have to play behind Steve Novak at Marquette. Still, he wanted to sign with a big-time program, and when Nevada came calling, "he wouldn't give us the time of day," says Fox, who was a Wolf Pack assistant at the time.
Reenter Asbury, who knew Fox from their time together at Kansas State. (Fox had been his assistant from 1994 to 2000.) Asbury persuaded Fazekas to visit the school, and Fazekas liked what he saw: the 11,784-seat Lawlor Events Center, a staff that wanted him and the opportunity to play right away. " Nevada was the perfect fit," says Kim. Nick agrees. "Coming here was the best decision I ever made," he says.