Leader of The Pack

Rather than join the NBA, Nevada forward Nick Fazekas rolled the dice and returned to Reno for his senior year. Now the Wolf Pack is off to its best start in 55 years and laughing all the way, thanks to its star's impeccable timing
January 15, 2007

What would No. 19Nevada be missing this year had 6'11" senior forward Nick Fazekas departedfor the NBA last summer as many people had expected--and opposing coaches hadfervently hoped? There are his 20.8 points per game and second-in-the-nation12.3 rebounds (as of Sunday), of course, as well as those soft hands that make"even my worst passes look great," according to junior point guardRamon Sessions. Fazekas also owns a PlayStation 3, an invaluable assetaccording to his video-game-obsessed teammates.

But just think how much duller practices would be without the big man'simpeccable timing. For instance, after coach Mark Fox developed a limp fromstamping his foot too hard during the Wolf Pack's win over Gonzaga on Dec. 30,Fazekas made sure to focus attention on it during practice, asking slyly,"Coach, why don't you show us how to run back on defense?" During a NewYear's Day team gathering in which players were reciting what they werethankful for, Fazekas punctured the solemnity by mocking freshman forwardTyrone Hanson, declaring, "You have the worst fantasy team inhistory."

Hanson does not,in fact, have the worst team, even within the Nevada Shooters, an NBA fantasyleague that Fazekas organized among his teammates and appointed himselfcommissioner of this year. But Hanson had made an ill-advised trade, andFazekas felt that moment of Kumbaya earnestness was the perfect time to pointit out. His teammates, grateful for the injection of levity, cracked up."Nick has a way of lightening the mood just when things are getting alittle too intense," says Fox.

Although Fazekasisn't having a great fantasy season either--he's in sixth place in the 14-teamShooters league--he has a very good chance to finish on top with his team inhis other league, the Western Athletic Conference. Last Saturday he scored 19points and had 11 rebounds in just 20 minutes in an 81--55 trouncing of Idahothat pushed Nevada to 13--1, its best start in 55 years. Among the season'sother highlights Fazekas reached both the 2,000-point and 1,000-rebound marksin December, and he is on pace to become just the sixth player in Division Ihistory to hit those milestones while shooting at least 50% from the field and80% 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 makesbaskets--from different angles, with no [clear] tendencies. To guard him youhave 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, Fazekasgives a lot of credit to his dad, Joe, from whom he inherited his height, hishands, 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 fallof 1973 by Pomona coach Tom Asbury, who would later go on to coach atPepperdine and Kansas State. "You are going to play basketball," Asburytold him. Joe, who had never tried the sport, replied, "I am?"

Joe's parentswere 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 theSoviets 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 SovietUnion in 1956. When the Soviets crushed the revolt, he fled with his infantson, Steve, and his wife, Elizabeth--who was pregnant with Joe--walking eighthours through a snowy night to cross the border into Austria. Once the familywas 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, gritand determination, but he knew nothing about posting up and blocking out.

These were amongthe 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 Stateand longed to play in the NBA, but the best he could do was a year of pro ballin Argentina. He returned to Colorado and took a job as a bus driver, but hecontinued to wonder what might have been had he taken up the game earlier.

His first sonwould know no such regret. Soon after Nick was born, the boy had his own kiddiebasket and ball. At age four he began playing organized hoops at the Y. "Itold him as long as he had a basketball in his hands, he wouldn't have to doanything 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 basketballthing doesn't work out, I don't know that he could work a job. He never evenmowed our lawn."

But Nick'schildhood wasn't without responsibility. Joe held him to a high standard on thebasketball court, making him shoot with proper form--elbow in!--for hours aday. After games Joe would criticize every missed shot and blown block-out."My dad has never been satisfied, and I'm thankful for that," saysFazekas, who talks to Joe every day. "His criticism made metougher."

Averaging 26.4points as a senior at Ralston Valley High in Arvada, Nick led the Mustangs tothe Class 4A championship and was named Colorado's Mr. Basketball. Yet fewcollege recruiters showed interest. They saw his skinny, 190-pound frame andthought he was too weak; they saw his odd, pigeon-toed gait and decided hecouldn't run the floor. One college scout bluntly told him he wasn't strongenough to play in the Big 12. Utah and Marquette showed some interest, butFazekas didn't feel that the Utes were a good fit, and he knew he'd have toplay behind Steve Novak at Marquette. Still, he wanted to sign with a big-timeprogram, and when Nevada came calling, "he wouldn't give us the time ofday," 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 hisassistant from 1994 to 2000.) Asbury persuaded Fazekas to visit the school, andFazekas liked what he saw: the 11,784-seat Lawlor Events Center, a staff thatwanted him and the opportunity to play right away. "Nevada was the perfectfit," says Kim. Nick agrees. "Coming here was the best decision I evermade," he says.

He averaged 12.6points and 7.6 rebounds as a freshman and helped lead the Wolf Pack to the 2004Sweet 16. The next season his averages shot up to 20.7 points and 9.4 rebounds,and he flirted with the idea of entering the NBA draft. But two subpar games inthe NCAA tournament changed his mind. "Texas and Illinois ate mealive," he says. "I wasn't ready for the NBA. I thought last year wouldbe my year to go."

As a junior heaveraged 21.8 points (including 35 in a win at Kansas on Dec. 1) and 10.4rebounds, and he was named WAC player of the year for the second season in arow. He declared on April 6 for the draft, but he didn't hire an agent. Yetafter a few predraft workouts he got the same feedback he had heard in highschool: His body wasn't ready for the pros. He withdrew his name and devotedhimself to the weight room, pushing himself to new levels of effort that "Ididn't know I had in me," he says.

Now a solid 240pounds, Fazekas is without a doubt a stronger, more complete player than he waslast year. Yet with next June's draft class looking particularly deep, there'sstill no guarantee that he'll go in the first round. Even so, he says comingback was the second-best decision he has ever made. "My body wasn't readylast year, and it still might not be ready, but it's getting better," hesays. "And we're having such a great season, I wouldn't have wanted to missit."

Nor would histeammates, who all have one more reason to be thankful for the big man'stiming.

Little Giants
Who will be the next George Mason? Get the lowdown on potential Cinderellas inBill Trocchi's mid-major report.


PHOTOPhotographs by Greg NelsonLIGHTINGIT UP
Initially cool to the idea of playing in Reno, the fun-loving Fazekas has foundthe city to be as good as advertised.
PHOTOPhotographs by Greg NelsonNEVADA'SSIERRA
The 6'11" Fazekas (22) bulked up during the off-season and has become abigger presence in the post.