By Hector Longo
---- — Survivors of the same city streets, products of the Lawrence Boys Club, proud hoop-playing alums at Central Catholic and two of the great sports/success stories this area will ever have. David Fazio and Rick Nault should be the best of friends.
They just can’t be. For two reasons.
Fazio coaches Andover High. Nault coaches at Central Catholic.
And on the basketball court, that rivalry remains unmatched.
“Hey, I’ll bet (Duke University’s) Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) and Roy Williams (of arch-enemy North Carolina) don’t get along that well either,” said Fazio.
Tomorrow night (7:45) at the Tsongas Center, these alike, bombastic personalities and their clubs collide, for the fourth time this year, the 13th time in the last four years and the 25th since Nault took over at Central in 2006.
This one looms larger than any collision before them. This is for all the marbles. This is for the Division 1 North championship with the winner earning a trip to play at the TD Garden in the state semifinals.
So what will it be for Nault and Fazio? Pistols at 20 paces? Sabers? Bare-knuckle boxing?
“No, it’s not like that,” said Nault, probably for newspaper purposes leaving out the two most important words in that declaration: “Any more!”
“Seriously, things have grown a lot better between Faz and myself. Our relationship is stronger now, more positive for sure.”
It hasn’t always been that way, even though Fazio was one of the prime backers for Nault, a longtime Central assistant, to take over for the legend, Dick Licare.
About four years ago, these two had at least a couple barking matches, never coming to the point of blows, but still inflicting wounds.
“We’re both incredibly competitive. Both of us coach every game like it means everything to us,” said Nault. “There have been tense times when our teams have played. Our emotions have gone wild and gotten the best of both of us.”
Fazio admitted much of the frustration from his end came in the midst of a long losing skid that saw Nault’s Raiders take 20 of 21 games between the two until this season. You’re talking one of the most prominent coaches in the state in Fazio, who began his career at Dracut High and took over for Tom Ryser in 1989. He owns a 392-176 career record at Andover.
“At the end of the day, you’re playing your biggest rival and they get you, and they get you again, and then they get you and knock you out of the tournament, and then they end your son (DJ’s) senior year. I still see that (Jaycob) Morales three-pointer (that beat Andover on its own floor) in my nightmares,” said Fazio.
“It’s hard to have the best of relationships in a situation like that. You help the guy get the job, and he keeps finding ways to beat you.”
Both came up under Licare, the man who sparked this amazing rivalry when he took over at Central in 1979.
“Like they were as players, you’re talking two hungry, hungry coaches,” said Licare. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. They both represent what this rivalry is all about.”
The stakes are so high, because of what the coaches themselves put into it.
“I know for a fact (Nault) doesn’t work harder than me,” said Fazio. “We both want to be the best we can be. People have no idea how many man-hours we put in to this. For the Central game, it’s double.”
These days, Nault and Fazio, separated by a decade in age, are still hard to separate. Both brandish totally bald heads. They coach alike, their teams play similar styles -- “Their kids always play hard,” beamed Licare -- and yes, both can be merciless to officiating crews.
Age and experience have helped heal the recent wounds. Perspective comes with experience, too.
“It’s high school basketball and you know we’re both trying to set a positive example for these kids,” said Nault. “It has to be that way.”
Maybe, some day they’ll embrace each other’s passion and finally get along.
“Some day, when they’re retired, they’ll probably sit back and take it all in,” said Licare. “Back in the day, you’d never see my father (Bob) when he was coaching at North Andover High and Wil Hixon, when he coached Andover, together. These days, you’re liable to find them together any day on the golf course.”
So there’s hope ... possibly.
“Look, if we win this one, we’ll be the best friends, in my eyes,” laughed Fazio. “I’m sure he feels exactly the same way.”
ROUND 4 SATURDAY NIGHT
Division 1 North Boys Basketball Championship
No. 3 Andover (19-4) vs. No. 4 Central (20-5)
Saturday, 7:45 p.m. at Tsongas Center, Lowell
Tickets (available at door): $12 for adults, $7 for students
This season: Central Catholic won the MVC Large title, but Andover took two of the three meetings, including the finals of the Commonwealth Classic Christmas Tournament.