By Bill Burt
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Why does a simple fall high school basketball league seem so much more important?
The simple answer? Because it is.
The slightly longer answer is this: Because the person running it, North Andover Youth Center executive director Rick Gorman, treats it like the NCAA treats March Madness.
The North Andover Fall Ball League is entering its ninth season, all the N.A. Youth Center. Gorman, a native of East Boston, and a life-long basketball junkee, at all levels, started the league in 2005, barely getting six teams.
In 2013, the league has ballooned to 14 teams — three games played on Mondays and four more on Tuesdays — including local high school basketball powers, Central Catholic, Andover, Lawrence and St. John’s Prep.
Over the first seven years, there were seven different league champs. Last year, Central Catholic, copped a second straight league title.
“We’re proud of the fact that there are a lot of talented teams in this league, that’s not one team winning it every year,” said Gorman, whose son, Michael, starred at Methuen High and now plays at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass. “We not only have all of the best teams in the Merrimack Valley, but we have St. John’s Prep, Westford and some of the best teams in New Hampshire with Londonderry, Pelham and Salem. It’s gotten to the point where schools are coming to me asking about playing here.”
As the league has developed, Gorman has added a nice touch every year, like “pizza days” for coaches or players or a “grab bag” for college coaches with information on each participating player.
In fact, speaking of college coaches, at last week’s games Bowdoin, Anna-Maria, Colby-Sawyer, Gordon, Daniel Webster, St. Joseph’s of Maine and Rivier were in attendance. In three weeks, there have been 19 schools overall, most from Div. 3.
College coaches are asked to sign-in before receiving a packet, which includes rosters, players numbers and contact info. The coaches have their own seating area on the floor or upstairs, above the court.
“It’s amazing the amount of college coaches that come to this fall league,” said Andover High coach Dave Fazio, whose son, D.J. Fazio, also played and was scouted in the league before matriculating to Emmauel College in Boston.
“There are a lot of reasons why it is so special: It’s organized. The facility is great. The best talent in the area is here. It’s just a lot of fun for everyone involved, including coaches, fans and players,” said Fazio. “And the pizza is great.”
The added element for the coaches is a lengthy newsletter (he termed last week’s effort saying coaches will need a large coffee to get through it) that Gorman writes under the pen name of Fennis Dembo, a former University of Wyoming star (2,311 points) with a “legendary” name. He sends it out to coaches, close friends and fellow basketball junkies, literally breaking down every fall league game with comments.
He names players of the week, a team of the week and even compliments the referees from time to time. Also, if a kid isn’t hustling, Fennis Dembo isn’t afraid to call the kid out in his newsletter. He also mentions several fans in attendance, discussing fashion, diet and comments heard from the scorer’s table, where “Fennis” sits for every game.
“Everything that Rick does is for the benefit of the kids and as a result we get to watch our players compete in organized and extremely high-level games,” said Central coach Rick Nault. “Nothing compares to what Rick puts together at the North Andover Youth Center.”
While Gorman admits this league is a passion for him, he also notes that it should always be kept in its proper perspective. The note at the end of his weekly newsletters explains that best:
“Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low ... It’s fall ball!”